The customer was expectedly furious. Her order had been botched and she had come in to lodge an official complaint. Interestingly, the front line employee she encountered that afternoon was so calm, it looked unreal. As the customer got angrier as she narrated her ordeal, the front desk lady calmly listened, after which she asked a couple of relevant questions. Her demeanour was so calming that it eventually got the customer to relax. She took the product from the customer, examined it and then called in one of the company’s technicians.
The technician readily came in and also examined the product after which the customer contact employee asked him how much it was going to cost to sort out the issue. The technician mentioned the amount and right there and then, the customer service lady authorised the technician to go sort the issue out. It was unbelievable. How did she have the audacity to give the go-ahead when it was going to cost the business money? However, the way the technician walked away without asking his colleague any question made me realised that this was not an unusual scenario.
The scenario was so impressive that I had to ask questions. That was how I got to know that the company had an interesting policy that facilitated the scenario I had witnessed. The green light to solve customer experience issues that would cost the company less than a certain amount could be given by the customer service employee. The customer contact employee did not have to take the issue to an immediate superior.
According to what I was told, the Chief Executive did not want customers to be delayed when they came in with complaints. He wanted the problem solved as quickly as possible, which is why that policy was set-up. I wanted to know if the boss was not afraid that the policy could be abused which would end up causing loss to the business. I was reliably informed that after three years of implementing that policy, there has only been a handful of such incidents.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement. What I witnessed was a great example of an empowered front line employee. That is the far cry from the “let me go and ask my manager” attitude I encounter on a regular basis. It was a pleasant departure from what I was used to.
Over the past decades, as customers have demanded more and more and competition has become more intense, it has become crucial for businesses to rethink their strategies. With increased competition, a more knowledgeable customer base and more options, it has become clear that for a business to succeed, its employees must be able to respond much more quickly to customer concerns.
The days when customers were prepared to wait for days, weeks and even months for responses to their concerns are far gone. If customer engaging employees have to wait for their bosses to give the green light before something is done for a customer, that organisation is already in trouble. This became the basis for the drive for employees to be given the powers to act more independently. This is what we refer to as employee empowerment.
It is important to realise that the challenge of employee empowerment occurs at almost all levels of an organisation. Even among managers, there are those who wish they had more powers to do what they need to do. Regardless of the level, the truth remains that employee empowerment is a very important issue that affects many organisations and has the potential of making or marring the business’ fortunes.
There have been several definitions of employee empowerment. It has been defined as a transfer of power from the employer to the employee. Others have defined it as the handing over of discretion to employees over certain tasks.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), one of the world’s foremost bodies of human resource managers, gives a quite elaborative definition of the term “employee empowerment”. According to the Society which has more than 300,000 HR and business executive members in 165 countries, employee empowerment is
“a management philosophy that emphasizes the importance of giving employees the autonomy, resources and support they need to act independently and be held accountable for the decisions they make.”
I love this definition because in it are two very important aspects of what it means for an employee to be empowered.
The first is the role and responsibility of the employer. For the SHRM definition, the employer is supposed to provide three very important things—autonomy, resources and support. Whenever any one of these three is missing there will be empowerment failure.
Employee autonomy is simply about sharing of power. It is about leadership of the business willing to share power with those they have entrusted with managing the front of the business. It is about decentralising the decision-making processes within the organisation to bring in other staff members. Autonomy is about employees knowing that they have been entrusted with calling the shots. It is about employees not having to look across their shoulders as they serve customers. It is about employees not fearing that their every decision would be vetoed by the big boss.
It is interesting that when organisations are recruiting new staff, one of the things they look out for are individuals with the ability to work on their own. HR managers make it clear that they prefer individuals who can work with minimum supervision. However, when these same individuals are brought into the fold of the organisation, they are prevented from doing autonomous work.
Provision of the tools needed for the job is as important as the autonomy that is needed for an employee to be empowered. The role of resources in the empowerment of employees is a very important one. This is because very few organisations have resources in abundance. Even of the company is in a position to acquire as much of its important resources as possible, it will not make business sense to do so. Take a resource like company vehicles for example. There are only so many available at any point in time.
In my experience, those who control of the resources are those who call the shots. In many instances, the control of these resources can be used as a way of controlling the rank and file. Employees who do not tow a certain line can be deprived of these resources to teach them a lesson.
This is why one of the clearest signs of employee empowerment is to release some control of some resources to the said employees. Nothing tells a customer-handling employee that she is in charge better to hand over the keys to one of the company’s vehicles her, especially if the one has been asking for use of an official vehicle.
It is true that resources cost money and should therefore be handled with caution. It would be financially suicidal for the business if it goes out to invest in resources just because it wants to have empowered employees. As in every aspect of empowerment, handing over resources to the wrong individuals can be deleterious for the business. However, it is crucial to understand that if those at the front line do not have the right resources to serve customers, they will become frustrated rather than empowered. The frustration will be transferred to customers and this will greatly affect the customer’s experience.
Management support is, as far as I am concerned, the bedrock on which the edifice of employee empowerment rests. The reason is that it does not matter how much freedom an employee is given to act independently. It also does not matter how much resources are available to employees in question. If employees cannot trust in the support of their bosses, there will definitely be a failure of employee empowerment.
Employees will hesitate to take any decision when they are not too sure of whether their necks will be on the line, if things go down south. Sometimes, employees have a right to be suspicious because there are some managers who behave as if all they are waiting for is for the employee to make a mistake
As can be discerned from the SHRM definition, the second aspect of empowerment has to do with the responsibility of the empowered, i.e. the employee.
Human beings, by their very nature, love to be free. We were not made to be subjugated. This is why any form of independence feels alright. When employees are empowered, they come to work carrying a sense of freedom around them.
I must however add that I have come across employees who after being empowered will still regularly go back to ask for directions. Obviously, it is either they were not fully prepared for the responsibility or they have not been fully liberated.
With independence however comes accountability. This is something many employees conveniently forget. I ever worked with a chap who was always complaining of not being given the resources needed for him to perform. After a while, it became clear that resources for him meant one thing—one of the company vehicles. Eventually, management agreed and allowed him access to one of the vehicles. Within a week of receiving that vehicle, he lost not only use of the vehicle, but his job as well. He was caught at an unholy hour with the vehicle, partying somewhere. His independence cost him his job.
TO BE CONTINUED