Remember that old suggestion box that your company used to keep? It started out in a conspicuous spot and now it is used to prop up a makeshift bookshelf. Its initial rollout marked an era of employee feedback and new ideas for ownership and management to digest and implement. That was back in the day when employees played an integral part in the business and were rewarded for their loyalty. Remember that?

I may be playing the melodramatic card here, but the point is how important of a role do employees play in your business? Are you a success because of them or in spite of them? My money is on the former and not the latter. But I bring up this point because of a book I recently read, titled Company by Max Barry.

In his book, Barry describes a secret company (Alpha) within a company (Zephyr), which exists for the sole purpose of bettering itself at the expense of employees who have no idea who they work for or what goods/services the company produces.

In one amusing speech, a senior management staffer tells employees, "We did not hire you to fill your lives with happiness. Your welfare is not the goal here; Zephyr's is."

These absurd statements are befitting of a large corporation where endless rows of cubicles are bunched in the middle of stark, barren floor space and employees rarely have the opportunity to interact with real customers. In Zephyr's case, there was a lot of simulated interaction going on and a lot of "what if" scenarios that lacked any real-life role playing.

In other words, Zephyr existed to experiment on the ways real companies should interact with customers and employees, but never adopted these ideas. It's an interesting book and it might not be too exaggerated, either.


In the real world of HVAC contracting, employees should be encouraged to voice their opinions about working conditions, ways to interact better with customers, employee relations, etc. The best way to run a successful business is by having happy, interactive employees.

But are you doing your best to encourage happiness? In the most dire of circumstances, when customers are hot, bothered, and stacked up in the appointment book, are contractors taking enough time to pay attention to their most valuable resource? I'd like to think so. OK, I do think so.

Wait, did I just agree with myself? It sounds a little self-serving. I really think that most HVAC contractors take the time to listen to their employees and get them involved in the business. The best employers empower their employees. Yet as pleasant as that sounds, there are still employees who don't think they are appreciated or respected. That's not unusual. In fact, it's quite mainstream.

On some pretty high-profile Website chat rooms, I've read a lot of gripes and downright nasty statements made from the keyboards of HVAC techs, who use the anonymity of the Internet to vent some of their frustrations about their working conditions. A lot can be learned from reading some of these tirades.


It may not be the ideal time to start visiting chat rooms and reading the pontifications from disgruntled techs. But I wouldn't ignore these postings, either.

In many cases, I think that employees are looking to draw attention to themselves by pushing the limits of Internet etiquette. They sprinkle in some choice substitutes for obscenities and use choice body part adjectives to describe their bosses.

If you can cut through this rhetoric you may be able to hear an employee asking for help and reaching out to you. You may find that simple communication and involvement in business practices is all the attention they really want. You may learn that a little more listening can go a long way to keeping employees happy and productive.

Do I advocate bringing back the suggestion box? Absolutely. I think it is better to air out ideas (and complaints) in a company setting rather than to read an employee's dirty laundry on the Internet.

Go dust off that old suggestion box and give it a fresh coat of paint. Tell your employees that the best suggestion next month will win them a $25 gift card from a local restaurant and at the end of the year, choose a grand prize winner and give him or her a weekend at a nice hotel/spa.

Don't be the Zephyr of the HVAC contracting business. Give your employees a reason to like their work.

Publication date: 11/20/2006