We used to call Roger D'Aprix the father of employee communication, but now that he's past 80, he's clearly the grandfather. But he's still raising us all. The day after the presidential election, Roger wrote to his daughter that he knew Trump voters well: "For years I've heard their laments in corporate focus groups. Their economic and social losses are more deeply felt than the rest of us can fully understand. … Last night was their chance to get back at the people they blame for their plight and their bruised, hard feelings."
Roger's words took me back to focus groups that I conducted during my short, unhappy life as a communication consultant, which I chronicled in a confessional essay a long while back.
Back to a focus group at a nuclear plant where the sinister supervisor wouldn't leave the room until I ordered him out in a quavering voice; when the door slammed, the employees burst into applause.
Back to a focus group at a retail chain where employees were universally stressed out, underpaid and unhappy, and we were asking them how they enjoyed the employee newsletter.
And most memorably, Roger's words took me back to the series of focus groups I conducted at the best grocery store I've ever been in, where the employees were as angry as hell. From my essay:
Having more or less given up our efforts to soothe the problems in the communication department, we began to conduct focus groups at the organization's most prized store—a high-end supermarket near the company headquarters.
I'll never forget the experience. Walking through the store as a customer on breaks between focus groups, I found the employees incredibly cheerful, helpful and competent. It was truly a great grocery store, beautifully designed and with an amazing selection of fresh foods. And far from the rancor in the employee-communication department, the store employees seemed to have an intense ownership of their sections and deep knowledge of the food they sold. The place seemed like a piece of heaven.
But close the door in the upstairs office where we held the focus groups, and look out. Venom poured from these people. Some of the complaints were similar to the other retail chain—too much work to do, too little time, and no time at all for employee communication "stuff," as they usually called it, politely. Also, the workers felt they were forced to smile in the face of humiliation by mean and bitchy customers from the rich neighborhood that surrounded the store.
At some point as a consultant, you learn to listen to these focus groups only for problems you can actually solve, and in the course of these particular groups, I though I heard one such problem.
To wit: Because the store was sort of the company's flagship, and because it was located so close to the HQ, the CEO came in every afternoon to check on things, and usually to try out new merchandising ideas. The CEO—trailed by various vice presidents, who employees suspected weren't nearly as sincerely interested in the store as the boss—was forever asking the employees to change this display, rearrange that section, create a special promotion. The CEO's hands-on approach was admirable, but the fact that it happened every day in the same store was clearly excessive. "We don't have time to do our jobs," the employees complained—again, from managers to front-line workers.
This seemed easy enough to solve. Our recommendation was that the CEO cut back his daily visits to this store to weekly, or perhaps twice a week. If he wanted to visit a store every day, he and his colleagues could fan out a bit and cover some of the many stores in the surrounding community, and give their star workers a break.
But of course, we didn't have direct access to the CEO. We had to go through the communication manager.
"That will never fly," she said. "We can't tell him that." We argued, but no no avail. And with that, the one reasonable, practical recommendation that came out of all these time-consuming and expensive focus groups was dropped.
So in the end, despite months and months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars in billing, I'm afraid we didn't help the company, we didn't help the employees and we didn't even help the communicators.
That was more than 15 years ago. It's not just government that people are pissed at. It's the companies they work for, too. And not just because the companies are moving jobs overseas and automating factories and laying people off, which they've been doing for more than a generation—but because they drive such a heartless and thoughtless employment bargain, and then bring in consultants to ask employees why they're so unhappy. Or, in the parlance of this century, "unengaged."
When this grocery store's employees were spitting fire in the back room while they ran the best store I had ever been in, what would I have told the CEO even if I had had his ear? Looking back, I might have said to him: These people are doing a great job for you now despite their misery. Maybe you should do what you can to give them every bit of the dignity, financial compensation, and career mobility possible, because otherwise, one day they're going to get fed up and they're going to smash something.
That would have probably fallen on deaf ears, partly because I might not have had the courage of my conviction in saying it.
But I would love to talk to that CEO right now. No doubt like most CEOs, he's nervous about a Trump administration and all the uncertainty it brings with it. He probably wonders what Trump's brand of populism is going to do to his heretofore obedient workforce. Perhaps he's confused about how Americans got so angry all of a sudden.
One thing I can tell him, and one thing everybody should remember: Americans have been angry for a very long time.