Would your leader work for their own company?

13 April 2017 By Northern Lights

Would your leader work for their own company? image


A few weeks ago I attended a CBI round table on the economy. Inevitably these mostly large employers started talking about the nightmare their businesses/organisations are going to face without cheap EU labour. I have added the word ‘cheap’, but that was essentially the issue.

I drove away fuming.  These bosses are disconnected from their workforces and solving the wrong problem in the wrong way.  We have the labour in this country (certainly a great deal more than is being employed) but I think bosses have become complacent or lazy in how they employ people.  EU migrants have been prepared to do unpleasant jobs for little money and without being treated that well and, not surprisingly, British citizens have said I don’t want those jobs.

Over the last few years I have watched as our daughters and their friends have left school, taken holiday jobs and entered the job market.  I have been constantly dismayed at what seem little better than Victorian working practices – unpaid internships, appalling management, breaking the law on working hours and practices and absolutely no team spirit in so many cases.

I often think about the bosses of these companies on stratospheric salaries and think ‘would you be happy to work at the bottom, in your own company?’ I don’t think so.

This is not about money and it’s not about millennials having glorified ideas about work.  It’s not even about the mind-numbing tasks and poor conditions that so many are working on or in.


It’s to do with a basic lack of respect and thought for fellow human beings, giving jobs a purpose and creating a team spirit. It’s also about truly ‘being in this together’. So if you can’t afford to give your employees a decent pay rise, you don’t give your leaders a 10% pay increase.

One story I heard was from a global company. They had dozens of unpaid interns and assistants living in London on really basic pay – and everyone was told there was no money for pay rises. And then a PA was asked to arrange travel for a global boss – first class for the whole family and a chauffeur-driven car for the family for a year.  It was hundreds of thousands of pounds.  And also the final straw for the PA, who said she couldn’t take the unfairness of this any more and resigned.

So what needs doing?  I said in a recent blog that it’s time for comms people to be more confident and challenge bosses on the very core of what their company is doing.  And here is another area where they should be leading – I don’t see evidence of HR professionals or comms people influencing, yet both should be playing a strategic role.

If you are a UK boss who is worried about the impact of Brexit on your workforce, here are nine questions to consider


  • Would you be happy for your son or daughter to be doing the jobs of EU nationals in your organisation? Do you know what it is like working in these jobs?
  • What’s the pay gap between top and bottom – does it feel fair to you? If you took away all your leaders or all your manual workers, which part of the business would collapse first?
  • What’s the team spirit like among your fruit pickers, the meat packers, your care workers, your nurses, your waiters or your cleaning teams?
  • When did you last talk to these essential teams and say ‘thank you’?
  • Does every employee know the contribution they make to your organisation, do they understand how they helped you achieve your targets last year and how they played a critical part in saving lives, helping yours and the UK’s economy, keeping everyone employed in the business?
  • When you say ‘people are our greatest asset’ – do you really mean that? How do you really show it?
  • If you were working as a fruit picker (or whatever) in your business, would you know you are going to be trained to be the best professional fruit picker in the world? Is there pride in this work?
  • Are there opportunities to progress?
  • Is everyone equally respected and valued at work? Can the most junior person offer ideas to improve their jobs or is everything the way ‘the big bosses’ say it has to be?

There is that great story of President Kennedy who, when visiting NASA, asked a janitor sweeping the floor, “What do you do?” The janitor replied, “Mr President, I am helping to put a man on the moon”.  What would your employees say if you asked them this question?  Do they have that sense of purpose in their work?

The recession was hard for just about everyone.  We couldn’t give pay rises in our own office but everyone knew our finances and were grateful not to have hours or pay cut.  If organisations are open and transparent about problems and things ‘feel’ fair to everyone, they can live with difficult times.

Years ago, we were asked to help Malton Bacon Factory to recruit bright young engineering apprentices. In this case they were a great employer and developed their employees. But essentially a slaughterhouse and meat packing factory, it wasn’t seen as the place to work. We interviewed their apprentices and I remember a 25 year old who was earning £25k (and this was years ago), had a degree, no debt and his own BMW. We just needed to package this and get it into schools. From no applications they got 27 good quality applicants and recruited four.  What attracts young people is to show them the opportunities – and deliver them.

The new Apprenticeship Levy opens up endless possibilities for employers to do this – companies can now get funding for existing employees and graduates.

I don’t pretend any of this is easy.  There is no magic wand but I honestly believe UK bosses are facing one of the biggest opportunities they will ever have in their business or organisation.  To go back to basics and say, how can we replace EU migrants with British citizens?  How can we become the place where they want to work?

This is about fairness, great internal communications and creating purpose and opportunities for employees.

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Written by Northern Lights

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