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Workplace culture - O.C. Tanner & new Management Thinking

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer September 19, 2023
It’s good to see how many firms are tackling the litany of HR-related woes impacting businesses today. A key finding is that engagement, respect, empathy and other factors are sorely needed but sadly missing for 80% of the workforce. These insights and more were front and center at O.C. Tanner’s recent conference.


I had a chance to spend several days at O.C. Tanners Influence Greatness User Conference in Utah this last week. I’ve had some interaction with the company over the years but this trip was an immersive experience. I had a chance to interact significantly with numerous prospects, customers and executives. And, these weren’t the carefully chosen ‘faces’ a vendor’s marketing team steers my way. My interactions were unplanned and unrehearsed – and that’s how you get real insights and not PR-speak. 

Who is O.C. Tanner? 

O.C. Tanner’s website says this about the firm:

O.C. Tanner improves workplace cultures through personalized employee recognition solutions, so people feel appreciated, do their best work, and come to stay.

To that end, the company has software, manufacturing capabilities and more to deliver its employee recognition solutions to its customers. The company is based in Salt Lake City and is privately held. 

Interestingly, the company is 96 years old. I believe that makes it one of the oldest HR & technology companies around. (ADP is approximately 74 years old.)

O.C. Tanner’s range of reward and recognition items and technologies is vast especially since one of the company’s competencies includes the creation of custom and one-off items. For example, the firm made the medals for the 2002 Winter Olympics. 

O.C. Tanner is a major player in the rewards and recognition space but it also has research capabilities and other assets that help their customers improve their corporate culture, employee engagement levels, employee experiences, etc. They are more than a swag shop or a producer of 'atta-boy/girl' certificates. 

That bigger and more expansive scope to their offerings is tied to helping firms deal with a number of current workforce challenges. Whether these include quiet quitting, not winning the war for talent, etc., the sheer size and number of today’s workforce issues mandates that employers find better ways to engage, excite and acknowledge all of their employees. If employers don’t change, the workforce will change. 


The evolution of management science

Management Science is either misnamed or an oxymoron. It’s an evolving area of study that is far from fully understood. As a result, many people in managerial, supervisory or executive positions only know what they’ve learned on their own, saw in an old B-school text or acquired via a mentor. Honestly, management is still more of learned craft and NOT something you are inherently born with. 

To wit, I recall what I was taught in B-school (although much of it has since been debunked or fallen into disfavor). I learned about:

  • hierarchical, command and control organization structures
  • using incentive pay to boost productivity
  • the Hawthorne effect
  • B.F. Skinner’s behavior modification
  • etc. 

But we didn’t hear hardly anything about creating great work experiences for employees and nothing on culture or engagement. Management science was just not that sophisticated in that day. Unfortunately, what many in leadership roles in modern businesses today know as management is out of date or flat-out obsolete.  

My biggest personal breakthrough in ‘managing’ people would come a couple of years after graduating business school when I ran a 3-year long, 96-person project team. A year into the effort, I knew we would come in ahead of schedule and under budget but I felt I might lose some key team members before we crossed the finish line. So, in that moment of clarity, I instantly changed my managerial style and, I’m pleased to report, everyone was still around years later. 

Managing people is a multi-dimensional matter. It’s not something you ‘fix’ with a single solution or wave of a wand. It has economic, time-based, and, a lot personal and psychological aspects to it. That last bit about personal and psychological aspects is really the great undiscovered territory. That mysterious space is something many logical, pragmatic application creators don’t always get and as result we get lots of well-meaning but grossly ineffective HR technology solutions. 

Look at your firm’s management ranks today and you’ll see Boomers and other leaders who may not possess the skills they really need to manage, effectively, a modern workforce. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just that their beliefs and interpersonal style might reflect what they learned on-the-job or in school decades ago. That knowledge just isn’t relevant or correct anymore. 

Don’t believe me? How many of you have heard an executive say something like:

Your Job is Your Reward


Just Be Thankful You (Still) Have a Job


Be Glad You Get a Paycheck


You Should Be Grateful You Get to Work Here


If You Don’t Cancel Your Vacation (or Planned Training), You’re Just Not a Team Player


It’s Not Management’s Fault That You Can’t Take On 3 Other People’s Workload in the Time We Originally Agreed You’d Work


I Don’t Care if You Don’t Have the People, Time or Other Resources, Just Get it Done or Else!


