Working Class Heroes

I work as a consultant, chief researcher and President of the Employee Engagement Institute.

While there is a lot of literature available on the topic, the truth is that without interacting with different socioeconomic groups it’s difficult to understand what really engages the workforce.

In an effort to gain insight, I recently took a job for eight weeks that paid $13.35/hr. The hours were from 6:30 AM to 3:00 PM with two paid 15-minute breaks and 30 minutes (unpaid) for lunch. 

The work took place in an office environment but the workflow was similar to an assembly line. It involved extended concentration, rapid pattern recognition, repetitive motion, and in-depth knowledge of the details in a 400-page instruction manual. 

This was a job that required intelligence, commitment, and physical effort. There were aggressive speed and quality metrics. We were frequently reminded that missing either one of them was grounds for termination. Over time, the work resulted in repetitive motion injuries for almost all of the workers.

It was the type of work that is performed by 70% of the population over 25 years of age... people without a college degree. These are the people who do most of the physical work in this country. The preponderance of the workers on this job could be classified as belonging to a minority group, which in this situation, made them a majority and made me a minority. For them, this was life. 

Sprinkled among them were college-educated workers who were laid off from some company and traumatized by the fact that, being over 40, they no longer fit into the white-collar workforce. For them, this was a last chance. 

The onboarding experience was worse than bad and it established negative expectations about the work itself. Once on the floor it became obvious that management skills were minimal and, perhaps because the work was seasonal, leadership was non-existent.

As a result, there was a high degree of turnover, but mostly from the new employees. The core of employees with over two years tenure was rock solid. Why was that?

It turned out that the work itself was intellectually challenging and people took pride in the fact that they could master the manual and develop a skill set. Surprisingly, the culture on the floor was one of camaraderie. Even with aggressive productivity goals my fellow employees were supportive and encouraging. Everyone I asked was glad to provide guidance and the time to help. The informal motto on the floor was “We are all in this together.” 

This local culture, this social environment in which the work took place, had evolved in the workplace, belonged to the workplace, and was separate from the organization’s culture. (The higher one rose through the ranks the more toxic the culture became.)

As I interacted with my co-workers I observed that the culture on the floor was due to the fact that the workers honored the work and that provided a sense of Dignity. By developing the ability to perform a difficult job well one earned the recognition and respect of one’s peers. 

Here was evidence of the underlying foundation for engagement. Work that enables a person to perform and contribute and in doing so develop a sense of self-respect, provides a sense of Dignity. Lacking any demonstrations of appreciation from the leadership, workers developed dignity through the acknowledgement and respect of their peers. The workers honored the work even if the leadership didn’t.

Without interacting with different socioeconomic groups it’s difficult to understand what engages them. It turns out that we all want the same thing. 

Back at the Office

Returning to my consulting practice, I was asked by a company to participate in a Podcast recording. It was part of their rebranding initiative and there was a lot of energy around marketing and advertising. I received an email request for a bio and a photo. And I received an email request for a date that would work for me. 

I provided the material and asked for information about the topic, agenda, and format so that I could prepare properly. I asked several times. But for some reason, I never received a response. It didn’t feel right. It felt like people were checking boxes on a list of things to do without concern for the people involved in the event.

What was missing in the relationship was respect, the sense of honoring the person. It transformed the relationship from something meaningful into something transactional...and my sense of enthusiasm for the event disappeared.


So, these are the take-aways: Dignity and Respect are fundamental components of an effective relationship. Dignity exists when the work is honored. Respect exists when the person is honored. 

If you want to develop a culture of partnership, start by developing dignity and respect.

Thomas McCoy