When you bestow your Blue Collar Workers – which includes your contractual and gig workers - with the recognition that is their due, you automatically recognize the next big growth opportunity for your business. Yes, it's time to bring the magic of the economy’s forgotten demographic back to work.
What’s common to Gandhi-ji’s freedom struggle, LGBT parades or the recent Black Lives Matter movement in the US that saw nearly 26 million people take to demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others?
Each is a fight for the right of Recognition. The same one Martin Luther King Jr was pursuing with his iconic “I have a dream” speech. The same reason sublime cricketing talents like Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock went mostly unnoticed by fans of the sport (because South Africa was banned from international sports due to its anti-black Apartheid policy). And the same glory FIDE (the International Chess Federation) continues to chase by trying to turn chess into an official entry at the Olympics.
Recognizing its stakeholders is the secret sauce for an organization looking to scale from merely good to truly great. In fact, without fair recognition, a team is just a collection of IDs. And there’s a big difference between Facial Recognition software that captures physical attendance and Human Recognition Wavelengths that confirm emotional belonging.
For ages, Blue Collared professionals – teams involved in delivery, construction, operations, maintenance, security, logistics & warehousing, machinery & equipment, sales & customer services, back end & tech support and vehicles & driving, distributed among contractual staff, on-Demand armies and gig forces - have remained the marginalized stepsons & daughters of the economy when it comes to the currency of Recognition. This, despite their accounting for around 70% of the work population.
It is a result of the social stigma that comes with a resume that doesn’t need to feature Ivy League qualifications or isn’t weighed down by super-sized compensation packages, the stuff White Collar teams take for granted.
That, however, is changing. As the universe of work increasingly shifts to a gig or contract format, as urbanization adds more and more hands to the Blue Force. As trends in talent strategies force HR leaders to reboot approaches to luring Blue Talent, this tribe is increasingly gate-crashing into a party that was, for the longest time, the exclusive preserve of White Collars. Why should White have all the fun anyway?
The most important question that comes into our mind is what does recognition mean? Paul Ricoeur identifies as many as 23 different shades of Recognition, grouping them under three main categories: Identification, recognizing one’s self and mutual recognition. Several minds have opposed this school, claiming that mere identification does not qualify as recognition. Real recognition, they insist, must carry a critical aspect such as regard, evaluation or feelings – whether negative or positive.
The operative concept when it comes to recognition – indeed from the perspective of contemporary societies and businesses - is ‘MUTUAL’. According to theories by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (both with shared roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau), mutual interaction is what lends meaning to our own existence concerning our environment. It acts as a mirror, introducing us to ourselves by giving us a sense of ‘who we are’ and creating a consciousness of self-worth.
This self-awareness is then used as a context or benchmark to decode others’ attitude and behaviour towards us. Bats measure the dimensions of their surroundings by emitting waves that echo back, the time taken for the return giving them an accurate sense of the depth of, say, a cave.
Recognition works the same way. You get a sense of your own place in the algebra of society by analysing the vibes that return to you after echo-ing back from others. Yes, a bit like a boomerang.
The beauty of this picture (or its irony, depending on your view) is that the existence of ‘the other party’ is critical to our sense of self, and fundamentally influences our definition of self-esteem. For example, A boss’ sense of superiority over a worker may give the boss certain leverage. Still, the fact that the very stature of the boss depends on the worker’s opinion (of the boss) levels the equation back, allowing the worker to wield a unique kind of clout.
This fundamental interdependency, this see-saw of power if you will, is also what lends human relationships its complex, reciprocating flavour. Abuse of this power can lead to unfortunate outcomes. As we surrender our identity in the hands of others, authorizing them to give it shape and form, we turn dependent on them. With identity influencing roles, positions and pays at work, this act becomes a huge inflexion point, with the potential to permanently alter the course of one’s growth and fortunes in life.
While the mutual nature of Identity and Recognition may give the impression that it is a game that is, by definition, fair to both sides, in reality, it is not.
The HAVEs – with social pull and financial resources at their disposal - naturally have an advantage over the HAVE-NOTs. In such a setting, the identity of those lower down in the social pecking order becomes vulnerable to the judgment of those higher up. Yes, the see-saw will balance itself back eventually, but that may take time, and the transition may not necessarily be peaceful.