I’m Sorry Your Spouse is in the Hospital, But We’re Counting on You to Be in the Office All This Weekend

And, My Favorite,

Career Oriented People Don’t Come to Me with a Bunch of Work/Life Balance Issues 

What all of those old-school attitudes espouse is an appalling lack of empathy for employees. While some might argue these statements were permissible in a different time, they won’t cut it today. Why? Today’s workforce knows it has a strong hand in picking and choosing where and with whom it will work. So many firms are crying about how they can’t ‘solve’ their War for Talent and the answers are obvious, if they would only look around. Their leadership is singlehandedly running off great talent, shows little respect for the people still there, and contributes a big part of the toxicity in their corporate culture. 

I have no sympathy for executives and employers who are that out-of-touch and tone-deaf. They deserve the workforce problems that they self-inflict upon themselves. 

The view from Tanner’s Influence Greatness show

Astutely, the majority of the presentations at this event were led by (or contained a material amount of speaking content) from O.C. Tanner’s own customers. In session after session, I picked up on these themes:

  • You can’t underestimate the importance of culture, recognition and other factors in contributing to better employee engagement. 
  • Engagement & Retention are tightly linked 
  • Employees want their contributions noted
  • Employees want to be appreciated 
  • Employees want to be treated with respect and fairly
  • Physical and mental wellness are key engagement factors

And more than anything else,

  • Employees want empathetic bosses

I heard these messages in one form or another in virtually every session. The words might differ somewhat from presenter to presenter but the key points were consistent. 

One major theme from O. C. Tanner folks revolved around the concept that approximately 80% of the workforce is starved for attention, empathy, etc. These are often great people who do great work but aren’t in the top or bottom 10% of the employee base. They are ones who have to make up the work that less effective or recently departed people have left behind. These are the people who get the work done on holidays, at home, etc. even if it costs them their scheduled vacations, triggers training cancellations, etc. But is their extra effort or sacrifice even recognized or thanked? Nope. The 80% gets 100% of the work and none of the recognition.  

An old boss of mine once chided me for spending too much time with one of these 80% employees who was in some kind of existential career dilemma. His counsel was for me to either transfer or fire her and spend all of my time with the top 10% people. 

I’m glad I didn’t follow that advice. 

So, if leaders want to stem attrition, improve productivity, etc. they must alter their measurement, recognition, awareness, etc. of their heretofore forgotten members of the workforce. Because if they don’t, they’ll never stop the hemorrhaging of talent, low morale and poor engagement. It makes sense but it’s not what many leaders ‘get’. 

Other challenges for the 80% were discussed, too. These issues included: 

  • Low pay (are the wages even livable?)
  • Too few available hours offered for people to work
  • Lumpy work hours
  • No accommodation for long-commutes or a lack of transportation
  • No empathy for employees with sick or elderly family members
  • Etc.

While I heard many, many great leaders from some of the world’s largest firms speak at this event, I still came away thinking that they are still a lot of leaders out there that are heartless jerks with some arcane ideas about what management really should be all about. Obviously, those ‘leaders’ weren’t at this event.

The key takeaway from last week was simply a reinforcement of the idea that great leaders create a work environment (not just culture) that causes people to stay with their employer years longer than they otherwise would have. Hold that message up to your leadership style and ask yourself if you are delivering to this standard.  I’ll wager most employers could find a few things that should change to make their place of business a destination employer and not just a brief career layover stop. 

My take

O.C. Tanner’s customer base is an enviable one and its customers are clearly fired up about culture, empathy, recognition, etc. Customers are definitely using the company’s technology to do a better job of noting every moment of importance in an employee’s work history and to help that employee’s manager become a better, more empathetic leader. That said, I doubt any HR technology provider can dethrone them at this time. 

The team at O.C. Tanner has definitely grown the company significantly over the years. That growth has enabled them to afford a generous philanthropy program, a major building expansion at their headquarter location, offices in many countries globally and more. But growth can also tax the skills sets of leaders. Leaders, even O.C. Tanner’s, have a ‘best used by date’ and some positions will need an infusion of outside talent over time. The challenge is that O.C. Tanner will need to do so while also maintaining its culture. It’s kind of ironic that a company that sells culture reinforcing solutions will also be a consumer of those same solutions as more growth occurs. 

For readers whose firms are not winning the war for talent, maybe a trip to Salt Lake City might help bring clarity to your talent challenges. 

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