Does your company struggle with customer satisfaction? Do your employees fully engage with the mission and values of your company on your customers’ behalf? Sometimes it seems as if all the policies, procedures, and propaganda have little effect on company culture, employee engagement, and customer service.  It is crucial to understand all the ways we communicate expectations to employees.

Often, we are not aware of how our behavior may contradict stated employee policies and organizational values. Fully engaged employees are essential for customer satisfaction. Are you aware of all the intended and unintended ways you communicate with your employees?

Symbolic Action and Dissonance
Most companies claim to value employees. Visit any well-known organization’s employment page, and you will likely find phrases like “competitive benefits and salary,” “superior employee development” and “work hard, play hard.” But what happens when a manager’s behavior, or an employee policy directly conflicts with these assertions?

Managers and organizations frequently misunderstand the relationship between their behavior and employee performance. Two key concepts are symbolic action and dissonance:

Symbolic Action – behaviors and actions that inform employee perceptions.

Dissonance – emotional discomfort resulting from observing hypocritical speech or action.

Here are a two examples of symbolic actions that can create dissonance, and possible employee reactions:

  1. New employee training emphasizes leadership’s “open-door policy”. But a high level manager keeps his office door closed most of the time, and only talks to his direct reports a couple of times a week.
    • Possible Interpretation: The company is only paying lip service to bottom-up communication.
    • Impact: frustration resulting from hypocrisy and lowered productivity, poor internal communication
  1. Stated organizational values include respect for employees, but firings are frequent and one or more executives have been overheard referring to employees as “expendable”.
    • Possible Interpretation: Respect for Employees is an empty claim, probably designed to influence employees to work harder.
    • Impact: Low morale, increased attrition.

Symbolic actions, intended or not, tell your employees how much you value them, whether or not you trust them, how intelligent and capable you think they are, and your perception of your own value compared to theirs. How does this concept play out organizations? Here a couple of real-world examples from my own observations.

Customer Service
I frequent a couple of national coffee chains for my daily latte. One chain has a good product, and excellent staff. No matter how long the line, I can get in and out in under ten minutes, and my embarrassingly complex order is always delivered correctly. The employees are competent, relaxed, and friendly. They’re diverse in age, race, appearance, and personality.

Occasionally, I frequent another national chain. I actually like their coffee better. The employees, generally all young, are disengaged. Sometimes they’re friendly, sometimes not. My order is frequently messed up — even when I’m the only customer. The employees generally seem more interested in talking to each other than to me.

Employee Policies
Curious about this disparity, I visited the websites for the two companies. I noticed an immediate difference on the employment page. While the second chain has the standard boilerplate about “putting people first” and competitive pay and benefits, the first has personal testimonials, documentation of fairly advanced training for the food service industry, and itemized available benefits including retirement and insurance for employees who work twenty hours a week or more. Symbolically, this would seem to communicate that the first chain is much more committed to employee development than the second.

The first chain’s website leaves me with the impression that leadership wants employees to feel valued and engaged. But does this mean that they actually are? Many companies wish to be perceived this way but sometimes PR (websites, press releases, articles and books) and reality diverge. The intention to hire and retain good employees does not always translate into the actions – hiring practices, training, and culture – that are necessary to sustain it.

For example, I have a relative who works for a national retail chain that has its home office in the Southwest. The temperature in her store (on the west coast) is regulated from the home office, so it’s often out of sync with the weather outside. If it’s 95 degrees at headquarters and the AC is cranked way up, customers and employees may be freezing in the store on the west coast where it’s only 75 degrees outside. Corporate does not allow store managers to adjust the temperature in their own stores. So while the company’s website details extensive career development and benefits available to employees, the appearance of employee value does not align with how they are treated.

If you were an employee of this company, what would this policy tell you about your value as an employee? Would you feel empowered and understood? Or would you feel frustrated and powerless? Good leaders recognize that any disparity between what they say and what they do can have a negative impact on their employees’ effectiveness, and by extension their own. Whether they like it or not, their actions are symbolic of their intentions – towards the company, the employees, and each other.

Employee Engagement
The first coffee chain talks a good game, and the values they espouse seem to be in use in the organization. Here are some key indicators:

  • The company provides useful training and benefits for employees that are far beyond the industry norm.
  • Employees seem engaged and relaxed.
  • Employees are highly competent and efficient.

On a recent visit to the second coffee chain the employee who took my order was discussing some new employee rules with his co-worker. Management had decided that employees were only allowed to come in through the front door (the side door is far more convenient for cafe employees). It was clear that the employees found this policy frustrating.

For me, this revelation made perfect sense. Regardless of what the employer said about their value for employees, their actions indicate (at least to this particular employee) that they don’t trust them. If I were to translate this action into a statement, it would say, “I (the company) do not trust you (the employee) to make basic decisions about how to behave around customers, so I will dictate how you should behave.” As an employee, I would feel that my individual value to the organization was negligible.

Is it a surprise that Red Coffee employees don’t seem to take pride in their work? Company policies towards employees communicate far more about their value than employee value statements, or titles like “partner” or “team member”.

It’s entirely possible that the management had a good and valid reason for making this rule – however, what is important in this case is the unintended ways that this data was interpreted by the employees. Every rule, regulation, or manager action can be interpreted in a variety of ways they never intended. Worse still, if the action or policy directly contradicts the organization’s stated values regarding employees, the obvious hypocrisy will hurt morale and potentially lower efficiency and raise attrition. If you don’t want to run the risk of creating unnecessary ill will that negatively impacts customer service, you need to consider these possibilities when crafting employee policies.

I suspect Green Coffee’s employees seem happy and engaged because there is little conflict between what the company says about how they treat employees and how they actually treat them. This translates directly into satisfied repeat customers and revenue.

Putting it to Work
Do your company’s values align with the policies in practice regarding employees? If you cite respect and honesty as core values, but monitor employees’ every move, you’re creating  dissonance (discomfort with the contradiction between statements and actions) that affects the quality of work. Dissonance is often unconscious, at least temporarily, but it still effects employee commitment, morale, and efficiency. If your stated values were instead consistency and quality, then close monitoring may be more appropriate. It is the dissonance between words and actions that can cause problems like employee disengagement, low productivity, and high turnover.

If your organization, like a coffee shop, relies on consistent, attentive customer service for its revenue stream, then this internal dissonance may also create discomfort for the customer. Imagine taking you kids to Disneyland and being ignored by grumpy, disinterested employees. The slogan “The Happiest Place on Earth” would become a parody, rather than a promise. Your employees represent the values you communicate to them directly to your customers.

Here are some suggestions to help you craft appropriate employee policies:

  • Be Consistent
    If you have a company vision and values statement, check it against your employee policies and see if they contradict each other. If so, consider changing policies to reflect company values, or even changing your values statement if it is outdated or underdeveloped.
  • Be Authentic
    If you haven’t developed a values statement, spend some time considering what your company pays the most attention to, and how that informs employee decisions. Develop a document that accurately reflects your priorities so it can guide your future decisions. This will help you recognize if policy and values begin to diverge. Make sure that your product or brand values are also aligned with your core values.
  • Look at the Big Picture
    Consider the long term impact of short term decisions. When times are tight and cutbacks are necessary, don’t be caught unaware when layoffs lower employee morale, productivity, and commitment. Remember the power of symbolic actions, and find ways to mitigate the negative impact of difficult decisions, or risk losing the benefit of short term gains to long-term problems.