Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Most Benefit, The Least Harm

There was a lengthy article in the Globe and Mail today, the full text of the article can be found here:

It isn’t surprising to hear that unions are struggling, if you think back about 15 years ago we saw unions such as the CAW recruiting new bargaining units from industries that were not related to auto workers at all, such as hotel employees; at that time the auto industry was experiencing many challenges and the CAW went looking for other arenas to grow their membership in.

Now, with a tanked economy, a divisive federal government, and business owners with a public outlet creating incredible pressures against union demands in both the public and private sectors it is little surprise that union leaders are publicly admitting just how devastated their organizations are now. Add a public who have seen their standard of living erode and the increasing loss of a sense of being heard and any advocacy organization will have increased challenges.

Are they out of touch with the workforce of today? Maybe. It is also true that there is a perception of union membership being that of people, who are vulnerable, under-educated and overpaid; or alternately of a ‘thug’ mentality as some would depict union members. This of course, ignores the professional unions but in this case they seem to be categorized as lazy and greedy. If a business owner believes that a union will cut too deeply into their profits or make day-to-day operations more difficult then attributing negative characteristics to the members of a union appear to be one way of discouraging employees to apply for union certification. If a government is closely aligned with business owners then using legislation to essentially negate the bargaining strength of the union negotiators is a way to not only appease those business friends but it leaves the union members with a sense of hopelessness in the bargaining process. It also helps alter the way voters may look at unions that closely identify with unions, making them appear to be ineffective and out of touch. To the taxpayer who is self-oriented, an attitude that they do not want a union member to have a pay scale or benefits that the taxpayer does not already have. Perhaps it creates a negative impression that they are paying for those pay and benefits out of their tax dollars or increased product prices at a loss to themselves. Us versus them is an attitude that we are seeing increasingly in this country. Read the comments after the article and you see an unfortunately typical response, pitting citizen against citizen, without a reasonable solution in sight.

I am not pro-union or anti-union. As I do with organizations that affect large groups of people I look at the facts, the pros and cons, what will produce the most benefit and the least harm, and what takes into account the future, not just today. But when we descend into name-calling and promote adversarial approaches to issues that affect people each and every day and the future well being of many, we lose. No matter what we believe in, no matter whom we support, when we descend into that behaviour, we lose. And so does the well being of the citizens of our country.

HR & That Social Stuff

Recently there have been a bit of a storm about employers either asking for Facebook passwords or demanding that job applicants sign into their accounts while the interviewer looks over their shoulder to read their content or that they ‘friend’ a person in the organization thus giving access.

It should not be news to any HR practitioner that this practice is unacceptable and raises serious concerns about hiring practices in general. There is some consensus that this is not something that is widespread but there is little in the way of gathered data to know one way or another. It is possible that it occurs more often than one might think or less often that the media storm suggests. We just don’t know. It is, however, worth discussion and that this is taking place is a good thing. What has been highlighted is how little understanding there is among the general population about social media, hiring practices, employment law, privacy legislation, human rights and ethical norms.

The use of social network products has become widespread especially since mobile devices have become much more user friendly and allow simple everyday actions to be photographed, tweeted, posted on a social network and thus shared across a much broader range of people than ever before. This has put some pressure on the lines of privacy that were previously considered cultural norms, resulting in a flurry of activity in updating privacy legislation in many countries and creating discussions about appropriate behaviour from many angles.

In hiring practices the general principle is that people being considered for employment are assessed based on their ability to perform the requirements of the position. In some roles that also includes considerable intrusion into a person’s character and behaviours in addition to evaluating their technical abilities. For example, in roles that include access to financial data or accounts a credit check may be required, in some jobs a criminal record check may be required. These reports are acquired from a third party, financial rating organization or a police department and only include relevant information. However, social media products have opened a door to access to information about candidates that would not have been available previously unless you have private detectives following people about or interviewing their friends, family and neighbours.

Smart employers will have a third party conduct a social media review and that third party will only pass on information that is applicable to the position being hired for as defined by the employment laws and human rights acts. To do otherwise not only opens an employer up to legal actions or human rights complaints but it can lead to a backlash via that very same social media if an applicant believes they have been unfairly eliminated from a job competition based on information that does not relate to the role they applied for.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Outsource or Not-What Are The Human Costs?

Outsourcing Has Human and Financial Considerations

Often when I read articles talking about whether or not to outsource support functions in organizations, they focus primarily on financial costs and metrics that refer to customer satisfaction surveys. I have also seen articles that talk about the benefit of outsourcing much of the administrative nature of HR so that HR practitioners can be freed up to focus on strategy. I have worked through HR task outsourcing and IT outsourcing and I am not convinced that those ideas are always as great as they appear to be on paper. There is a human cost in all this outsourcing that business executives would prefer not to discuss in any meaningful way. When mass layoffs occur they often outsource some aspects of that activity to a third party.

