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Are employees becoming job 'renters' instead of 'owners'?

Some employees demonstrate a long-term "ownership" mentality at work, while others see themselves as short-timers with a renter's attitude. James Heskett asks whether we are turning into a nation of job renters

By James Heskett
Published: Nov 16, 2016

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An “owner” - either a loyal employee or customer takes responsibility for improving relationships, products, and processes
Image: Shutterstock


There’s an age-old question: “Does anyone ever take a rental car to the car wash?”

For years, Bill Marriott instinctively has picked up trash as he walks through hotels managed by his company. I’m convinced that he does it because it sends a message to other managers about the importance of assuming an ownership mentality toward the business and its customers.

Flash forward to the recent disclosure by the leadership of Wells Fargo that it fired 5,300 of its employees for manipulating customers’ accounts. I assume it was done, often without their customers’ knowledge, in order to meet goals for achieving “deeper” relationships with them. The number of a bank’s services supposedly used by each customer is a way in which Wells Fargo (and many other banks) measure customer loyalty.

The behaviors of the bank’s leaders have already been litigated in the press and before Congressional committees. My interest is in the 5,300 who were fired. Were they fired for cheating to meet goals for customer loyalty (and ironically risking customer loyalty in the process)? Or were they fired for refusing to participate in a management ploy that could only create a net long-term loss for the company, measured in part by its broken trust with its customers? In my book, the first group exhibited “renter” behaviors. The second group, on the other hand, were behaving as “owners,” something my colleagues Earl Sasser, Joe Wheeler, and I have researched and written about.

In our work, we found that an “owner”—either a loyal employee or customer who takes responsibility for improving relationships, products, and processes as well as referring new employee candidates or customers—can be worth more than a hundred “renters—”those who are only involved with the organization to complete one or more transactions.

Owners are like found gold; great organizations seek, develop, and encourage them even though they may sometimes seem troublesome as they point out new ways of doing things or object to a dumb management idea. In the specific case of Wells Fargo, it might warrant finding those who were fired for objecting to what was going on and hiring them back.

The concern here is about psychological, not financial, ownership. The objects in question are organizations and relationships, not real estate or other physical assets. There are many situations where job renting can make good sense. Entire business models, such as Uber’s, are based on job renters. Employee loyalty and referrals are peripheral, not central, to their success.

Rather, the concern is about the future of ownership behaviors in organizations increasingly populated by a new generation of managers. We’re told this generation is fueling the shared economy, in which physical things are rented and shared. But will that provide any clue to how they will regard their jobs and the health of organizations and relationships?

Will they take a renter’s or an owner’s attitude toward the organizations they inhabit and increasingly lead? Will they adopt policies that encourage others to become owners or, as in the case of some of Wells Fargo’s leaders, renters? Are we becoming a nation of job renters? What do you think?

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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