WORKERS’ MONTH: Creating a people-centered workplace by Marius Meyer

WORKERS’ DAY 2018: The 3 R’s: Rights, Responsibilities, Rights by Marius Meyer
May 1, 2018
Employment equity and diversity management standard: An opportunity to transform organisations by Marius Meyer
May 3, 2018

Today we celebrate Workers’ Day.  We commemorate the Workers’ Struggle over so many centuries of work.  Workers provide employers with their time and efforts to accomplish the business objectives of employers. But today as we reflect on work, the question is whether workers are indeed getting a fair deal in terms of their salaries and employment conditions in exchange for their labour.  Also, the recent debate on the national minimum wage continues.  It is clear that this debate is not complete with too many answered questions. The confusion between a minimum wage and a living wage exacerbates the current confusion. And then on the other side, what about the unemployed – those without any hope for the future, in particular the unemployed who would rather receive some payment than no payment at all.

Building on Workers’ Day, last year the Department of Labour decided to extend this spirit of this day to Workers’ Month in ensuring that we reflect and plan around a more co-ordinated campaign of worker empowerment in our organisations, economic sectors and the country at large. Already the hashtag #WorkersMonth is gaining ground in boosting this campaign.  While the Department’s approach to Workers’ Month concentrates on the rights of workers in the workplace, I would like to offer an additional perspective and that is to position Workers’ Month as a key priority in embedding a renewed focus on people in the workplace. I would like to call for a people-centered workplace. The reality is that you spend a significant proportion of your day and indeed your life in the workplace. Therefore, it only makes sense to me that we prioritise people-centered workplaces as the key foundation of a real democratic, inclusive and free society.


With the World Economic Forum session in Durban last year, in addition to subsequent reports, it is once again evident that underperformance in the area human capital is not going to help us to take South Africa, the African nations and the continent forward.  It remains a fact that human capital is one of the most important sources of competitiveness and countries will thrive, stagnate or simply go down if human capital is not developed to drive economic growth. Yet, the perpetuation of inequality, poverty and under-development cannot be allowed and significant programmes are needed to turn this around.

If you want your business to succeed, start with a more professional approach to people management. You may have great products, services, technology, resources, processes, policies and methodologies, but without well-developed people, your business will not be able to achieve its objectives.  Hence, the need for a sound people-centered framework and culture within your organisation.

Yet, if we look around us, we see divergent approaches to the current economic situation. It appears as if there are three broad schools of thought: (1) The optimists are those who see opportunities despite the current economic down-turn. They decided to go for a “business as usual” approach or in some cases “business as unusual” in becoming even more innovative; (2) The middle group is cautious and have adopted a “wait-and see” attitude on how things will unfold; and then (3) The pessimists are cutting down on spending and not pursuing any new opportunities, they have fully embraced the “junk” mode in their thinking and actions.  While this type of categorisation may be too simplistic given the complexity of our business, political and socio-economic environment, the reality is that we need to make choices on how to deal with our customers, staff and suppliers over the short term.

While the economic situation is getting worse, the reality is that your people have not changed. Inside your organisation you may still have some of the best talent South Africa has to offer.  Newspapers, magazines, competitions and tournaments continue to showcase successes and depict the stories and journeys of those who have made it in the pursuit of making talent shine.  Again we are presented with an opportunity to celebrate our people and to inspire newcomers to raise their game as the bar is set high for talent to excel.  Not only do companies compete for talent, they also collaborate for talent, and we need more collaboration and celebration in the talent space.

Once again with Workers Month as our national theme, we are reminded that acquiring, developing and retaining the right talent for business success is the most important task of management.  All organisations are dependent on workers and the best talent to drive production, service delivery and ultimately performance. Companies require talented leaders and specialists like engineers, accountants and other staff members to deliver business performance – thus, in one word – talent. In a world of scarce resources, new and innovative models will have to be found to acquire and build talent, and these models will be talent management models.  It is therefore not surprising that talent management is a top priority for business globally. Yet, as a country we still need to do a lot of hard and dedicated work to raise the standard of talent management. Talent management is not a programme, it is a mind-set and culture to unleash the potential and talent of people. Fortunately, we have some good progress in recognising talent. The process of instilling talent into our national culture has started by many organisations when they champion their talented employees as shining examples of what can be achieved when we set talent up for success.

Having said that, the stark reality is that the average South African company does not perform according to the National Talent Management Standard. Now that 35 companies have been audited against the standard, it is clear that more work needs to be done to achieve a more integrated approach to talent management.  The average score of twenty companies audited against the national talent management standard is 45%, thus clearly signalling a need to improve talent management in South Africa.  Hence, the need to professionalise talent management and to build a high level of organisational capability in talent management.  Despite this challenge, pockets of excellence are emerging and leading companies have fully embraced talent management as a key capability in business today.  In fact, leading firms now follow an “abundance” approach, rather than the traditional skills shortage mind-set.  Creating strong talent pools is in the interest of everyone. Traditional approaches of poaching talent is making way for building, sharing and multiplying talent within and across sectors.  Talent management is here to stay and it is the duty of human resource and line managers to optimise talent management for the benefit of organisations and society. Implementing talent management provides companies with an opportunity to create meaningful people-centered organisations in which people will excel to deliver their best.

But new and sustainable talent is needed to sustain performance and to create new talent pools. The current talented individuals and teams on the sport fields are clear evidence of the need to build sustainable talent pools, not only for current competitiveness, but also for future success. Business can learn from these efforts in the world of sport.  While potential is often praised, the real test is in sustainable performance.  The ultimate opportunity is therefore to acquire and develop the best talent and to build high performance individuals and teams who can perform in a consistent and sustainable way.

The science and practice of talent management provides direction, focus and hope that young talented people are indeed our future leaders and specialists in turning societies around into a nation of high performing talent ready to achieve excellence in raising competitiveness.   There is simply no time to waste on superficial debates about the talent war or talent gaps. In fact, the talent war is over, it has been won by talent. That is the reason why talented people are in demand and can thrive in any part of the world, despite challenges, poverty and unemployment in their own countries.  The professional and business successes achieved by Indians and Zimbabweans all over the world are but two examples of what people can achieve in different environments, even when their own countries do not benefit from this talent mobility. Ultimately, the challenge is to create people-centered organisation cultures – an environment in which people are respected and can thrive in reaching their potential.

This article challenges readers to become leaders in people-driven organisations focusing on talent attraction, development and optimisation when we make our work places talent places.  We often fall into the trap of blaming government, SETAs, the economy and a range of other stakeholders for our problems.

It is evident that President Ramaphosa has a new positive vision challenging all stakeholders in society to turn this negativity around in building a prosperous country.  This requires a shift from blaming to working together in achieving successes. But who will we blame if we don’t develop and optimise our own people in our workplaces? Who will we blame if we don’t retain our talent?  We often focus on the unemployment crisis, but what about the level of under-employment, i.e. people who are not developed and utilised in the way they should be.  It is my hope and wish that business and other leaderswill continue to put people at the centre of our conversations and discourse as we take our people, organisations, country and African continent forward with a renewed focus on people as the key driver of success in business, government and society at large. Let us use Workers’ Month to get us all talking about people-centricity and applying proper people management in the workplace. Let us create people-centric workplaces and an overall people-centric society in South Africa.

Marius Meyer

CEO: SA Board for People Practices (SABPP)