Understand the Financial Perspective But…
I understand the value of outsourcing from a financial perspective, but my question lies with whether the ‘on paper’ financial value really does outweigh the value of doing things in-house. Having heard all the arguments for that to date, I still am not entirely sure which is the best answer. But perhaps the “Occupy” movement provides some clues-the loss of community, the loss of jobs, the seemingly unfeeling nature of placing a dollar value on everything and seeing that dollar value as being more important that the humans that are affected. Perhaps the backlash costs provide some clues as to some of the very real costs that are ignored in these decisions.

Humans-Remember Them?
If your job title includes the word human or people in it-isn’t direct interaction a significant part of the deal? And what is lost when we send opportunities for face-to-face interactions out to a third party? Do we gain more than we lose? This is something that is hard to measure and as outsourcing has been around for so long now it would be hard to measure the impact as many people won’t remember what it was like to have a person within the organization to talk to when having problems with benefits or signing online for programs in the organization. Or the value of having a competent IT support person to show up and help with a problem, face-to-face.

Culture, Trust & Communities
Another point to consider is that when we outsource any role to a third party we are also displacing people within our organization, which has a deeply unsettling affect on the culture and the level of trust in the organization. We see so much about ‘engagement’ these days but if you are wondering when your job is going to be outsourced just how engaged do you feel like being? Outsourcing also affects the communities the business operates in and it is not likely that the effect can be measured in financial or statistical terms precisely, but it seems within the realm of reality that it is a significant effect.

Hiring Unemployed People?
I read another one of those discussions about why some companies refuse to consider unemployed people for employment recently-they have been popping up quite a bit since the recent economic meltdown. The argument that people get laid off because they are incompetent or lazy or a troublemaker seems to be the going thinking among some. Yet when we look at the massive numbers of layoffs (we have seen numbers such as 15,000, 30,000, 3,500 etc.) in some organizations it defies logic to believe that an organization could have recruited hired and retained that many problematic employees. That would say a lot more about the executives that laid those people off than it does about the employees. Is it really reasonable to believe that if a company laid off 30,000 people that all 30,000 were as described by those who refuse to consider people who are unemployed? And what about outsourcing-about two years ago a very large local data processing company decided to outsource 80% of the jobs held locally to India. That does not mean those employees were in any way at fault-it meant that the business, which by the way is a multi-billion dollar business, wanted to reduce costs by outsourcing to a country where they could pay far less in wages than they can locally.

Right or Wrong?
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer and it is likely one of those “it depends” situations. I do believe it is time we started placing a higher value on humans than we do on dollars. It isn’t necessarily good business to take the “profit as the only goal” strategy when the potential human costs are so high.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Are External Recruiters Providing ROI?

March 2012

Last year I started a small consultant business, hoping to work with small and growing businesses. The intent was to help these businesses be successful over the long term because while most business owners are focused on sales and wowing the customers with their great product/services the day to day support of the people who work in those businesses is often left aside as something to think about ‘later’; some human resources requirements are not prudent to leave to later as there are legal implications which, ignored, could lead to very expensive and devastating circumstances. In addition, paying attention to the people that work in your organization matters over the long term because the way they feel at work affects the way they approach their work.

A Change Sort Of

Recently, I applied for a position with a crown corporation. This may seem counter-intuitive to switch from an independent consultant to a public service role, but the agency in question had hit the news in a big splash last year over allegations of egregious bonuses paid to executives and mismanagement in general. This year a recruiting agency posted a job for a Director, Human Resources in which they proclaimed a desire for change. If one was to believe the job posting they truly wanted change, truly wanted to become better able to provide excellent service to their clients. But I was not sure how sincere that was. I was also intrigued, enough to submit my application for consideration because if they did, in fact, want that kind of change, it would be an exciting role. Crown corporations are not known for efficiency or excellent customer service. And I wasn’t looking to work full time for someone else. But the prospect of real change, the kind that gets people excited about their work and energized to accomplish more-that did intrigue me. So I submitted my application to the recruiting agency.

My Lesson As All Negative Experiences Are

Now, I think it would have been best if I left well enough alone although I will take some time to learn from the experience and perhaps provide better service/products to my clients.

