Making Labor Day More Meaningful

August 31, 2023
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Leaders, what do you think of when you think of Labor Day?

It’s more than just a three-day weekend here in the U.S. Maybe Labor Day should be a time to think about our responsibilities as leaders and the part we play in making sure the people within our span of care know we care about them.

For quite a while, I’ve quoted this statistic from a Gallup poll: The number one determinant of happiness is a good job, which is defined as meaningful work among people who you enjoy.

Here’s another definition from Gallup:

“A good job is an individual’s primary identity, their very self-worth, their dignity — it establishes the relationship they have with their friends, community and country. When we fail to deliver a good job that fits a citizen’s talents, training and experience, we are failing the great American dream.”

As I’ve said over and over again, every one of us, no matter what our job or where we live, simply want to know that who we are and what we do matters. As leaders in business, we have the awesome responsibility to let people know that they do. We have a responsibility to recognize the inherent dignity in our people and honor that, not break it.

We have a duty to create meaningful work for those within our span of care. We should cultivate caring, empowering environments in which our team members can come together to share their individual gifts—marry their passions to their skills— in the creation of value for themselves, for others, for the organization. We should do our best to help them see the joy and happiness that is realized from achieving our shared vision together.

Meaningful work helps to honor and preserve our dignity.

So, what does dignity have to do with Labor Day?

Labor Day was started in the United States in the late 1800’s as a response to the poor working conditions people faced as manufacturing expanded. A continual eroding of dignity in their work because of unsafe environments and lack of leaders with the skills and courage to care.

We give the Industrial Revolution and the evolution of business over the last century a lot of credit for raising the standard of living – providing housing, shelter and food. People can get jobs with a more predictable income and afford better housing and education. Which is true.

But as industry grew, wealth creation became more important than the people within the business or the preservation of their dignity.

CEO’s began getting high salaries and stock options to maximize shareholder value. It was all motivated by wealth creation. There was no interest in the preservation of dignity. And, as business leaders began placing the highest value on creating shareholder wealth, they also began to create a poverty of dignity in the world.

Now technology has advanced to the point where robots and artificial intelligence can do jobs quicker and more efficiently than people. In the last 40 years, this second industrial revolution has not only reduced jobs in factories but has affected almost every profession. And every day there’s new speculation about how technology will be harnessed in the continued prioritization on shareholder return and profit and the dire consequences the American worker will face.

So, as we reflect on our responsibilities as leaders to those in our span of care this Labor Day, what should we be thinking about?

It starts with shifting our thinking from the highest priority of creating shareholder wealth to the organizational balance of People, Purpose and Performance. It’s not one over the other. It’s not about the shareholder above the other stakeholders. At Barry-Wehmiller, we capture this in our vision statement we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.

When people have meaningful work and an understanding of how they contribute to our shared purpose and, as a consequence, perform at a level that helps keeps the company stable, we foster a virtuous cycle that provides a stable living for our people while being good partners with all of our stakeholders. When we foster caring environments where team members have opportunities to become their best selves, they are happier and healthier because they feel valued and understood by their leaders and teammates.

When they feel fulfilled by the time they’re spending away from their homes and families, they are inspired and energized instead of stressed. And when they are with their loved ones, they share that joy and fulfillment instead of the stress and bitterness of feeling unappreciated and insignificant.

This is what I mean when I often say: Business can be the most powerful force for good if it only cared about the lives it touched.

As the Gallup quote above says, “A good job is an individual’s primary identity, their very self-worth, their dignity…” Leaders, as you spend time with your families and friends this Labor Day, take a moment to reflect on your awesome responsibility to those individuals in your span of care.

Maybe we should keep in perspective how much we have to give to the people within our span of care, instead of how much we can get from them.


Hear more from Bob Chapman in the below video, a recent interview for the Ashoka Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network, which you can read more about here.

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