I’m Hesitant to Ask, But…

obstacles

Over my years as an HR practitioner, in a fair number of organizations, I had employees stroll into the HR Department and start a conversation with “I’m not sure if you can get this for me, but…”

This phrase, or some variation, has often been the preface to a request for a piece of equipment or some business item necessary for the adequate performance of everyday tasks and duties: 

  • A chair without a broken leg
  • A new pair of safety goggles
  • Pens
  • A paper shredder that could handle more than 3 sheets of paper at a time (as the close-to-tears Office Clerk referenced 6 banker boxes of records she needed to shred)

Now ordering office supplies and work tools for employees is not a resume-building highlight that many fresh-faced HR professionals envision when they embark upon their HR career. (Although it is worth noting that in many small/mid-sized businesses it often falls upon the HR staff to stock the supply cabinet along with the office kitchen).

What’s more note-worthy here is when employees in larger organizations (those with a purchasing manager, a facilities team, and department leaders with budgets and company credit cards) go to HR as a last resort in order to acquire the most basic items to adequately perform their job in a safe manner.

Is it because the manager is not paying attention to the work environment in which employees are toiling? Perhaps the manager is telling staff members there’s no budget to update equipment until (if it’s approved) 7 months from now.? Or maybe, as is common, there are numerous hoops to jump through – and 5 signatures required – to place an order for tools and equipment.

So employees do the best they can with the items at hand. Sometimes with disastrous results. “I didn’t think I could ask for…”

  • A new can opener for the office lunch room (replacement cost to company = $1.00 from the Dollar General located next door). In the absence of a can opener and, apparently in her eagerness to adequately caffeinate her office mates, Bridget felt it would be perfectly A-OK to use a butcher knife to open a can of coffee. The knife (hello Captain Obvious) slipped, she sliced her hand open, and Bridget ended up taking a delightful trip to the ER where she received stitches, pain medication, and, perhaps, a lollipop.
  • A 2-drawer filing cabinet to replace the cabinet purchased in 1989 (replacement cost to company = $49.95 at the local office supply store). The 1989 relic had jagged metal edges running along the tops of the drawers that had not closed in a functional manner for 20+ years. Ellen cut her hand while attempting to close a drawer and bled all over the A/P files.
  • A new set of protective coveralls (replacement cost to company = $7.00 in the company supply shop). Because Karl did not wear appropriate protective gear (i.e. without holes and with workable elastic bands at wrists and ankles) he became sensitized to the chemicals in the environment, developed an allergy (and an absolutely disgusting rash), was moved to permanent partial disability status, and lost his job.  Note:  Karl was fully authorized to pop in to the supply shop – every day – and get a new set of coveralls.

Now these 3 situations were obviously safety issues which, with hindsight and information in hand, led to various operational improvements – and some performance discussions with assorted shift supervisors/managers/HSE staff on the “coverall” one.

But there’s a lesson here for HR practitioners about paying attention to the basic operational efficiencies (or inefficiencies as the case may be) in one’s organization. One of our responsibilities, I strongly believe, is to remove obstacles and roadblocks that get in the way of employees doing their best work.

Sometimes an employee may pop into the HR office or send an email with a question. At other times, while wandering the building or having conversations with people in other parts of the business, HR staff will hear stories or comments that may, seemingly, have nothing to do with HR’s responsibilities (“What a pain in the ass; I’ve been waiting over a month for my expense reimbursement!”).

But you know what? That’s a golden opportunity for HR folks to wield their internal influence and raise an issue, work to resolve the problem, and remove the obstacle that’s negatively impacting the employees’ work experience.

And think about it…

If Joe in the Mail room is afraid to ask for a new stamp-licking squeegee bottle so he can get the mail out on time, do you seriously think he’s going to report fraud, harassment, or any of the other things we tell him to bring to our attention?

So what’s the real deal at your company?  I’m hesitant to ask, but…

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My HR “Customer” Experience

employee experience

I recently started a new job (sort of; my company was acquired) and, for the first time in my working career, I am NOT a member of the HR staff.

I don’t have to worry about learning the employee benefit offerings inside-out. I’m not wondering when I’m going to have to conduct my first employee investigation. (note: at a previous gig I had to kick-off a Sexual Harassment investigation at 1 PM on Day One of my employment tenure. #GoodTimes). I’m not worried about expeditiously memorizing every policy in the Employee Handbook. (confession: I’ve been feeling so carefree that I didn’t even read the Employee Handbook, in its entirety, until several weeks after my start date!)

This atypical experience has been simultaneously rejuvenating and surreal.

I don’t have to, as a new hire, observe my HR team to discern how cultural norms, procedures, and historical precedents dictate the inner workings of people operations. I’m not privy to the decision-making that has informed “why” the company has XX number of holidays or “how” employees are socialized and acclimated to the organization.

