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The For All Workplace in the Global Economy

Speakers: Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, UC Berkeley

In this keynote, Professor Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and the author of the new book, THE SYSTEM, focuses on the importance of front-line workers, why and how they offer huge potential sources of value for companies, and the three hidden ways of tapping into that value.

For more information on THE SYSTEM, please click here.

Show Transcript
Michael Bush:

Our final speaker for today is Professor Robert Reich. Robin rice is the Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration for which time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. Reich's newest book is The Common Good. He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary, Saving Capitalism. Highly recommend it, which is streaming. Now please give a warm, great place to work for all welcome to Professor Robert Reich.

Robert Reich:

Well, thank you. As you can see, the stock market has worn me down. Really, before last week I was six foot five. It's just, it's been devastating. Actually, I am an economist. I hate to say that. An economist is somebody, as you may know, who didn't have the personality to become an accountant. Did I just insult anybody here, put up your hand if I did. No, it's lovely to see you and welcome to San Francisco. For those of you who are not San Francisco natives and I understand you've had a great conference and I'm so delighted to be able to be here with you.

Robert Reich:

The workplace and making a workplace work for everyone is critically important. It's something that I take very, very seriously and I care a lot about and I just want to say one thing about the economy and workplaces, you can't separate them. That is the stock market, we can joke about. Stock market is really not the economy. The real economy starts at the level of the business and the real economy of the business starts at the level of the frontline workers, people who are there every day, people are doing the jobs that are critical to making and providing services, people who are actually the central agents of that company.

Robert Reich:

And how many of you are HR professionals? Can you put up your hands? A lot of you. Many of you know firsthand and many of you who did not put up your hands obviously also know what I'm just about to say and speaking to the converted is always very exciting because a lot of people say yes, they nod their heads in agreement, but I have spent a lot of my life trying to speak to the non-converted because there is not everybody out there who understands the value of workers and particularly frontline workers. I used to, when I went into organizations or into companies, in fact I still do, I administer something I called my pronoun test, my pronoun test. I just simply asked people fairly randomly to tell me about this place, tell me about how it is, how it feels to work here.

Robert Reich:

And I listened not only for what they say, I listened for the pronouns they use because if they use the pronouns they or them in describing their workplace, I know it's one kind of a workplace. If they use the pronouns we and us, I know it's a very different kind of workplace. And the we/us workplaces are succeeding because people feel that they are part of something. People feel that they are in a common enterprise with other people. People feel a stake in the success of that enterprise. They and them kind of workplaces are workplaces in which the people that I interview say to me in all sorts of ways that are very subtle, this is not a workplace where I feel that I'm really included. This is a workplace where I feel like I'm working for them. I feel like they are over there and I and my colleagues are over here. I feel like I really don't have that degree of stake in the workplace that the we/us workplaces have.

Robert Reich:

Now how do you get to be a we/us workplace as opposed to a they/them workplace. What are the key ingredients? Well, I've thought about it a lot. I've combed the country for the last 35 years talking to people and interviewing people, had a kind of a free floating focus group across this country and in other countries. And I've concluded that one of the most important things, and it sounds trivial maybe, but Iwill talk about it hopefully in a way that doesn't sound that trivial, has to do with one word, and that is respect. And let me talk about respect.

Robert Reich:

And my first job was working in Washington, DC for Senator Robert F. Kennedy in his Senate office. Now this was a while back. Sometimes I talk to my students, I'm still teaching, I teach at [inaudible 00:05:31] Berkeley. And my students, I talk about when I worked for, and I advised the Obama administration, I talk about when I was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. And they're very curious. And then I talk about when I worked for and was an advisor for the Teddy Roosevelt administration. And it's at that point that a few of them say, no, that can't be, but very discouragingly to me, more and more of them sort of nod their heads.

Robert Reich:

But it was that summer when I was an intern for Robert F. Kennedy that I learned something about respect. Now my particular job and that role was to run his signature machine. Do you know what a signature machine is? A signature machine, they don't do them quite like this anymore, but in those days there was a pin at the end of a long kind of wooden arm and I would have to take the letters to constituents that all of the assistants and secretaries had written and line them up very, very carefully in this signature machine and make sure that they were perfectly, perfectly lined up so that the pen at the end of the long wooden arm could write Robert F. Kennedy when I pushed a button. It was not the most efficient thing in the world, but it meant that I spent long days. In fact, I never saw Senator Kennedy except for once, and I'll tell you about that in a moment.

Robert Reich:

But it was a glamorous job in the sense that it was Robert F. Kennedy and he was the brother of John F. Kennedy, and it was very exciting. But actually day by day I was just doing, working on the signature machine. And after about two months, I was so bored that I would come in at night to the office and I would write, type letters to my friends on Robert F. Kennedy stationary. Dear Mr Dworkin, congratulations on having the largest nose in New York state. Robert F. Kennedy. And they would put these letters on. My friends were very excited. They put these letters, they still have them.