The anti-slavery scars of the USA during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency (that dragged the country to civil war) is just one of history’s countless reminders that the ‘correction of inequality’ isn’t always seamless, and can often be a bloody journey which leaves behind permanent wounds.
Except for some countries (like Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia and those in Scandinavia, amongst others) where skill is prized, prioritized and rewarded, Blue Collar workers around the world have – by and large – been traditionally deprived of the identity and recognition that is their rightful due.
In Hegel’s and Fichte’s interdependency model of identity that sanctions ‘others’ to paint the portrait of the Blue Collar worker (in the context of the community hierarchy), the picture hasn’t been a pretty one. Prejudice and bias have primarily ensured that this tribe receives the short end of the stick, be it in the matter of acknowledgement, inclusion or incentive.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Here is an ample opportunity for the corporate world to both (A) ‘correct’ a social wrong, and (B) open a window for business growth. After all, with its communitarian approaches pegged around an ethical system of meaning-bestowing relationships where people experience the needs, desires and goals of their alter ego, recognition lays down a fertile soil to reimagine a society that’s designed around concord, rapport and justice.
It is time leaders respond to their obligation and responsibility of ‘pulling up’ the Blue Collared worker through appropriate and innovative gestures of reassurance, appreciation and rewards. The positive boost in self-evaluation that will inevitably follow is bound to pump up morale, efficiency and productivity many times over. If you have been looking for a smart business move that builds sustainable competitive edge, this is it. There can be no sounder step than rebooting your Blue Collar Strategy, and knowing how to motivate the blue collar workers especially at a time when everyone is navigating uncertainty and needs to extract more out of their resources than ever before.
Hegel’s submission that human agents cooperatively construct reality, and that we gain self-consciousness primarily through recognition received from others, finds resonance with several scholars. Many stretch it a few steps forward, claiming that inputs like empathy and solidarity can catalyse this process by helping us stand in the other person’s shoes and look at the world through their eyes. Studies suggest that a child’s cognitive (thinking) abilities are positively impacted when s/he is emotionally attached to the environment and adds substance to the ‘Empathy Theory’.
Hegel and Fichte’s ideas, while having their merits, are not entirely without holes. Defining identity and recognition as a purely human construct (i.e., created and bestowed upon the human race by each other) makes it a normative concept. But where did the norm originate from? Human beings don’t really ‘invent’ their world (or the pillars of the reason that hold it up) from scratch –we are, instead, born into a prefabricated web of meanings.
Hegel’s theory, therefore, begs the question: Where did the first-ever human source his / her sense of identity and recognition from? Or, by extension, how does a newborn without sufficient human contact (or, for that matter, an aborigine / tribal bred in a very different space when compared to mainstream society) acquire it? Scholars explained this riddle by suggesting that social logic and patterns are factory-fitted into the sapien system and that we are by birth coded to act, behave and treat others in a certain way. This default ‘herd wavelength’, to which every newborn adds their own vibe, perpetuates the equilibrium.
All these theories seem to have one thing in common. They all agree on the importance of interpersonal positivity, and an appreciation of mutual traits, to sustain a progressive and peaceful society. Our identities, after all, go well beyond norms, and it is time we treated them that way. True recognition only happens through ‘humane-ness’ where we recognize each other as beings and not textbook hypotheses.
There may never be a theory that captures the meaning of existence in its entirety. It is equally possible that the search for a rational explanation of life is self-defeating and contradicts its very purpose, which is that life was never meant to be defined but experienced. Either way, the message is loud and clear: Adopt a human-first approach and get busy ‘living as one’. It is a simple, universally acceptable and growth-oriented template where everyone emerges the winner.
Respect, or dignity, has always been central to the idea of universal human rights. According to philosophers like Thomas Scanlon, the two-way contractual formula of recognition works because its core values match what morality demands. At the core of respect lies the voluntary (as opposed to a requirement by law) willingness to regard others as equivalent to one’s own from a human standpoint. A lack of it - manifest when we treat others as ‘second class citizens’, for instance - is the fountainhead of most of life’s agony. Healthy respect supports a pluralistic and tolerant society where the rights of those less fortunate are proactively protected, and where opinions that conflict with our own are heartily accommodated.
