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When asked to write about employing people I considered providing a whistle stop tour of the various facets of the “master-servant” relationship but decided to dwell instead on one strand that runs through the workplace like a stick of Blackpool rock. Read on and enjoy the hours of contemplation that will result!

Hardly a week goes by without a business colleague grumbling to me about problems with their staff or a friend complaining at the manner in which their boss treats them. Open any newspaper and you are bound to read about an employment dispute covering treatment of staff or bosses harping about the workers having too many rights.

So what is it about staff / employee relations that is so charged with emotion and takes up almost as much time as discussing the weather? Are staff really such a liability and why do they need so much protection?
We have moved on some way since slavery and in the capitalist model that we know employees are not on an equal footing with business owners. Is there an optimal approach these days?

In short, the answer depends on many factors but my view is that you have to do what works for your business. There are a couple of fundamental rules that apply to all situations; — workers have to be treated with respect and dignity but in turn they need to understand that the boss is in charge and that there is a hierarchy.

The problems arise when either party forgets the above ground rules or applies them incorrectly. My preferred approach is that the employer has to take the lead in establishing a solid working relationship. By definition the business owners will ordinarily have a different level of commitment to the enterprise as they eat sleep and breath their work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This creates the ideal opportunity to create and foster a good working relationship with their staff by reinforcing their position at the top of the business hierarchy through showing that they are not detached and actually care about their workers in spite of the fact that they work even longer.
After all, are the workers not the creators of wealth in the business? Shouldn’t they be treated with respect as you would do to an expensive item of machinery by oiling it, polishing it, changing the parts and painting it on a regular basis? — Nobody would dream of abusing the apparatus that churns out widgets on the factory floor; abuse the machine and it won’t work properly, so why is it so difficult for many bosses to understand that people need treated in a certain manner as well?

The standard answer you receive is that the workers are looking for every possible opportunity to take advantage or shirk their duties. If this is the case, as human beings they will respond accordingly if treated with respect and made to feel that their contribution is valued –- the need to take advantage will be unnecessary.

Unfortunately, over the years legislation to protect workers has become too prescriptive and unwieldy leading to friction and resentment of workers’ rights by bosses. So what is the answer? In my opinion, certainly for the SME sector, much of the legislation should be rolled back and common sense should prevail. It is like the experiments at dangerous road junctions that reduced accident rates by removing signs and markings. Why? — Because it let people realise the potential dangers and navigate a way around it themselves in a sensible manner watching out for other people, often letting them pass in front in a civil manner. So, let me summarise how employers and employees can optimise their working relationship in one word –- flexibility!

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