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On Being Scrooge - Part 1

We have just passed another Christmas, and most of us are ready to pack up the decorations and not think about holiday traditions again until November. I, for one, would mostly agree with that sentiment. I am perfectly happy not to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" on the radio or in the stores again for quite a while.

Some of the stories that are told only during that season, however, are worthy of being remembered all year long, and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is arguably at the top of that list. The tale of a cynical and crusty old miser who is transformed through the power of the Christmas spirit never seems to lose its ability to transform those who read it as well, or at least prompt them to think about how they could do better.

Image Credit: Disney

The opening chapter of the story portrays a self-centered businessman who has no concern for others, including the comfort or care of his employee. To reinforce this theme, Dickens describes the condition of Scrooge's office, which houses both himself and his clerk, Bob Cratchit:

The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

Not only does Scrooge create a miserable working environment, he also fosters anxiety in his employee the minute Bob tries to express his need for the most basic comfort. Contrast this description with what Scrooge experiences in the service of his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig:

"Hilli-ho!" cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk with wonderful agility. "Clear away, my lads, and let's have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Cheer-up, Ebenezer!" Clear away! ... It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life forevermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ballroom as you would desire to see on a winter's night...When the clock struck eleven, the domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually, as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas!

Here we see a complete contrast to Scrooge's office. A kind and generous employer, Fezziwig provides a warm, inviting workspace and the 1790s version of a company party. His workers are well taken care of and, as a result, eager to do their best. Even in 1843, Dickens knew the power of company culture.

But what, exactly, is culture in this context, and what does it have to do with economics? Without dithering over an exacting definition, we can all sense or feel a company's culture. It springs from a combination of leadership style, workplace policies and practices, compensation and benefits, transparency and accountability, and work/life balance. The effects of a positive workplace are well documented. An Oxford University study found that happy employees are 13% more productive than their unhappy counterparts. Workers who feel well treated are less likely to look for new jobs, thus avoiding expensive turnover. Companies with positive cultures have seen a fourfold increase in their profits, and corporations that make the "best companies to work for" list consistently see higher than average annual returns.

Employees in positive environments are also less anxious and have a greater sense of well-being. In tight labor markets especially, employers who have consistently invested in their workers have reaped the rewards. Check out any job posting site--from Indeed to Monster to Glassdoor--and you will see former and current workers' comments on each business. The companies with positive employee comments are much more likely to draw new applications and better applicants than those with negative comments.

So how does an employer begin building a positive company culture? The Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 gives us our general guideline: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." With this time-tested advice in mind, in Part 2 we see what creating a positive culture looks like and that everyone, including Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, benefits from leadership that cares. Join us there.

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