The role of Esteem is easier to understand and spot in an ‘unequal’ society, where certain specific aspects of an individual’s identity – such as sexual orientation (homosexuality, for instance) – clashes with the dominant value system or norm (heterosexuality, in this case). Recognizing these specific peculiarities and identities of the personality, or group revolves around an attitude of acceptance. It is important to note that such approval should not be a perfunctory reaction (‘going through the motions’ kinds), but must be a genuine response and a respectful interest in decoding the underlying reasons for the other person’s peculiarity or uniqueness.
Attachment – be it love or friendship – occupies a special place in Recognition’s ‘Hall of Fame’ since these are amongst the very first forms of recognition that we experience in life. Love, in particular, is an extreme form of recognition that goes beyond the acknowledgement of specific facets of an individual and covers the entire being. It can make the receiver of recognition irreplaceable in the eyes of the giver, and even give rise to instances where the receiver starts to demand recognition as an unconditional birthright.
Research tells us that Blue Collar workers are not sufficiently engaged in their jobs (certainly as much as they can be). A big reason for this is the lack of understanding of their world amongst corporate decision-makers who usually live in a ‘White Collar universe’. That has ensured that Blue Collar workers stay under the radar of HR and Talent strategies, resulting in a perpetual Blind Spot where Blue Collar grievances and tribulations remain mostly hidden from the gaze of business planners. Its high time we need to find out how to engage blue collar workers. The first step in fixing this vicious cycle is giving Blue Collar employees the recognition they deserve. Managing blue collar workers and motivating them is the need of the hour.
This is where we can draw guidance from Hegel, Fichte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s perspectives which place Mutual Feeling as the base of the Recognition framework. Blue Collar workers (just like everyone else) draw the contours of their identity based on the vibes they receive from others. This Boomerang method (as we have seen before) means that our attitude to them influences their own assessment about themselves, their abilities and lends meaning to their world. This is a great deal of power, which the corporate world must learn to wield with great responsibility. Doing it right will mean taking involvement, engagement and productivity to a whole new level. Going about this half-heartedly will mean the opposite, with the added risk of losing talent to competition or bringing on a hockey-stick cost curve to activate an increasingly demotivated Blue Collar workforce.
While the manifestations of a Recognition-driven Blue Collar strategy can happen through a carefully implemented calendar of thoughtful measures and personalized programs, the seeds of transformation must first be sown between the ears. Yes, a change in mindset and approach must precede all other change.
Attaching significance to effort makes the latter attractive and fulfilling. Research by various groups converges to suggest that while the definition of Meaningful Work (MFW) – and the opportunities to experience them – may vary across occupations (White Collar, Blue Collar, Pink Collar), the desire for work experiences that contribute to ‘the greater good’ and make a difference to society is universal. Talent leaders must therefore build a system that highlights the impact their Blue Collar workers engineer every day.
This is easier than you may think, despite the so-called ‘low value’ nature of most Blue Collar jobs. The driver, for instance, doesn’t just take you from A to B, s/he makes sure you don’t miss that important meeting appointment. The pizza delivery guy doesn’t just reach food, s/he helps celebrate birthdays memorably keeping morale up. Freelancers don’t just tick target-boxes on Excel sheets, and they add variety and quality into the mix, making your clients smile a little wider. The point is this: Every action begets a reaction. The trick is to spot it, track it, measure it, storify it, glorify it and ensure iteration by attaching it to appropriate and on-time rewards.
Research confirms that workers, regardless of occupational status, want their work to matter - to their inner selves, to the organizational think tank and the business bottom line. This is a case of intrinsic motivation where an individual is driven to an action by an inner push that doesn’t require external validation or justification. Intrinsic motivation co-exists in all individuals with the other form of motivation called extrinsic motivation, which pushes a Blue Collar worker to earn more material forms of gratification like money, indulgences and status. It’s hight time when employers need to understand the importance of blue collar motivation.
Realization and fulfillment of these two kinds of motivation are possible when one has the freedom to deploy one’s talents (while tinkering with new knowledge and skills to explore untapped potential and unexplored nous in new domains), leverage one’s innovative and creative abilities and get progressively and measurably better at what one does.
Leaders and HR departments can address this dual motivational yearn (intrinsic as well as extrinsic) with a nurturing and accommodative approach that personalizes worker-company engagement, encourages expression, provides mentoring-coaching-upskilling opportunities (which can, in turn, help in blue collar motivation and it also helps the worker enhance competence, command better compensation, earn more material delights and raise their living standard), empowers workers to track their own growth with data analytics and finally, acknowledges intent and salutes effort with on-time and on-point rewards and by looking for the incentive plans for blue collar employees .
