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Stop Thinking About Your Frontline Workers Like Second-Class Citizens

Recently, I had a conversation with an HR leader, and they lumped their workforce into two broad categories. There were knowledge workers — and everyone else. Categories and labels are useful for communication and a shared lexicon can make it easier to get things done. Except when they don’t.

What can feel efficient, good enough, or harmless can actually be counterproductive. It can telegraph that you are thinking about parts of your workforce in a limited way, or tell them a story about what they do or do not bring to your company.

Here’s another example — the “Senior Leadership Team.” Anyone in that group probably feels great, while those excluded (but potentially on the cusp) are now wondering “am I not senior enough” or “am I not a leader?”

Think about those knowledge workers, too. Anyone that you’re not including in this category of people is implicitly being told that they don’t use knowledge, or they lack knowledge. We tend not to think about this very closely but what it can systematically do to the human psyche is likely hurting both the individuals involved and the performance of your organization.

This thinking limits opportunities for individuals. It also makes organizations less productive and less profitable (as well as less creative and imaginative) than they’d be if they recognized the talent and value of all their employees.

The Debilitating Impact of a Divided Workforce

We know definitively that disengaged workers pose both an immediate and long-term drag on a business’s success. Half of deskless workers (another label, but perhaps an accurate one) say their company treats them as expendable, and nearly two of five deskless workers say they are viewed as inferior by employees in the office. A third of workers say their employers don’t invest enough in their growth, and only 53% of frontline workers feel they can challenge the status quo to produce better outcomes.

The risk of not nurturing frontline employees is apparent. They are made to feel lesser than, then they leave, perpetuating the endless turnover cycle. Or, even if they stay, their experience-based ideas go unnoticed, they take a back seat to “knowledge workers,” and their potential remains untapped.

Leaders should be deeply, deeply troubled by these findings. The mindset that some work represents knowledge more than others can leave an organization’s valuable human assets with no choice but to take their talents to a company that does give them the opportunity and resources to grow professionally.

There’s plenty of research that also shows it’s not true. Consider the words of former Medtronic CEO Bill George who said his frontline workforce was “often the first to see issues” and credited them with shifting managerial decision-making as a result.

It’s Time You (Yes, You) Work to Change the Narrative and Improve Business Outcomes

It’s our job as leaders to shift this counterproductive managerial mindset, and to do so intentionally. The first step is to build HR practices at your company that are designed for the most marginalized. People of color, and especially women of color, are already disproportionately represented on the frontline — and, too often, underrepresented in white collar and office roles.

Based on workforce and population trends, we’ll continue to see greater racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce. So, we need to reexamine business practices and make sure they are inclusive and reflective of contemporary society. When leaders design processes with the historically marginalized in mind, that doesn’t mean giving people favors or cutting corners. It’s about democratizing access to opportunity (and lifting up what your company is capable of). So we need to think about ways to do that — including upskilling programs that develop your workforce and build their skills, focused mentorship programs and clearly articulated career pathways.

The next step is to more loudly and broadly recognize a job well done. Some employees may share feedback and receive praise on company Slack channels and in cross-functional meetings, but many workers are on their feet and not sitting at a desk to log into a corporate system. Many frontline employees don’t have, or don’t often use, work email addresses.

Making everyone feel equally valued and recognized at your organization takes intention and creativity. The goals should be ensuring that leaders are visible and accessible to all employees, that workers receive recognition for their contributions no matter what group they may fall into, and that everyone understands how they can benefit from doing their jobs well.

The benefit for employers, in turn, is demonstrable: When someone that previously felt “othered” now feels seen, and this gap in their experience as employees is closed, their measures of engagement, sense of belonging and feelings of fulfillment can soar. So can retention and productivity.

Lastly, and potentially most importantly: Create authentic space for ideas.

There’s nothing more defeating than raising your hand, itching to share something you feel strongly about, but never being called upon. Make structural changes to build a culture of feedback and commit to taking action based upon the best ideas — whoever they come from. Create forums for sharing ideas, and design processes for responding to them and acting on them.

We might not be able to avoid using all labels or categories, but what we can do is take care to avoid a mindset in our organizations that splits or diminishes workers (even unintentionally!) into those that are included, and those that are not. This mindset can easily leak into our HR practices, our recognition efforts, and the forums that we do or don’t create.

By being more cognizant, leaders can create a stronger workforce and, with the right steps, not only will employees feel greater community and belonging — but business outcomes will improve as well.

Terrence Cummings is the Chief Opportunity Officer at Guild.

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