What Happened

About a week or so after I submitted my application I received a call-I had just walked in the door and was headed back out for a meeting. It was the recruiter from the agency screening for the crown corporation. She wanted me to talk right then and there without warning. I noted that I was on my way to a meeting and requested a scheduled date/time. I did get the impression that this was not well received but it was conceded to, after, some complaining about a “busy schedule loading quickly”-which is designed to force me to accept a time suitable to the recruiter with little if any consideration for my schedule. But, hey, I am a flexible person. So I agreed to her time the next morning and then set about rescheduling my entire morning (including inconveniencing other people) to suit her. Not that she appreciated that at all. Instead she spent time complaining that she had tried calling me numerous times the day before and the calls would not go through (no one else that day complained about a problem at all and since her supposed calls did not register on my line at all the problem was likely at her end) but she left me feeling like it was my fault. She even commented that she wasn’t even going to try again. I think I was supposed to feel that she had done me a favor by calling this time. This whole conversation did not make me feel comfortable by any stretch of the imagination but as is my style, I approached the next day with a positive mindset. After all, this was the external recruiter, not someone from the organization.

So: 11:30 AM the next morning comes and goes. I am in a quiet space suitable for a discussion about a job but my phone does not ring, and does not ring and does not ring. I start to wonder if the phone problems she announced the day before were occurring. I start to wonder if I wrote down the wrong time (not likely, but you think about these things) and I start to wonder if I should just get on with my day. What if she was not going to call as promised at all? Then 14 minutes later, (14 minutes feels like a lot in limbo) the phone rings and it is the recruiter. Asking if I am at work, if I can talk ……even though we specifically scheduled this time the day before-did she assume I would not have been prepared?

The whole phone call went steadily downhill from there. I ended up bowing out at a point when I realized if I spent any more time on the phone with this recruiter that I could only feel worse. She was extremely condescending, very dismissive of my accomplishments over the past seven years (she only considers being a paid employee of a corporation or a crown corporation to be valid as indicating competency) and by the time I realized I had to end the call, blatantly insulting. It was a truly horrible experience and if the organizations that hire their services are unaware that they are treating people this way they are not getting a good return on their investment.

So, if you use external recruiters, do you know how they treat applicants? Do you really know-because not only I have encountered rudeness before (although this one was by all means the worst) I have heard from quite a few people that they have experienced some really disrespectful behaviour from external recruiters. Do you use ‘mystery shoppers’ to determine if your external recruiter is representing you in a positive manner? Because like it or not-the way they treat people they do not even forward on to you is the way those people view your organization. When was the last time you really truly understood what the commission based recruiter was providing and how they represented your organization? Some are great at what they do and some are not. It pays to run a quality check.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spring, Greener Pastures and Change

Now that a new season is near it seems fitting to think about what to let go of that may clear the way for new adventures and possibly improving our current relationships and work experience.

Change is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about; mostly to the ways it affects organizational culture and how that culture and the people within it responds to change. However the way it affects our non-work life also can show up in how we manage at work, something HR people help others to deal with on a daily basis.

Change, Control & Insight

Some changes we have a certain amount of control over and some we do not, but what we more often do have control over is how we deal with it. There is something that right now feels like a big giant obstacle that affects me every single day and has been doing so for several years. It is one of those things that create a conflict within because it relates to some really fundamental needs; things that help me stay comfortable and happy. It affects my sense of self and my outlook, my energy levels and how I view events as they unfold. I tend to be a pretty even-tempered, calm and happy person but when my “Maslow” bottom tier needs are under pressure ‘normal’ starts to feel like work.

It is within my control to change it but the only solution that I have control over, after looking at things from several angles, is one I am not prepared to use. And hence my dilemma, a concern that the solution to a problem will create a situation that may not be enough of an improvement. In some ways it is like that “greener pastures” dilemma-and certainly something we all encounter from time to time. On the other hand I also have the feeling that I am missing something, a solution, that regardless of trying various ideas to resolve the problem simply hasn't popped up. And I can't shake that feeling, a certain logic says there is another answer.

I can make a change that will resolve the problem, what I can’t be sure of is whether or not that really is the core problem or if something else is going on. There is a sense of missing something. The why of this dilemma is one that is seemingly simple; I can’t change someone else or force that person to act. I can only choose how to deal with a problem and make a decision based on my own requirements. As I only see one solution my decision will not affect just me-it will affect another person significantly.

Things That Help

I have always been a big fan of journals as they often help us uncover the solution to a dilemma when we look back on them; and they can show us where we stand on the change resilience factor. In addition to journals, I have utilized professional coaches and wise friends often enough. But this time, having tried all those routes, I am still left with a problem that requires a solution I do not want to act on.