As per studies, Blue Collar Employees value peer bonding and workplace relationships more than White (or Pink) collar workers. A sense of shared vision and values is essential to them and adds to the fulfillment and meaning they derive from their careers. In a space that doesn’t provide as many opportunities of learning and grooming (yet), this also provides the Blue Tribe with an important widow to share experiences, exchange ideas and stay abreast with developments in their chosen trade. Workplace designers and Talent planners must respond by providing platforms where workers have enough scope to interact both vertically and horizontally with peers, colleagues and co-workers - be it physically or remotely.
Business cannot be distanced from its community consciousness and social roots. Business leaders in the quest of growth must realize that it all begins with social transformation. There’s no better way to achieve that than by helping those at the bottom of the pyramid move up the formal economy. The process has already begun. Foresight-full players are ushering the touch of technology to push the boundaries of the Blue Collar universe.
“We are focused on addressing the $12 Bn blue-collar ecosystem in the country. A significant part of the funds will be utilised to strengthen the existing ecosystem using frictionless solutions powered by AI and machine learning,” says Pravin Agarwala, co-founder and CEO of BetterPlace, an organization focussed on the Blue Collar landscape.
“Engaging Blue Collar workers intelligently is the next frontier for businesses. We at XOXODAY are taking the digital route to achieve that peak. Our easy-to-deploy, WHY-FIRST suite of SAAS products allow Blue Collar workers, contractual workers and gig-freelancers to integrate better with their company’s core vision and system. Via better purpose alignment, success-behaviour guidance and incentivization, we are allowing both leaders and their Blue Collar Teams scale the next level”, says Manoj Agarwal, co-founder of people-tech firm XOXODAY.
As per a report by BetterPlace, blue-collar jobs and the gig economy will dominate the employment market in the coming years. According to Deloitte’s ‘Future of Work Accelerated’ report, three in five organisations (60%) are increasing the share of gig workers. Indeed, in its edition of ‘Employer Sentiment Survey’ (which surveys the top employers of the country), OLX People, a tech-powered HR Platform, forecasts a surge in Blue Collar hiring in the latter half of 2020 as the economy gradually ‘unlocks’. Spotting a significant pent up demand in the segment, LinkedIn India has forayed into the blue-collar jobs marketplace as well.
No matter where you are standing, the future looks a deep shade of Blue. How can your organization reposition itself to get the best out of them? A game plan reboot must begin by getting to know the Blue Psyche them better.
Katz and Kahn (1978) conducted a study amongst 233 Chinese employees (with a 96.6% response rate) which partially supported their Motivational Framework which states that a blend of external (extrinsic) and internal (intrinsic) motivation – implemented within a system of rules – can decrease employee turnover, but at the same time increase quantitative and qualitative standards of performance while boosting creativity and amplifying bonding.
In a study on what makes Blue Collar workers tick, Kristen Lucas (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Patrice M. Buzzanel (Purdue University) found that what mattered to Blue Collar workers is SISU- a Finnish term meaning self-determination and roughly translating to a feeling of being ‘Self-Made’ or making one’s own destiny. SISU instilled in this tribe a sense of dignity, pride and fulfillment even for work traditionally described as ‘dangerous and dirty’. Blue Collar workers with similar SISU bonded strongly, devised their codes and ‘Best Practices’ on what success and morality means (which didn’t always match company thinking and industry policies), could go so far as to refuse promotions to preserve cherished social bonds with peers, and largely rejected the White Collar models of success.
In a study conducted to determine what ‘Career Success’ means to Blue-Collar workers, it was found that a collectivistic culture that enables teamwork, nurtures mutual support and achieves goals collectively featured high as determinants of success. Interestingly, income was not mentioned in the same breath.
While it is true that financial incentive is a significant driver for the Blue Collar demographic, it is often not everything. While their inner circles usually meet their needs of bonhomie and bonds, the gap with the ‘outer’ world still exists. What Blue Collar Employees crave, deep down, is acceptance. What they truly need, after years of being ignored, is acknowledgement. Given the stigma associated with this ‘unorganized slice’ of the economy (stemming mainly from low qualification barriers to entry, labour-intensive nature of work and less fancy salaries), the areas to address first is perception and inclusion.
Turn your Blue Collar Employees into strategic business.