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Ken Keller: Please, remind me again, why are you on my payroll?

Brain food for business owners

Posted: July 1, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: July 1, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Several years ago, I wrote a column that was a hit with many readers of The Signal. It was titled, “Why should I keep you on the payroll?”

More than a few owners emailed and called me to tell me how much they enjoyed it.

A couple of years later, I authored “Why should I add you to the payroll.” This also struck a chord with owners.

That brings us to present day. I recently hosted a workshop where the first words out of the presenter’s mouth were, “Why are you on the payroll?”

It was not a rhetorical question; he was quite serious. But the audience thought he was kidding.  

Those of you who read this column regularly may have noticed a pattern in my writing. I focus on asking tough questions to my readers.

I do this deliberately. I do it to challenge the thinking of those who own, run and work in business.

Some people who write columns make a living from writing, speaking and being on television and radio. Their expertise comes from research, being published and respected for being a talking head.

My business doesn’t allow me to do much primary research, but I do thrive on secondary research, which is reviewing and analyzing material already available.

I also rely on a form of primary research; paying attention to what I see and using that for material to educate clients and for column material.

So when my speaker asked that tough question to the audience, I watched with some amusement because they could not articulate an answer.

That was because they had never been asked the question before. These were the bosses, the people who sign the fronts of paychecks, not the backs. Many of them soon forgot the question as the speaker continued on.

I didn’t forget the question. I thought it was a very useful educational tool.

The human-resource folks tell us that a job description should be detailed and precise, but open-ended enough to do the job. That is, any job description worth the paper it is printed on should include “special projects as assigned” to control any employee at any level still saying the highly detested phrase “That is not in my job description.”

The attorneys tell us many things, some of them contradictory, depending on which state of the union the business is in when it comes to job descriptions. Their goal is to keep owners out of court and failing that, to win (however it is defined) the case if it goes to court.

I come from a different school. Not MBA school, although I have one of those. The school I come from is the one that says tell all employees when they are hired, and daily thereafter if necessary, why they are on the payroll. It also belongs on every job description.

People aren’t on the payroll to come to work late, leave early, spend time socializing, to use the company telephone, fax machine, computer and printer, to take long paid breaks, use all the sick days when they are not ill, fool around, harass or make coworkers uncomfortable, ignore policies and procedures, disrespect and ignore supervisors, not to take care of the clients or because the employee needs a steady paycheck.  

Employees are on the payroll to do something significant for the company. Unfortunately, most owners and managers have failed to tell the employees what that thing or things are.  

Don’t leave anyone receiving a paycheck guessing. Teach them to have an answer to the question, “Tell me why you’re on the payroll?” It will be a source of pride and engagement, two things an owner can literally take to the bank.   

Ken Keller is CEO of STAR Business Consulting Inc., a company that works with companies interested in growing top line revenue. He can be reached at Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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