I work for a company that celebrates 140 years in business this month. This is considered by many to be remarkable. One hundred and forty years of quality, service, and fair dealing. Suffice it to say that there are no original employees, and that growth and results over that period didn’t happen accidentally. It involved many great leaders, great products, and many more great employees.
I was reading this Fistful of Talent post by William Tincup, and wondered about employee orientation 140 years ago. Were there orientation classes that included company values? How about safety training? And were people advised on how to manage their income so they would have something to retire from, or was pension already a well-formed process at that point?
Although I am credited with over 30 years of service, about half of these came with another company that was acquired. This time was recognized and valued by my new employer at the time of the merger. I have many friends whose long service was entirely with our company. We’ve shared stories and I can say without hesitation that there are far more similarities than differences.
I was hired as an engineer. I was expected to bring technical expertise and problem solving skills to the manufacturing process. I still remember my orientation. I got a benefits book with replaceable pages – because benefits do change from time to time. I also remember being told by the Personnel Administrator that my insurance doesn’t cover “any pregnancies that I might be responsible for”, at least until I was married and the pregnancy was my wife’s. Yep, that conversation really happened, and not because I asked the question.
And over the years benefits changed. Each year, something was a little different from before. There were additions, like 401(k) programs, vision benefits, and reimbursement accounts. There were things that were steps backward. Higher deductibles, more premium sharing, and eventually a transfer from traditional pension to a contribution plan.
Working conditions changed too. Better tools, more training, different opportunities than were ever suggested earlier. As the business grew, there were new facilities, new work methods, and substantially safer workplaces year after year.
William says that in orientation, we lie to the employees. We don’t tell them all the details, just what they need up front. I think he’s right, and looking back, I think that’s a good practice in general. We tell the truth as we know it, as it is today. No matter how much in control we are of all the factors that are part of the employment process, things change. Leaders change, competition changes, the market for employees changes. And any orientation should probably start with the phrase “at this point in time”. We can’t know fully about tomorrow, and certainly not about the employment life of someone who will be working beyond our own career windows.
If I were able to put everything back to the way it was on orientation day, every expectation I was given, I would guess that my company wouldn’t be around to fulfill those expectations. The company that was (Scott Paper Co.) doesn’t exist anymore, and the company that I work for today, the one that made no promise other than to let me keep working in my same role after the merger, continues to do well. There have been changes from the original proposition, but all within the well-defined principles of fair-dealing.
And with both companies, there have been unfortunate situations where employees were let down. Closures and reductions that caught many by surprise. Not the best of situations, but handled with as much respect and consideration as possible under the circumstances. It was literally terrifying to work under Rambo in Pinstripes, and many good friends of mine quit before they could collect severance. Post-merger, I can honestly say I have seen nothing that rivals that era. Fair and compassionate practices are by far the norm. A culture strong on controls, we faced no major issues during the Enron era.
It’s not about the employment promise, it’s about the employer’s values. In our case, the modern-day values of being authentic, accountable, innovative, and caring.
Happy Birthday Kimberly-Clark. Thanks for continuing to hire leaders who keep the health of the business in the forefront, while consistently working to manage the employment proposition successfully within the framework of our publicized values.