I am, instead, merely a willing recipient of HR’s services. I’m a new vessel, fresh off the OnBoarding Assembly Line, into which the People & Culture team is pouring information and assistance. I dutifully open all their emails, follow their directions immediately (“it’s time to enroll in your benefits!”), and attend every informational session and meeting whether mandatory or not. I’m fully immersed (I love this stuff!) into the values and culture and community aspects;I was posting on a Yammer community by day 3.

I think, if I do say so myself, I’m a great HR customer.

And it’s really confirmed something I’ve long believed – every HR professional, preferably at an early stage of their career (unlike me), needs to join a company in a non-HR role. When I think about peers and friends who work in HR I realize that the vast majority have always worked in human resources. Lots of them came out of school, landed a gig in HR, and have never gotten off the treadmill.

I get it. It’s a profession. And we’ve battled – seemingly for decades – for HR to be acknowledged as a profession. We’ve grown our HR careers by switching back-and-forth from generalist to specialist roles or moving up the ladder/criss-crossing the lattice from Coordinator to HRBP to Director to VP. There are some (many?) who say “HR is my calling; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” There are others who are content, comfortable and possess a soupcon of complacency (I get that too!) and don’t want to try something else.

But…

… how can we, the individuals in charge of designing and nurturing the environment for employees to be successful, truly understand the “employee experience” if we’ve never…well…EXPERIENCED “work” as an employee?

How many HR professionals have ever:

  • been subjected to their own HR-devised Attendance Point Policy?
  • had to navigate Benefit Enrollment without fully understanding the difference between co-pay and co-insurance?
  • held off on making plans as they’ve wondered if the company will close early on December 24th, like they have for the last decade, because HR refuses to memorialize it as an official “company holiday” (even though it sure seems to be one).
  • tried to figure out WHAT, exactly, “performance calibration” means and HOW in the world it seems to be the only explanation provided when annual performance increases are announced?
  • wondered how transfers and promotions happen for others yet they never seem to even get an interview (or a response) when applying for an internal move?

It’s the quintessential dictum isn’t it? “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Personally, I think I look quite styling in my new pair of pumps loafers flip flops.  

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You Can’t Put a Sweater on a Jellyfish

culture

A local friend, a hiring manager at her company, recently expressed frustration with the state of hiring in her organization.

“We get plenty of applicants,” she said. “Obviously some are better than others but we really have no problem with quantity and are able to hire pretty easily. Plus we’ve got decent benefits,” she added, “and above average pay.”

“But why,“ she wondered out loud, “do we lose so many new employees before they hit the 3 month mark? I’m super clear on job expectations and tell them WHAT they’ll work on and HOW they’ll spend their day. So why are they leaving?”  

(side note: she’s quite sincere and most assuredly not one who laments “no one wants to work anymore!” in which case I would have pointed out that our state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point since March 2008).

So why don’t people last beyond the 3/6/12 month timeframe? (And yes; we could unpack this forever and come up with numerous reasons. I’m quite partial to this simple nugget BTW).  But here’s what I think is one of the primary reasons for poor retention in those critical early stages:

Companies hire for the culture they want…NOT for the culture they have.

Nutshell.

Because a fair number of organizations, in the holy name of employer branding, share glossy manufactured versions of reality. They check all the boxes: creating great content, shooting Day in the Life videos, and having employees write reviews on their webpage. Good on them for having the right intent; candidates want to see that stuff since it’s better than 99% of the HR-developed job postings on the average company’s website (bullet points ad nauseum!!). But those videos – those “employee testimonials” – those employee authored blog posts – are merely ethereal pixie dust. 

  • No HR leader or recruiter is posting videos of the dudes back in the warehouse sweating in 100-degree heat with no Gatorade (only water!) and one 10-minute break every 2 hours.
  • No one asks Joyce in Accounts Payable (who has toiled for the company for 28 years and is bitter, frustrated, and pissed off because her salary capped out 6 years ago) to write a “testimonial” for the company career page.
  • And the Call Center Reps who churn and burn and cycle in and out within 30 days of hire? Do you think they’re going to make it onto the “Employer Branding Reel” that the Head of TA showcases at 4 Recruiting Conferences next year?

Of course not.

We want to hide our warts. So we take snapshots of parties and balloons and smiling, laughing, dancing employees. We’re certainly not going to post a picture of Bob in Accounting, forlornly cradling his head in his hands, at end-of-month close as he is once again waiting for the A/P team to get their act together.

Instead we share visions of the future – the hoped-for-state of endless sunshine and remote work (for those who want it) and ping pong tables on every floor (for those who crave coming to the office) and groups of employees volunteering at Habitat for Humanity.

“We have to get the right people on board to make that shift…to get us there,” we tell ourselves.  

“We know we’ll be able to innovate once we get the right people on board.”

“We intend to be better communicators!” (sotto voce: although, of course, we know we suck at it today).

