British Airways has asked its employees to work for free for a month. As CNN reported, the airline sent an e-mail out to its staff that “offered workers between one and four weeks of unpaid leave — but with the option to work during this period.”
How would this e-mail go over in your company? What kind of relationship do you need to have with your employees for this message to be taken seriously? In my experience, organizations spend a lot of time trying to measure the unmeasurable, trying to value concepts like culture and goodwill. We know that these things often make or break the deal with customers and employees, but they don’t fit easily into a spreadsheet. I would suggest that the organizational uptake on management’s offer to let people work for free is a very good measure of employee goodwill.
Employee goodwill matters in the best of times, particularly for service businesses. As Heskett, Sasser, and Schlesinger argue in the Service Profit Chain, it is difficult to create value without employees, and so it helps to take great care of them. But employee goodwill may matter even more in the worst of times, as the British Airways experience illustrates. The more that employees feel an organization is devoted to them, the more likely they’ll be to share the pain of adversity. Strong relationships with your employees may help to buffer you against an unforgiving competitive environment.
On the flip side, antagonistic relationships between employees and organizations are never a good idea, but they may be disproportionately costly when the environment turns ugly. This dynamic is playing out around us with the widespread rise in layoffs and salary cuts. Some of these wrenching decisions are being made a context of mutual trust and mutual regret. And some are happening in an environment of fear and anger, with untold costs to everyone involved, including customers.
We don’t yet know how the British Airways story will end, but I have a prediction. I think we’ll be able to confirm what we suspect, that employee goodwill makes an enormous competitive difference, particularly in hard times. And we may finally have a way to measure the size of that difference. In the spirit of what-you-measure-is-what-you-get, this may increase the chance of its occurrence.