My Dining Hall Name: I'm Not Just Headcount!

08/03/2010 10:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was in college, one of my odd jobs was to work at the dining hall. Not the world's best employment option, perhaps, but it did have an upside as coworkers quickly became friends. The work was a drag, and struggle breeds solidarity.

One of the strangest things about my dining hall experience was the name tag. During orientation, we were told that it was important for everyone to wear a name tag, because it was a key value of the dining hall to provide a personalized dining experience. Customers needed to know that you were not just an uncaring, white-aproned server drone, but a real person. We were then led to a wall of pre-printed tags with a variety of names.

"What if my name isn't here?" someone asked. The answer was unbelievable: "Just pick a name you like and wear it. The point is that customers see you as a person. It doesn't matter what your name tag says."

Needless to say, this quickly became a joke among dining hall employees: "I'm a real person!" "What did you say your name was again?" "That doesn't matter."

Of course, this strategy failed miserably at its stated goal. To begin with, it sent an obvious message from management that all employees are infinitely replaceable. Being young and impressionable, we caught on quickly and came to behave as such. Worse yet, when a customer called me "Henry" or "Dale" or whatever name tag I was wearing, I invariably failed to answer, and as a result the customer got the sense that -- you guessed it -- I was an uncaring, white-aproned server drone. But how could I possibly remember to answer to someone else's name? How could it not be worth a few dollars -- a few cents -- for my employer to label me with my own name?

Fortunately, I haven't seen this policy in place anywhere else. Unfortunately, I have seen a similar approach to employees and coworkers in many companies: one that treats them as interchangeable worker drones -- "headcount" -- and thinks of them as equipment to be moved around.

Has this ever been done to you? Have you been guilty of this as a manager, leader, or colleague yourself? I know I have. "I'll just put so and so on this, or on that, because that's where we are shorthanded." More often than I'd like to admit, I've thought of employees and coworkers like I was playing checkers, treating all the "pieces" as interchangeable. Staffing levels must factor into work assignments, to be sure, but they needn't be the only consideration.

My best successes as a leader have come when I've treated people as people, not as equipment. Yours probably have too. Everyone has unique goals, unique strengths, unique capabilities, and unique situations. It's only when we comprehend these attributes -- when we task people with work suited to their natural skills, motivations, and interests -- that we truly lead. When I've remembered this fact in my own career, I've created more engaged, more effective, and (I daresay) happier organizations.

It is not as time consuming as it may sound. Try this exercise: First, choose a coworker or someone who works for you. Make a list of as many unique things about that person as you can. List what you know about that person that differentiates him or her from the others in your workplace. Most likely, you're already gathering this information, consciously or not. Ask yourself honestly, are you incorporating what you know into your interactions with that person? How might you use what you already know as a basis to learn more?

Next, get even more personal. Make a list of the unique things that differentiate you from your coworkers. Ask yourself how aware your own superiors are of those things. How you might educate your management further about your uniqueness? Which of your own strengths or interests would, if made known to those around you at work, serve to improve your workplace experience? How might sharing this information also serve to further your career goals?

We don't have to hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and be best friends in the workplace to be productive. We must, however, learn to see each other as unique individuals, and learn to play ourselves and each other to our specific strengths. The more we do, the less likely we are to treat each other like faceless equipment with interchangeable name tags. The last thing we want, after all, is a work environment populated by uncaring, white-aproned drones.