Vive la revolution: Employee unrest
Rushika Bhatia

Vive la revolution: Employee unrest

 Uprisings, protests and conflicts are in the air. We are used to reading about it in the newspapers and watching it on television but have recent struggles indirectly triggered a wave of unrest amongst employees? Nothing so dramatic, argues Mo Elzubeir, Managing Director of Mediastow. Employees rarely want to hurt their employers and the company – they just want to be heard.

Vive la revolution: Employee unrest

The call

A friend of mine calls me, frustrated with his staff. He was blaming me for convincing him to create incentives for his staff because they have now become too demanding. “They think it’s a revolution!” he exclaimed. “I’m going to fire every single one of them! They think this is a game!?” he blasted. He was angry enough that I had to turn down the volume on my phone’s speaker.

“You and your incentives programmes! Where did that get me? I give them an inch and they want the whole yard!” I listened, holding back my laughter. You see, my friend is an animated guy. I’ve learned to give him a few minutes to cool down before a conversation can start.

“What happened?” I asked. “They all got together and decided not to come to work because the new bus route was too early for their liking! Imagine that! They think they can force me to do what they want!” he went on. He was angrier than usual.

You often hear about how companies and bosses are evil, overworking their staff and underpaying them. Rarely do I ever come across someone telling the other side of the story. It’s a problem many people face when their start-up take on a more settled shape. Graduating from a start-up to an SME is not all fun and games.

I remember thinking about how I wanted to handle HR in my future company during my college years. I took every HR course I could and, aside from marketing and my core computer science courses, HR was a subject I took a great interest in.

I had it all figured out as I sat taking notes in my MGMT3860 Human Resource Management class. It all made sense to me. Then, I found myself in the position to actually make these decisions. Nothing made sense anymore.

Ideals vs. reality

You can’t offer healthcare if you don’t have money to pay for it. You want to pay your staff more but outgoings keep draining you at every opportunity. You are constantly strapped for cash and clients aren’t paying on time. Employees are restless; they don’t appreciate late salaries. Rent is due, Internet bills are mounting, reality hits.

Budding entrepreneurs know this struggle all too well. We march on and deal with it. Given enough hard work, good planning and a bit of luck, we come out of it and settle into the SME phase. But now, your staff have increased and decisions are no longer arbitrary but are based on policies. The organisation takes a life of its own. Procedures, policies, rules, regulations – the makings of everything you hated when you were employed are now very important tools that are essential for your company to scale.

So, when my friend was telling me that his staff are not motivated and are always asking for more money, I took an interest in his problem. He told me how he has tried giving increases and it only resulted in more demands. Frustrated, we sat over many cups of coffee and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Not mine; I don’t smoke, but he sure did smoke for the two of us.

People respond to incentives. Ask any economist. It’s actually one of  my all-time favorite paradigms. I toyed with this in our organisation with varying degrees of success. I can’t claim that I have discovered the holy grail of employee incentives in our organisation – far from it. I think it’s a constantly moving target that requires a lot of work. So, why did my friend have what he called a revolution?

It all started with moving the transportation pick-up time by ten minutes. It resulted in 30% of his staff missing work. It’s a strike, which is not tolerated by the UAE Labour Laws. Here’s a question from the Ministry of Labour’s site on Disciplinary Rules [1]:

What is the procedure followed in charging a worker with a deliberate crime involving assault on person or property or crimes related to honour and honesty or the offence [sic] of unlawful strike?

It’s put in the same sentence with assaults, crimes related to honour and honesty. It really is very much frowned upon. So when people strike, they’re either ignorant of the law or have decided that it is no longer relevant to them – consequences or not. This is not a good place to be with your staff.

Ten minutes? My friend insists that this whole region’s political unrest is to blame. Watching protests everywhere has made it so much more likely that his employees will take such a stance. “They must think we’re some country and they want to revolt!”

Time out

I’m not entirely dismissing that the political unrest in the region has made people more likely to take a tough stand against what they perceive as injustice. That is not a bad thing in itself. The problem is, what is injustice?

Ten minutes is hardly injustice. It’s a bus route’s schedule. The bus is uncomfortable, the ride is long, the work is hard and then, a new schedule. They add up and someone eventually snaps. Here’s the thing though, most people don’t want to hurt the company they work for. They want to be heard but it is very rare that someone wants to actually harm their employer. So, the first step to remedy such a situation was to sit everyone down and understand the reason behind this overreaction. Then, explain how that affects the company.

It’s easy to make your staff understand you if you have a track record of incremental improvements in the workplace. I had my friend enumerate all the good things he has done for his staff since our initial incentives discussions happened a couple of years ago.

He has improved working hours, instituted a two-day weekend, and created a weekly and monthly cash bonus based on performance evaluation. Thursdays were officially pizza day for the office. He couldn’t understand how they would repay him with such a harsh response. He felt betrayed.

I advised my friend to sit his staff down and explain to them how he felt – about what he has done and how they have reacted. I thought it was essential that they see how he saw things. In my experience as an employee, the only time I recall a boss speaking to us so frankly was the only boss everyone respected.

It turns out, they were upset that new employees were adding to their travel time and no one really thought about their boss and how it was affecting the entire company. They just lashed out without thinking about the big picture. In fact, the ten minute delay is not so much the problem as the travel time on the way back. He has agreed to change the way the drop-off happens so people don’t spend too much time stuck on the road.

Vive la revolution: Employee unrest
Mohamed Elzubeir, Managing Director, Mediastow

The next day, everyone was on time. Not only were they on time, but the bus didn’t even have to wait for them.

Talk to your staff. They’re people too.


Mohamed (Mo) Elzubeir is the Managing Director of Mediastow, a media consultancy firm established in 2005 which provides communication evaluation, measurements and analysis, which helps to make companies’ communication programme more accurate and efficient by managing it better.

Mediastow is a member of The Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC), the global trade body and professional institute for companies and individuals involved in research, measurement and evaluation in editorial media coverage and related communications issues.

At the 2010 SME Advisor Stars of Business Awards, Mediastow was a finalist in the category of Media and Marketing

Mo graduated from the University of North Texas with a Computer Science degree. He has had a keen interest in journalism and marketing. After working in the IT industry, a stint at the Saudi Research and Publishing Company provided the necessary bridge onto the media research field.