Let Employees Out of Their Cages – Advocacy

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Let’s face it, sometimes as an employee you feel just like an animal trapped in a cage. You are focused on what’s in front of you with little leeway to do anything else. Much like 90% of egg-laying chickens. Here is the lesson for the day. Big food companies are moving towards cage-free chickens. Take their hint and let your employees out of their cages, too.

Cage-Free Chickens

Yesterday on NPR was a story about this trend of cage-free chickens. Big companies, like Unilever (they sell Hellmann’s mayonnaise) and Aramark (food services provider to universities and big companies) are promising to make this switch. Most of our eggs are layed by chickens that are in cages 24/7. Cage-free chickens are allowed access to an entire chicken house.

In the late 90’s something related happened with cattle. Enlisting the aid of Temple Grandin, professor at Colorado State University, the US Department of Agriculture audited processing plants. What she found was abysmal compliance. She advocated for changes in the audits and changes to the standards. In 1997 McDonald’s named her its key animal welfare adviser. As they improved the treatment of those animals, they found that the quantity and quality of the beef was improved.

The studies are still being conducted on the chickens, though there are some preliminary observations. The cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers, for instance, showing perhaps better health.

Cage-Free Employees

Let’s face it, your employees are there to do a job. Much like egg-laying chickens, keeping them in their cage is the way to productivity. You keep them attached to the phone, to the computer, or to the customer service queue. Anything that takes them out of their cage reduces their contribution to your revenue, right. Perhaps not. Are they happy? Here is the justification for letting them out of their cages and keeping them happy. Happier employees are more productive.

Do you allow employees to talk about the brand in social media? If not, how nice is their cage? I don’t like breaking things down on age lines, but here is one place where it works. Older employees mostly take restrictions on employment (the cage) more willingly. They were not brought up using social media, therefore they do not expect it. Your newer and younger employees expect it. They may even base their decision to work there on your social media policies. This includes allowing them to talk about your brand, too. By the way, employees who use social extensively are more productive as well.

Let’s say you do not allow them to talk about your brand. All risks mitigated. Right? Wrong. The flip side of this is that while caged chickens really don’t tell their story to other chickens, unhappy employees do. At sites like www.glassdoor.com and pissedconsumer.com, your employees are telling their stories about working at your company. Telling them they can’t, does not prevent them from doing so. They might even be telling people about how nice their cage is. The reality is that the biggest risk in employee speech is brand and reputation risk and that remains regardless of your position. By the way, talking about cage conditions is protected by law.

Set Expectations and Give Guidance

The problem with employees, unlike those chickens, is that no matter what you do to control them, they will always get the story out. The truth will always find its way out. Giving up a little of control may be just what the doctor ordered.

Some have talked about the first step in employee advocacy being establishing your social media policy. They are wrong. The first step is what your expectations are of them, but more importantly what their expectations are of you. Controlling what they say is a non-starter, so confine your expectations to how they will convey their speak. Ensure that they understand that they are not speaking for your brand. If you are thinking about that social media policy, please read my post on just saying no.

The second part of this is a bit harder. You probably can’t put this in words, but you need to establish over time that employees will not be disciplined for simple, honest mistakes. Them straying over the line alittle should be tolerated and used as an opportunity to teach others where the line might be. If you create a culture of quick, stiff discipline, you are just putting those folks back in their cage. Don’t forget that whatever line you establish for them is for their benefit.

Open the Cages, Already

This metaphor has now been tortured enough, I think. The bottom line is that in some cases, placing restrictions on employee conduct makes them feel like chickens in a cage. Opening up the cage and letting them roam on social media is one of the answers to the age old employee engagement problem. It keeps them happier and you get your employee advocates out there. Win-Win right?

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