Robert Reich:

But along, about two and a half months doing this, I was ready to leave. I was so bored out of my gourd. I was waiting for an elevator in the Senate office building and lo and behold, first time I saw him the entire summer, out from the elevator bank came Robert F. Kennedy. And I just stood there, I didn't say anything, but he was surrounded by people, by his advisors and he was doing very important things. And he glanced at me for a moment and I was struck dumb. I thought, what if he asks me something or what if he tells me something or what if I have to say something? And he did ask me something. He said, how's the summer going, Bob? How's the summer going, comma, Bob?

Robert Reich:

You see, he knew my name. Senator Robert F, whose name I had been writing or using on the signature machine for months and months, sending to my friends all over. Senator Robert F. Kennedy actually knew my name and I stuttered, fine Senator. But I was so filled with a sense of excitement and gratitude. There is no greater sign of respect than knowing somebody's name. And I would have run that signature machine for the next six years if he had asked me, maybe not, but certainly another three or four months. But in there was a tiny little lesson that I've used from that time onward and that is respect. Understanding the value of even a lowly intern enough so that you bothered to learn his name.

Robert Reich:

I went on years later to become Secretary of Labor and I tried to emulate that lesson, not just knowing people's names, but respecting people. It was hard because the Secretary of Labor runs a department of the United States government and there are 20,000 people in that department and you can't possibly know everybody's name. But when I got to the department, first day I was standing in line, I decided that I would get rid of the executive cafeteria because all the executives would eat together and the regular employees would have their own cafeteria. And one of the things I first did, I got rid of the executive cafeteria. I thought it would be important that everybody eat together. And so I stood in line with my plastic little thing that you foot food on, tray.

Robert Reich:

And I was in line with the other employees. It was just, it was the first day actually, of the Clinton administration. And the first day I was Secretary Of Labor and I stood there and the person who is in front of me, she turned around, somebody who had worked there, I suppose for a long time. And she said, hello. I said hello. And she said, I don't recognize you. Are you here? Are you new? And I said, yes, yes, this is my first day at work. And I said, well, what do you do? And she told me that she was a secretary for someone and she asked me, what do I do? And I said, well, I'm secretary. And she said, for whom? I said, for Bill Clinton and she said, oh that's very nice.

Robert Reich:

And I didn't want to, I was embarrassed. I didn't want her to feel awkward. So I didn't really say well, I'm your boss. But about a week later I ran into her in a hallway and she looked very flustered and her face turned red. And I said, I'm so sorry about that little interaction we had up in the cafeteria. I didn't want to make you feel awkward. And she said, you know, that's all right, it made me feel so, so respected. It made me feel so included.

Robert Reich:

Now what I tried to do in my own bumbling way and that was a pretty bumbling way of doing it, was to go around the country and talk to as many members of the department of labor as I could possibly find in meetings. Meetings that were approximately this number of people in all of the meetings. And I would stand up there with the general council, the solicitor of labor, and I would ask for ideas. I would simply say, we are and I am eager to get your ideas. I want to listen to you. I want to know what you think. You are the people on the front lines. You know better than anybody where we can do a better job. I don't know. Top executives don't know. You know. Tell me how we can do a better job.

Robert Reich:

And of course at first nobody wanted to put up their hand. It's very risky to say to a boss, here's what we can do better. It's much easier not to say anything. And so how do I, I asked myself, how do I get the trust of employees enough so that they actually will come up. They know they have all kinds of ideas. They've had ideas for years. They know what should be improved. They know what could be improved. But how do I get them to trust me enough so that they will actually come up with those ideas or to trust their supervisors. And the only idea I could come up with was that I would eventually, when somebody did come up with an idea, when somebody was courageous enough to put up their hand and say, I want to suggest something. I would listen.

Robert Reich:

There's something that I want to stress to you. I call it eloquent listening, eloquent listening. It's about listening generously and openly. It's about listening in a way that you are willing to either change your mind or you are willing to be as compassionate as you possibly can. It's listening that repeats what other people say when they say it to you. It's listening that has a kind of mutual respect inherent in it.

Robert Reich:

I would ask them for their ideas and somebody would give me an idea of finally, finally, after many, many of these meetings, some employee was courageous enough to stand up and say, Mr. Secretary, I think what we really ought to do with unemployed workers, when we find out that somebody is unemployed, we ought to right away, we ought to profile them and find out if they are likely to get their job back again soon. If it's in an industry that is subject to fluctuations of the economy and if we think that they're not going to get their job back again, we should get them into job training, job search assistance, job counseling right away so that they have a better chance of getting a new job rather than waiting around for the old job.

