Kim Center speaks with Manpower West

Mel Katz and Phil Blair, owners of Manpower West

Kim Center for Social Balance
April 4, 2018
By Hei-ock Kim

Manpower West is San Diego’s fourth largest for-profit employer, providing staffing solutions and skills training since 1977. Owners Mel Katz and Phil Blair were recently honored by the Women’s Museum of California for promoting women in workplace leadership. I sat down with Phil to talk about his perspective of gender equity in the continually evolving working world.

What are some of the cultural changes through which you’ve shepherded Manpower West regarding evolving gender roles?
Well, the good thing is that our core thinking from the start was simply that the best person gets the job. Maybe that was ingrained in our upbringings, but when people ask us about it or give us an award, it’s more like we look back and go, “Oh yeah, we’ve always done that.”

I will point out that college graduates are now over 50 percent female. Men, and my two sons know this, will get left behind if they assume they’ll get a conventionally “male job” over a woman just because they’re men.

At Manpower West, we don’t care if you’re 69 or 16. Whether you have four children or no children. We don’t care about your gender or if you’re gay. We want the best person for the job. The rest is irrelevant.

How do you handle resistance from customers who feel differently?
It happens rarely, especially because I think our image is out there. Usually it’s a tiny startup company that thinks men or women do certain jobs better, but I tell them, “Uh-uh, I’m not writing that down, I didn’t hear that!” and educate them. If we can’t enlighten them, then we don’t take the work because that’s not the kind of company we want to do business with.

We do need to educate people. I mean, we really are an advisor to a lot of companies because we’re so involved on the employment side. Another example is the “Ban the Box” law, which eliminated the checkbox on job applications asking about past felonies. We’re huge believers in that, and sometimes we get unhappy customers we need to educate that you can no longer ban felons. However, in the end, we will not service a customer that insists, “I don’t care what the law is, no felons.”

What do you think other companies can do to break the stereotypes?
Our theme here is that we hire for attitude, then we train for skills. Once you say that, you free yourself to find talent from unconventional places. Maybe someone has great assets but just wasn’t exposed to certain job skills because of cultural limitations.

I love seeing male nurses and elementary school teachers because they flip convention on its head. Children need positive male images in caregiving roles. Now, I admit right now our own staff is mostly female and most of the leadership are men, but that’s circumstantial. We tend to keep people a long time and, for example, twenty years ago the best candidate for CFO happened to be a male. He’s still with us, but our previous CFO was a woman in her 50s.

The MeToo movement is making everyone reevaluate acceptable workplace behaviors. What are some questions men need to be asking themselves right now?
I think this is going to be a tough year or two and you’re going to see a lot of relationships changing. Number one, there’s that gray area of physically not knowing what to do. For example, if I greet two women and I’m comfortable hugging one but unsure of the other so I shake her hand, will it look like favoritism?

Or if a woman isn’t comfortable with a male supervisor welcoming her back from vacation with a hug, it’s not so easy for her to say, “I find that uncomfortable.” If he’s otherwise well-meaning, he’s going to feel terrible, but it’s also important to help men realize the reality of female reports thinking, “He has power over me so if I want to keep my job, I may have to accept X.”

This is why Mel and I insist that our HR Director support staff first and leadership second. We are very clear that she’s there for the team. If there are incidents, she has full authority to handle them discreetly, fairly, and effectively.

It sounds like you believe that leadership should bear a good share of the responsibility for ensuring fair treatment for women.
A friend of mine said he meets with his female employees every six months to ask if they’re being compensated appropriately. Whereas with the males, he only meets once a year because, “Lord knows they will let me know, and the women won’t.” I sometimes have to do that too. I also rely on my HR Director to tell me right away if any woman in this company is not being compensated equally with men.

I think it’s true that women are not as likely to ask for raises as men. So I just doubled the salary of a female branch manager because she’s doing a great job and I see the value. I could have waited a year, but now I’ve got the most excited, motivated person who’s going to double the business because she feels like an owner now and got the recognition she deserved.

It’s up to management to not only say we are a fair and equal employment company but to show it. And to make our best effort to really talk about women on boards and in CEO positions, especially in large public corporations.

Having a CEO, board, and senior management that represents your market is good for business. You may have to work harder if you’re not getting representatives from a certain population and you may not always find what you’re looking for, but you always need to keep your radar up.

Your book, Job Won, advises people on how to improve their hireability. What do you hope to start seeing more of in female candidates?
I don’t really see a difference between men and women, but in general applicants have to meet us at least halfway. They’ve got to be confident and say, “I can do that job.” I do know that’s harder for women.

Becoming a better salesperson for yourself might require thinking differently. Instead of focusing on what qualifications you don’t have, give me, “What courses do I need to take? What certificate do I need to succeed?” When I do career coaching, I tell people, “Okay, it says MBA and you don’t have one. But you can say, ‘I’ve already signed up at USD and I’ll have the MBA within 18 months.’”

Now, I can’t make you a CPA just because you have a great attitude, but I think with most jobs you can do that. Plus, if I get a candidate with a great attitude, I’ll try to help her or him get whatever is needed.

Also, if a caregiving responsibility is important to you, male or female, acknowledge it to yourself and look for the right boss. Ideally, your boss says, “Go pick up your child from daycare! You’ve got your priorities straight.” But if your boss isn’t like that, that’s your particular reality and life’s about managing your choices.

At Manpower West, we’re very supportive of people’s caregiving needs. We don’t have a policy, but if, for example, a man wants five months of paternity leave, more power to him. How we treat employees is why people stay here so long.

Everybody deserves a fair opportunity to succeed. We don’t assume a woman can’t do a job because she has to pick up her child from daycare, or say that a man shouldn’t be the one to pick up his children.

What do you think companies can do to keep the issue of gender equity fresh and everyone motivated to continue addressing it?
Well, I think it’s a double-edged sword because, while we need to pay more attention to recruiting and treating women fairly, you don’t want to create quotas. It degrades the employees who do get the job and deflates employee morale in general.

I do think top management has to keep pushing in a consistent, reasonable way the message that you’re open-minded and don’t see “male jobs” or “female jobs.” Then, as long as you’re fair in your searches, the best candidates should win. If two candidates are truly equally perfect but one struggled harder because of his or her background, you might choose that person. In the end, though, you’ve got to be able to say you picked the best candidate for the job.

Hei-ock Kim is Executive Director at the Kim Center for Social Balance, a nonprofit dedicated to creating workplace gender equity by transforming the beliefs and behaviors that obstruct women’s success.

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