“Good Morning” is Good Manners, “Mon”
Every culture has their greeting, and in the islands it is “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon” and “Good Night.” Even if you are walking into a crowded room and know no one there, you acknowledge the people in the room with “Good Morning.” It is all about human connection and respect. It is about slowing down just enough to acknowledge the humanity in another person. Not necessarily “island slow” – my co-workers used to tease me that I moved around the halls like I was on a motorized scooter, and I am from Texas, so you know how slow the pace was around me! But slow enough to greet, slow enough to show just a little human caring.
The importance of this concept in the islands becomes clear very quickly. If you do not practice the local greeting, you will over time realize that even though everyone around you is smiling and agreeing “sure, no problem,” they are walking out of the room and doing exactly what they want to, and NOT what you asked of them. I could not figure out why a particular secretary would not do a single thing I asked of her – she seemed to like me – until someone pointed out that I asked first, greeted second. I changed the order. I got results.
Similarly, as foreign as it seems to us in the states, I have interviewed countless employees who sincerely explained that they were being treated disrespectfully and unfairly and they had no more specific allegation than someone walking by without saying “good morning” to them. I have also seen allegations in discrimination and harassment charges and lawsuits that include failure to say “good morning”! Conversely, I would hear employees explain why someone was a good leader, and following the norms of greeting was always cited.
- How does this translate outside of the islands? I obviously am not instructing everyone to start saying “good morning” to each other (although it would not hurt)! But at the center of most employee complaints is a person who feels they were not treated with respect and humanity. This is not rocket science and yet it is where we stumble the most. Every culture has its own norms of respect. Figure out yours – the best of yours – and practice them religiously. Promote an environment of respect and consideration throughout your workplace. There is not one single piece of advice I can give you from the islands or elsewhere that will go further toward preventing and resolving employee issues than this one, not to mention in getting others to work with you and for you.
A Glitzy Benefits Package Means Nothing if You Have to Make an Ocean Crossing to Use it
Is it just me or does no one understand their benefits packages anymore (including the employers that administer them)? Do not get me wrong – I too want as much “stuff” as I can get for the least possible money, and I love all the add-on’s available with benefits these days, but it comes down to the basics. Does it work? Can the employees understand it? Can they access it? Does the service line speak their language?
The problems we experience in the VI are unique and more dramatic in some ways, but representative of the problems experienced elsewhere. For instance, because we are near Puerto Rico, we are often routed to telephone service centers that are Spanish speaking, yet most people in the VI speak English. Companies market web benefits that then will not ship to the VI, nor honor credit cards from our Caribbean addresses. There are few things worse than raising your employees’ hopes with the promise of a great benefit only to leave them frustrated, angry and without the benefit after they have spent their time unsuccessfully trying to access it.
- No matter where you are employed, I truly believe most employees would tell you they would prefer a more simplified package that worked consistently than all the smoke, mirrors and glitz. Trying to run successful benefits in a US territory/island made the importance of the basic principle “FIRST, MAKE IT WORK” very clear. And that principle plays in Peoria, too.
In the Islands, Trading Favors is a Way of Life…and Yet…
In my experience, people around the world agree that they want to be treated with respect at work. Yet our cultural backgrounds sometimes define the meaning of how we practice respect differently. The difference in greetings discussed above is one small example.
Another example I ran across in the Virgin Islands is the culture of favors. It is a common practice to dole out favors, and it is sometimes difficult to convince employees raised in the island culture that by granting a favor or exception to one person, you are being unfair to the other. I continuously heard people describe notorious favor grantors as “good people” and “kind and fair.” It amazed me how ingrained this concept was, and that people did not see the flip side – that each time an exception was granted, it was unfair to everyone else who would not get the exception. Everyone wanted to get into a position of power/respect where they too could be the favor grantor, or be the person who routinely had favors granted to them.
This was very problematic in the small business setting, for example. Customers had no problems asking for favors, discounts, special treatment, and free merchandise. Employees, if not very well trained and closely supervised, wanted to be the grantors of these favors, and did not understand that when you give away the owners’ products, you are stealing!
Unfortunately, even though the cultural norm was favor granting, that did not stop litigants complaining of unfair treatment each time one employee would discover something she desired had been granted to another – an assignment, a job title, training, money, a benefit.
- The lesson learned here is that respect in the eyes of employment law has a universal component that transcends culture: consistency. There are definitely bright lines and this was one of them, both in the islands on the mainland.
If the Power is Out and There is a Tree Across the Road, No One Cares About Online Access
I was blessed to experience very little in the way of tropical weather during my life in the Caribbean. But I know that anyone who has experienced “acts of God” will agree that what matters in a crisis is that we as HR professionals have the basics down pat. We had all better be generalists and humanitarians at our core. Our online systems, our telephone trees, our self-service kiosk – these are fabulous tools. But when your employee reaches you at home after a storm, calling from his cell phone at the top of a hill in the wind and rain because his power is out, and he cannot drive to work because of the trees and power lines across the roads, and even if he can get in he will need some place to take a shower because he has no water, you are not going to be able to send him to an automated system for an answer. (Do I hear an “amen” from Louisiana?)
- No matter where we live, we have to have answers, and be ready to roll up our expensive sleeves, step out of our comfortable offices, and provide solutions where they are needed. We have to be able to suspend our needs (hey, the storm hit us, too, right?) and focus on serving the needs of our clients and co-workers. This is a universal truth of human resources. And, in fact, if we weave a bit more of this service-oriented attitude into our day to day practice, I believe the results will be astounding. No need to wait for a hurricane to practice great human resources.
Educate “da yout’ dem”
For those of you who live outside the West Indies, that means “educate our youth.” On an island, the labor market is restricted by some very concrete boundaries – water on all sides, to be exact. The cost of stateside relocations is staggering, and the attrition rate of “continentals” moving back to the mainland is predictably high, as the hardships of tropical life combined with missing Mom hits home.
Educating your labor force is a universal need, but on an island you can go to a high school science fair and predict with great accuracy which children will apply for jobs at your facility next year. Preparing our children for the workforce is not someone else’s job. It is not going to be done by another more prosperous community or one with a more established program from which you can recruit by more generous signing bonuses. It is your job. Unless you have more applicants than you possibly need lining up for your positions, it is your job. For more information on the readiness of our young people to enter the workforce, read “Are They Really Ready to Work?” from The Conference Board, Inc., 2006 at www.shrm.org.
If you are lucky enough to hire them, you had better train them properly and plan for their future once you get them. In the Caribbean, people take jobs for life. Forty years at one company – not many of us can claim that back in the states anymore. I certainly will never be able to. However, it is not uncommon at all in the islands. I think of several special, special people as I type this (you know who you are).
- The lesson I learned is again beautifully basic: employees are our most valuable resource. Spend money on their development or spend money on their lack of development -- your choice. Assume they will be with you for life. And I think this lesson translates beautifully outside the island setting.
So here I am, back on the mainland. I still have a little sand to clean out of my suitcase, but my tan is fading quickly. What I did bring back with me that I hope will always remain is a greater appreciation for the human side of human resources, and a firm belief that getting the basics right is the foundation without which the shanty will crumble and fall. I think it has made me a better human resources professional, a better employment attorney, and a better person. Thank you, my West Indian friends, for this and much more.