We do care about our employees!” (well the HR policies are a bit rigid and draconian but we intend to change that once we hire the right people!)  

So we hire for our future state and bring on the people we think will plant the seeds for what we hope to become. The super innovator! The stellar communicator! The go-getter!  The light-the-world-on-fire manager with bold new ideas!

Then they come to work in the real culture. And leave at the 3-month mark.

Once again we’ve tried, too hard, to wrangle our jellyfish into a sweater.

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The Break-Up: Managing Employee Departures

employee departures

The way in which an employee is treated when departing your company is just as important as how you handled the process when they joined.

Remember that intoxicating time? You wooed and courted and promised them the moon. You shared your hobbies (“look at all our ‘employee engagement activities!!’”) and pet peeves (“please read our HR policies”). And even though your out-of-date and heavily photoshopped profile picture (“branding”) didn’t resemble reality (“actual culture”) in any way, you managed to convince them to come aboard.

But now they’ve decided to leave. The romance has soured or a more attractive suitor has arrived and lured them away. When an employee tells you “It’s not you – it’s me” (even though it may, in fact, be you) there are a few situations to avoid as you work through the break-up.

The Bloodletting

Asking an employee to leave immediately upon resignation is at the top of the list for inane moves. Granted, this may seem sensible for a salesperson who’s not going to be filling the pipeline with new leads if he’s walking out the door in 2 weeks, but what’s the point of tossing Carol in Accounting out the door the moment she gives notice?  Yet there are companies who apparently assume all resigning employees are going to gather all the corporate intel they can and sell it to the highest bidder. I’ve joined organizations where this was such the norm -and expectation – that resigning employees who had to work out a 2 week notice were actually offended they weren’t asked to depart forthwith.

The Shunning

Bob tenders his resignation and is immediately a pariah. He’s no longer invited to meetings and his name disappears from email groups. He can probably live with all of this but it pains him just a bit when his boss, the division director and, so it seems, the entire leadership team don’t even offer greetings in the hallway. One step removed from Hester Prynne. Poor Bob.

The Cortege

For those working on-site, a resignation (yes, even a voluntary one – see “The Bloodletting”) may result in a Security Guard (or HR staffer) materializing in one’s office door with a box. The box is for packing up photos of kids and assorted office knick-knacks (“Ma’am – is that YOUR coffee mug or does it belong to the company?”).  The Guard is the accompanying attendant for the mournful procession out-of-the-building while everyone in the building furtively avoids eye contact.

The Farewell Party

This is nice, right?  Sally gets treated to cake and punch and her manager gives her a gift card to Outback Steakhouse after he makes a speech about all her contributions and how she was an integral part of the team’s success. Her co-workers sign a card (funny and slightly ribald because Sally has a sense of humor) and wish her the best of luck. There are hugs all around with promises to stay in touch and get together for the occasional lunch or happy hour. But Sally feels a bit sad as she wonders “why didn’t they say these things and treat me this way during the 4 years I worked here?  If I knew this is how everyone felt I might not have looked for another job…”

Break-ups are hard; they tear off a little bit of your heart. And when an employee decides to move on and enter a relationship with someone else you may not be ready to say “I’ll always love you.”

But you can surely tell them “I hope we can still be friends.”

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The Road Untraveled

road untraveled

I have several friends who are avid hikers. They love nothing more than strapping on a pair of boots, grabbing a backpack and heading out for a long and vigorous walk criss-crossing the local trails.  

I understand the allure as some have described it; setting out in peaceful solitude through a tranquil and unspoiled forest. Traversing a windswept dune adjacent to a large body of water. Climbing rugged hills and descending into wild flower filled ravines with only the sounds of chirping birds to break the silence.

Yet, even in these seemingly pristine landscapes, they may come upon, quite unceremoniously, a discarded beer can.

The thought the hiker had, when setting out in isolation, was they were the sole human in years and years to access this pocket of nature. I would imagine there’s a bit of a letdown, even sadness, as they can’t ignore the irrefutable evidence they are not the first person stepping foot on uncharted land.   

After all, we like to think that our choices – the paths we view ahead and upon which we choose to walk – are unique. We search for importance and meaning. We don’t want our decisions to be trivial; we want the weighty choices in our life to have significance. 

It’s part of the human condition, isn’t it, that we inevitably find ourselves wondering at later times in our life… What if I had…” “Would it have meant more if I had done…?”  “Why didn’t I…?”

Yet we are forced to make choices. We must determine which road we shall go down even when we have neither guidance nor enough facts upon which to base our decision.

So choose a path we must.

There is, at the end of our days, no need to look back (perhaps with a sigh of regret) and wonder what we missed. It’s fruitless to speculate on the unknown that we never encountered.

While there may not be one right path there is, inescapably, the path we choose. And then there’s the other path.

Not better. Not worse. Merely untraveled.

The Road Not Taken

(4th stanza)

(by Robert Frost)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

*****

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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