Frontline Employees: Commodity or Asset?


Frontline Employees: Commodity or Asset?

The Boston Globe reported, in mid-November, on an aggressive movement by Teamsters Local 25 toward unionizing area parking attendants. It is “working to organize the roughly 1,600 parking workers in Greater Boston,” and apparently doing so at a fairly steady clip.
A key driver helping the union market to potential members, reporter Katie Johnston wrote, are “Third World working conditions” cited by some employees, “many of them from East Africa.”
“After two years of effort, the union has contracts with five parking companies in Boston and expects to unionize attendants at the three other major companies in the area … by next year,” Johnston wrote.
“So far, workers have been organized at more than 100 local lots run by Standard Parking, Central Parking, Impark, Propark and VPNE.”
National brands and local operators continue to be targets of the Teamsters’ efforts, and, Johnston reported, they seem to be succeeding. More than 20,000 parking attendants are represented by Teamsters nationwide.
Which brings about the age-old debate: Are hourly parking workers a commodity or asset? It seems the output of this conversation – at least through our firm’s work with more than 40 public and private operators nationwide – is evenly divided.
What’s more interesting is the number of executives who aren’t quite sure where their companies land on this spectrum. To gain clarity for your organization, honestly assess its approach to hiring, developing and leading frontline associates.
First Impressions. Examine the current recruitment program and how applicants are treated throughout. Overall, do you find they are regarded more like individuals than numbers? Give one to the asset column, if so.
If you need further prompting to decide, take a good look into how they learn about your company, culture and, most important, your “employer value proposition”: i.e., what they gain, outside a paycheck, in return for consistently meeting or beating company expectations to gain that clarity.
The most common way that job seekers learn about your organization’s point of view in this space is through the employment page of your website. If you’d like to gain a distinct picture of how employer branding can fall to one side or the other, compare the career opportunity page of Southwest Airlines to Dillard’s. It will literally jump off the page which of those companies views applicants as an asset or as a commodity through their application process.
Also analyze the interviewing portion of the recruitment process
in terms of questions asked, how candidates are evaluated, and one very revealing detail throughout: What is asked of them to do throughout
the process.
It’s not uncommon for our firm to see employers requiring applicants to travel to a remote area of the city to interview, go several different places for background checks, employment verifications, uniform measurements, and,
in one case, to open a bank account at a local bank across town (the employer earned membership points for each new account referral).
Clearly, the more job seekers have to do in order to earn the right even to interview with an organization, the more they are viewed as a commodity.
Training vs. ‘Telling.’ This is an easy one: If your training program stops short of explaining to employees why they perform a particular procedure, put a check in the commodity column.
What I mean by this is that it’s pretty common for our firm to see new-hire training consist of somebody sitting all new hires in the conference room to review the employee handbook and other company rules; to touch on customer service and on safety. And after the requisite 90 minutes of telling these folks what they can and cannot do, to send them along to the location to start parking cars and/or collecting money. This is known as the “telling” methodology toward training new employees.
Training that will drive learning retention and instill an authentic sense that these employees play a vital role to the organization’s overall success includes the “why” and the “how” to doing a particular task, not just the “what.”
Practically speaking, “why” represents the reasoning behind the value of doing a task, and “how” imparts best practices and lessons learned. And as proven through countless adult-learning-behavior studies, both aspects actually guarantee more consistent levels of compliance.
Oh, by the way, companies that truly believe their people are their greatest assets, don’t just include the “why,” they start with it, recognizing that employees who understand the connection between the importance of their work and the company’s success are engaged, and demonstrate markedly higher levels of discretionary effort.

They’re all thieves. Honestly evaluate leaders, at all levels, and their general treatment of frontline associates. Do they truly believe this level of employee is a valued contributor to meeting objectives and company goals, or is the disposition more one of distrust and the “they all steal from you eventually” sentiment? The answer puts the check in the respective column, and also speaks to self-fulfilling prophecy.
Our industry has made and continues to make large strides on the technology, corporate infrastructure and social media fronts, broadly speaking. Evolving in the same manner when developing and leading talent at the frontline level isn’t just “keeping up with the times.” It also contributes to an organization’s ability to maintain a competitive advantage, regardless of the market or economic conditions.
I’m reminded once again of a different Southwest Airlines story, where the company saved hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum based on an idea by a maintenance worker who suggested the company stop printing its logo on the trash bags used inflight.
Clearly, Southwest believes it will continue to beat its competitors through its leadership competencies, which include treating all employees as partners who have ownership and who truly connect that when they contribute either through customer satisfaction or continuous improvement, all win, both financially and intrinsically.
The bottom line to all of this? Adults will treat their respective positions and those they serve, both internally and externally, in the same manner in which their leaders treat them.
The litmus test as to whether your frontline employee is a commodity or an asset can be discovered through honestly identifying the organization’s leadership qualities from C-level to supervisor. This assessment of these layers of leaders will reveal how the hourly workforce is viewed, and as a result, performing on the lot.

Colleen Niese, a Principal of The Marlyn Group, can be reached at

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Colleen Niese
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