Robert Reich:

Now I could tell that this employee had thought about this for quite some time and I said that's a really, sounds like a great idea and I want to look into that. And we did look into it and about a month later we made changes in the unemployment insurance laws in the United States so that exactly as that employee suggested, if somebody lost their job and was unlikely ever to get that job back again, they would immediately get job training, job search assistance and every other aid that they could get and were eligible for to get a new job again. Now the interesting thing about that, that saved $2 billion a year in unemployment insurance because it meant that people were getting jobs quicker instead of waiting for the next job. $2 billion. We use that $2 billion for job training and job search assistance so that the net cost to the government was zero.

Robert Reich:

That employee had been sitting on that idea for five years. How many other employees, frontline workers are sitting on ideas? How many people have the answer to questions that are never asked of them because nobody bothers to ask them? Now I certainly learned a lot as a manager. I had great weaknesses as a manager as well. One of the things that I have found going around the country talking to great places to work for all, and I love the for all, it's like Medicare versus Medicare for all. I thought I'd just get that in. Is that there are resistances. That is one of the biggest problems that many of you face, I know has to do with managers and executives, chief financial officers and others who are very, very worried or at least they have their eye on, not the things we've been talking about, not great workplaces for all, not inclusion, not respect, not some of the other things that I've been talking about and you've been talking about for the last three days.

Robert Reich:

But instead they are looking at cashflow, they're looking at costs, they're looking at profitability, they're looking at quarterly profits and losses. And the reality is that for the last 40 years, 40 years, the median wage in the United States adjusted for inflation has not increased. 40 years. Now when I say median, I'm not talking about average, you know the basketball player, Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James and I have an average height of six foot eight. No, no, no, that's not average. We're talking when we talk about median, median as half above, half below. The median wage in the United States has not increased, if you adjust for inflation, real purchasing power, in 40 years. Now the American economy is more than three times the size that it was 40 years ago. Do you understand where I'm going?

Robert Reich:

It's one thing to talk about respect. It's one thing to talk about inclusion. It's one thing to talk about listening, eloquent listening. It's one thing to do all of the things that we think are important and you would not be here if you didn't think they were important. It's another to acknowledge that we are in a system right now, that not because there are any villains and this is not about vilifying anybody, but to acknowledge that we have an economic system in which half of our population has not had a raise in 40 years and you cannot keep an economy going unless people have enough money in their pockets to spend and keep that economy going. Or let me put this another way. 68% of the entire United States economy, this is almost 70%, 68% is consumer personal services spending, consumer spending. 68% is consumer spending.

Robert Reich:

If consumers are not earning money, if they're going into debt as they did leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, if they're going into debt, there is inevitably going to be a problem. There's going to be a debt bubble and that debt bubble is going to explode or there's simply going to be a fragile economy because there's not enough demand coming from consumers to keep the economy going. The stock market is not the economy. The stock market is just a very superficial assessment by investors of where the economy is going in the future, but there is no question in my mind that we are heading for a major recession. Not because of the Corona virus, but because we don't have enough purchasing power and we don't have enough purchasing power because we're not paying people enough. This is not just a matter of being good or doing right or doing the nice thing. Yes, that would be nice too, but it's also a matter of keeping the economy going.

Robert Reich:

Now finally, let me just say this. Many of you, particularly those of you who are in HR, may not be aware of it every day, but you are heat shields. What do I mean by a heat shield? Anybody who has the term relations in their title, human relations, government relations, community relations, employee relations, whatever. If you have the word relations in the title of your job, you are by the very nature of your job likely to be a heat shield because you are shielding, in this case, management from what might otherwise be discontent out there. The problem with heat shield jobs is they melt. What we all need to do and to try to be are heat conductors. Instead of with regard to government relations or human relations or employee relations or community relations, instead of trying to hold at bay and make people feel as if they're fine, what we really need to do is make sure that top levels of management understand the essentials of creating collaborative workplaces, of creating communities, of creating inclusive workplaces.

Robert Reich:

Now I salute what you are all doing. I salute the kinds of efforts that you have made and this organization has made and this conference has made to try to create workplaces that are truly inclusive, truly listening workplaces, workplaces that honor all employees, not just the employees who are at the middle and at the top, but employees who are at the front lines as well. But to do that and to do it honestly and to do it well, it's necessary to convince those who have the power and authority in the workplace that they've got to give frontline workers better hours, better working conditions and better pay. That has not been the case for 40 years.

Robert Reich:

Nothing is as important, in my book, as making workplaces that work for everyone. Nothing is more important than ensuring that where you work, the jobs you have, how you work, are the kinds of ideas, the kinds of challenges that we all accept, we all understand, we all value. You are very much therefore all of you on the front line. Some of the divisions and anger in our society right now come from the fact that so many Americans are frustrated and anxious and concerned because they have not got ahead. Because this generation Americans for the first time since the second world war is not enjoying the kind of upward mobility that their parents and their grandparents enjoyed. Because this generation Americans for the first time since the second world war does not see a future for their children that is better than a future for them. Your responsibility, just like my responsibility, is to make sure that we share the benefits of an economy and a society that should be working for everyone. Thank you.