Workers Have Thrown Down The Gauntlet. Are Business Leaders Ready To Respond?

The U.K.'s historic vote to leave the European Union should be a wakeup call to all business owners and leaders. Like the presidential campaign in the U.S., it is a clear signal that workers are fed up with seeing the dreams and visions of the elite in society realized at the expense of their own. They do not feel heard or cared for.

And inequality like this never ends well. It inevitably ends in revolution. Brexit happens to be a peaceful one, but that's not always the case.

The onus is now on CEOs to pay attention. Individually, we have little control over immigration policy and other issues related to the discontent. But we can control what happens in our own companies.

Employees' Dreams Matter
As business leaders, we have visions we work very hard to achieve. We expect our employees to help us make them come true. Along the way, we tend to forget that those associates have their own dreams, too. Not surprisingly, many employees have started to see themselves as instruments being used to realize one person's vision, as their own is pushed aside. Their perception is accurate.

Therefore, to do our part in righting this wrong, one of our most important jobs as CEOs should be to help our employees realize their dreams. It starts with finding out what they are.

John Ratliff found a way to do this successfully at Appletree Answers. During an annual off-site meeting his call center company in Delaware decided to tackle turnover among frontline employees. While churn among non-exempt employees was only 3%, turnover was 110% for the employees who answered the phones for clients, matching the industry average. "Clearly, we were doing something right for one group but not the other," says Ratliff, the founder.

Out of Touch
What Ratliff didn't realize is how painfully out of touch he and his leadership team were with employees' concerns--and how that was contributing to the problem. Just how little he knew about their lives became very clear after Lisa Phillips, the company's director of operations, asked how the company could become more like a Make-A-Wish foundation for employees. Her question was in line with Appletree's core value, "Take care of each other."

After having a small group of employees flesh out the idea, the company launched an initiative called Dream On. It asked employees to submit a request tied to one thing they would like to happen in their personal lives. There were no restrictions. A secret committee would review the requests.

As the responses trickled in, Ratliff got a crash course in the daily realities that his frontline employees faced. Many team members were grappling with health problems or coping with the challenges of caring for elderly parents--factors that affected their ability to juggle their jobs with their lives outside of work. Others were suffering financial problems, having had a period of unemployment before joining Appletree, and they needed a few thousand dollars to get caught up. Seventeen employees simply wished they could own a car, to make it easier to get to work.

Charity Starts at Home
Some of the stories were heart-wrenching. To help employees turn around the situations that were weighing on them, the company decided to provide grants and other resources through the program. Over time, Appletree Answers used American Express points to send a couple on their honeymoon, flew a mother to see her daughter in the Navy over Christmas, and fulfilled the dream of an employee to take a first family vacation with her disabled daughter.

"What CEOs don't realize is the access you have that other people don't, and how you can create opportunities for people you never would have thought of," says Ratliff.

The program had a profound effect on morale and turnover, given that call centers are usually run like the sweatshops of the Information Age. Not long after Ratliff and his team launched the Dream On initiative, turnover dropped to 20%. While the initiative cost money, it paid a 20 times return on investment in terms of reduced turnover costs in less than a year.

Feeling Cared For
"The overall sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than themselves or their individual sites, and part of a community, has been one of the biggest changes I've seen in employees," says Ratliff. "I felt more connected to our entire group, and the company became much more human to people." Although he sold the company in 2012, the Dream On initiative has had a lasting impact on its culture.

The Dream On initiative is just one of the many creative ways I've seen leaders show employees that the company cares about them. John Chambers, the recently retired CEO of 75,000-employee Cisco, made it a priority to know about every employee or family member suffering from a serious illness and bringing the full resources of the company to help them--in the process saving many lives. It is up to us as leaders to find the way that works best for our companies.

Once employees feel like the company cares about them, they will, in turn, start to care more for the company and its customers. And workers who feel cared about will also care more about themselves, taking steps that will allow them to thrive economically, like committing to learning new skills. This is a critical step in bridging the inequality gap.

We're at a historic crossroads. Business leaders are seen as part of the establishment, which is under attack. So we must step up to the challenge. We have to be willing to look beyond our own interests to those of the people who have powered our success. My challenge to every CEO is to make this your number one priority this year. Charity starts at home, right in our own companies, and the time to show it is right now.