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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Human Capital

On the Job
Smart technologies may have the power to erase the distinctions between the development opportunities offered to those in management and those on the front lines, and so might reshape our definition of human capital in the years ahead, but at present the employees at most companies face a far different reality. In Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-line Employee, Alex Frankel offers an insider’s look at this reality in a number of iconic companies.

A journalist who is not afraid to wear down his Adidas, Frankel hired himself out to UPS, Starbucks, Gap, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and Apple. He also applied for jobs at the Container Store, Whole Foods, Home Depot, and Best Buy — filling out applications, taking extensive tests, and participating in group interviews. His experiences provide a primer for anyone interested in how talent is leveraged –– or wasted — on the front lines of today’s companies.

An organization’s conception of human capital is manifest in its culture, and culture is inculcated by process and behavior guidelines that are passed along as one employee imitates another. The process is most effective when the capacity for self-expression in the ranks is consonant with expectations set at the top and an autonomous spirit flourishes. As Frankel describes it, this is something few companies know how to do.

UPS is an exception. Delivery teams at the com­pany are charged with moving physical as opposed to symbolic matter, so when glitches occur, people performing the work must solve them by making a cascade of decisions in real time. By giving its frontline people the latitude and responsibility to do this, UPS enables them to function as strong individuals who can nevertheless authentically represent the brand. As Frankel observes, drivers and handlers bring a human component to cutting-edge technology, meshing the two so that neither dominates. Team members experience the sense of engagement that comes from using their knowledge to address new challenges, collaborate with colleagues, and gain recognition from customers and peers. The result is a deeply rooted esprit de corps. “We were global but endemic at the same time,” writes Frankel of his experience as a driver. “We were UPS guys, a staple of the cityscape.”

The notion of “being brown” has a galvanizing effect on the UPS workforce, and UPS is known for that. But, in fact, at each of the companies at which Frankel worked, dress reinforced the sense of distinctness. The green apron worn by the Starbucks barista, the jacket and tie required by Enterprise, the black T-shirt identifying sales staff at Apple stores: All were keys to the culture, worn with pride or, sometimes, resignation. Distinctive lingo also played an essential role in defining culture, especially at Starbucks, where mastering the profusion of terms required by the intricately customized products (“tall skinny flat with room and a shot”) was essential to the job.

At Gap, Enterprise, and Starbucks, Frankel experienced highly constrained environments in which workers’ movements were codified and they were judged on what they did at every moment, leaving little scope for autonomy or growth. Trouble arose when people operating in this system were nevertheless urged to be “authentic,” as at Starbucks, where the notion that the stores provide customers with a “third place” is a corporate mantra, even though workers are usually too harried to connect with customers. In such an environment, Frankel notes, heavy-handed culture-building tries to fill the gap between the work experience and the image the company is trying to project, but under the circumstances, it feels more like propaganda.

Pushing the culture isn’t a problem for Apple because people who work at the stores are already believers. As a result, Frankel finds that the company expends little effort in “building a fake sense of belonging” through corporate rhetoric. In addition, Apple judges staff members on what they achieve rather than what they do at every minute. This contrasts especially with Gap, which describes sales staff as associates, but requires them to give priority to constantly folding the merchandise. Because of this corporate policy, designed to brand the stores by avoiding the specter of clothes on hangers, frontline workers soon come to regard customers pri­mar­ily as “unfolders.”

 
 
 
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