A young PR pro recently sought my counsel on a potential job change. In the course of the conversation, this individual shared a concern about how job candidates were often evaluated.
As she put it: "If you've worked for more than a year at an agency known to be harsh, brutal, and demeaning to new hires, it seems that in the eyes of potential employers you must have been strong, resilient, and hard-working. It's practically a badge of honor to survive despite taking all kinds of verbal abuse and humiliating treatment."
As she summed it up, "I would rather leave an abusive environment as soon as it becomes apparent than allow myself to tolerate the abuse just so that I will look better in the eyes of future employers."
As I listened, I was struck by a glaring contradiction in our profession. We provide counsel to our clients and organizations on how to improve relationships with various stakeholders, including employees, yet we often ignore our own advice in the way we run our agencies and departments. All too often I have heard some of the largest global PR agencies and major companies described by ex-employees as "hellholes" or, more gently, as "very tough places to work."
As a parent, I am well aware that my children have learned far more - good and bad - from observing my behavior than from listening to my lectures. Our young employees are no different; they watch the way we manage for clues about what gets rewarded and what gets punished. Employees in all businesses tend to mirror the treatment they get from their employers in the way they treat peers and clients.
Many surveys measuring trust have validated the belief that in determining the overall trustworthiness of a company, most people look first at its HR practices. If a company or agency treats employees poorly, customers and other stakeholders assume they can't expect much better in response to their needs.
If we expect others to respect our counsel, we must begin by heeding it ourselves. A healthy employee relations environment is one in which all staffers are treated with dignity and respect. It is a place where employees are certainly expected to work hard, yet one in which they can expect to do so in a professional, non-abusive atmosphere.
A healthy workplace includes ongoing, regular, two-way communication resulting in employees who feel valued and informed. Leaders who foster healthy cultures do so by encouraging participation by employees at all levels. Such leaders recognize that their job isn't to instill fear in their staff; instead it is to earn their trust and respect by listening, accepting constructive criticism, responding to concerns, and addressing legitimate issues in a timely manner and by being accessible and approachable. These behaviors may sound self-evident, but in practice only the most enlightened senior leaders seem to take them to heart.
We are raising future leaders. The environment in which we develop them is as important as the skills we teach. Like our children, they are watching and remembering.
Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, The College of Charleston. He also serves as a senior counselor for Feldman & Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.