And the signs of Spring showing up outside my window create a sense of urgency, that it is time to make a decision and act. It is part greener pastures and part a simple rite of Spring but it makes a situation feel bigger and the need to change it feel more compelling. Although maybe in reality it is no more urgent or compelling than it was last year, or the year before. It is puzzling in some ways as I am not used to this type of indecision and it is my ongoing hesitation that has me wondering what is missing-what key factor is escaping my attention.

What dilemma is creating the sense that you need to act in your world? What helps you when faced with really difficult choices? What do you do when all your 'go to' methods don't work?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Integrity, Respect, Metrics & HR

I spend a lot of time thinking about what happens in organizations from how cultures develop and evolve to how individuals can manage to survive and thrive in a change driven world. Over the past several years I have moved from using social media tools to increase and improve my connections with others and to learn and share information to considering social tools in the context of organizational culture and change resilience. It has been an interesting path and I have come across some really interesting perspectives. Some competencies hold true as aiding HR practitioners in navigating through constant change and the pressure inherent in being the go to person for people focused topics. And there are some things HR practitioners should just stop worrying about because if you are honing these competencies the rest will take care of itself.

(1) Systems Thinker: able to use systems to design and explain the key aspects of programs or interventions you wish to introduce in a manner that also shows how those interventions will affect the culture, the people and other programs. This is mandatory and if you are not familiar with systems thinking Barry and Karen Oshry are very knowledgeable on this topic. Google them. You can also read "The Art of Systems Thinking" Joseph O'Connor and Ian McDermott for a fairly decent grounding. Understanding this will make a huge difference to how you approach everything you do in your work. It should be mandatory as a competency for all HR practitioners.

(2) Collaborate: what exactly does this mean? HR practitioners should be role models for this competency. This means collaborate with people who work in radically different fields than you. It is amazing how much more effective everything you do will be. Oh, it is also a competency that is enhanced by a good understanding of systems thinking. Collaborating also requires that you learn how to incorporate diverse ideas into one effective program or process and when compromise may be required.

(3) Don't worry about the seat at the table. It will suddenly show up when you aren't thinking about it if you are accomplished at (1) and (2).

(4) Stop referring to the people who work for the organization as "talent", "capital", "assets" or "the bottom line". They are humans. They bring some pretty great stuff into the workplace and some kind of messy stuff too. Deal with it as a whole. Reducing them to stats, numbers, things and buzzwords won't get you where you need to be. And they pretty much cringe when they hear that kind of talk-so please stop doing that.

(5) Business acumen: uh oh, what does that mean? It means-understand the way business in general works and the way organizations in general work (see #1). Then go out of your way to understand the business realities that the operations managers and all the other employees face every single day they are at work; not just about the company you work for but the industry you work in and if some other industry might just be taking market share away because they have a better widget or whatever. Just understand it. Job shadow as many roles as you can, ask questions-lots of them. Get the concept so you know what every decision/program/policy/advice you offer will do to the people that work there and the business itself.

The number stuff- you don't have to be a mathematician or a statistician- but be able to understand what the numbers on the annual report mean, what the costs you incur mean in terms of gained revenue or customer engagement. That stuff. The finance people will do the rest. As for the metric fad, be realistic. Not everything in HR can or should be measured and it is possible to create more harm than good in going too far with the metrics. Also, how much time do you spend measuring things and writing and analyzing it all? More time than you do interacting with people? If you do and your primary job responsibility is not metrics you may want to rethink your approach.

(6) Integrity and courage: they kind of go together. Sometimes you have to gather up the courage to do the right thing. To stand up to the person with a "C" title when they are about to do something really wrong. Sure, your job means you protect the organization from unnecessary legal problems etc. but not at the cost of the respect, dignity and fairness to the people who work in the organization. Your role is not to be pro this side or that side but to figure out how to accomplish the best outcome with the least damage to all concerned.

(7) Respect, intercultural and intracultural: understand what it is and what it means to diverse populations. This is pretty hard but it is very rewarding for the organization-it really, really is.

(8) Humour-have a lot of this. Be able to laugh at yourself.

(9) A Ducks Back: what??? Okay, I live in a rainforest and "water off a ducks back" has been a saying I have heard my whole life. Or maybe a Teflon shield works for you. Whatever it is-sometimes you will get it wrong, sometimes you will get it right and sometimes you will be on a fence somewhere. You are human. Integrity, respect, courage and humour-that will get you a long, long way in HR. And those things are a nice way to role-model for others.

(10) David Letterman taught us that lists have 10 items. Sorry but this is as good as number 10 is going to get. However, it is also an opportunity for you to provide #10. What do you think-is there a number 10 that really counts?