HR professionals are raised (trained? taught?) to view labor unions as the enemy. Unions are the Moriarty to our Sherlock Holmes. The Hans Gruber to our John McClane. The Ursula to our Ariel.
But unions served a historically important role fighting for many of the workplace norms we now take for granted. Early organizing efforts advanced women’s rights and gender equality while the voices of the labor movement brought awareness (and change) to dangerous and unsafe working conditions.
Occasionally I wonder if HR professionals should exercise their collective voice and form a union; after all a group of organized workers is, at its most elemental, dedicated to furthering the economic and social interests of workers.
And if we do so I have decided we can call it the HRPWU – “Human Resources Professional Workers Union.”
If HRPWU came into existence there would be no more dependence upon “the world’s largest professional HR association” (also known as they place where one gives money but has no voice) as the place for peers to gather. Rather, with HRPWU, members could elect their own officers, determine their own goals for the profession, set their own dues and choose the rules by which the union operates. Banding together, HRPWU members could negotiate, on behalf of HR workers everywhere, better working conditions and wage equity. HRPWU could promote better work/life integration and working hours flexibility; no more of this 60+ hour per week crap that many HR professionals find themselves sucked into against their will. I also envision a GROUP collective bargaining process; negotiating with ALL employers across the board for appropriate pay, benefits, health and safety policies and practices (including access to mental health resources) and workplace equity and justice.
As a bonus, being represented by HRPWU, Human Resources professionals could, once and for all, be assured a seat at the (bargaining) table.
Talk about making an investment into the future of HR…
My friend Christine Lewis-Varley wrote this guest post for me in 2011 and it ran for the 10th year anniversary of 9/11 over at the HRSchoolhouse. Sadly Christine passed away in 2014. I’m re-running this post today in memory of Christine as well as in memory of those who perished in the attacks, the heroes, the survivors and the families.
This weekend we’re going to be inundated by media hype – we’re going to see the planes go into the Towers time and again. We’re going to switch the TV off because it’s so incredibly sad and there’s nothing we can do to make it better. We can’t take it back, we can’t rewind the movie.
In some ways it seems like a life time since September 11th 2001 and in other ways it seems like yesterday. Certainly none of us will ever forget where we were, what we were doing and how we felt. I wanted to share a story with you.
Amongst the thousands of memories that I have of September 11th 2001 I have one very special one that is forever imprinted on my heart. A young woman, by the name of Anya, was living in Brooklyn with her husband Alexander – they were from Siberia. Alexander was a very young technology guru who was brought to the US by Leman Brothers to work in New York. Alexander brought with him his young twenty year old bride, Anya. After several months in the US Cantor Fitzgerald contacted Alexander and offered him a job working for them in the World Trade Center. Alexander was very excited, it was more money and he and Anya had not realized how expensive it would be to live in New York and so additional money was going to be tremendous for them. The rest is history!
Alexander called Anya just before he died and told her what was happening. All alone, Anya watched the television for hours and days until someone from Cantor realized that she must be alone – they sent people to sit with her, to comfort her until her young sister arrived from Siberia. Anya was 20 and her sister was 19 and neither spoke English!
After September 11th 2001 I was very honored to join a small group of New York female executives in the rag trade who opened their hearts and their businesses to the women who had been left behind after their husbands, fiancées and significant others had been killed. The mission of this small group was to help the women talk, share, explore and start to get involved in completely different areas of work than most of them had ever dreamt of. The idea being to that these new and different areas would help the women have something different to think about as they moved through this agonizing period of their lives. As a side note – it was amazing – the CEOs of fashion houses such as Ann Taylor, Perry Ellis, DKNY and others that I can’t think of right now, offered the women jobs, apprenticeships, days in the life of – anything they could think of that would provide a distraction for just a little while! It was amazing and truly an experience that none of us will forget. (WITHH = Women in Transition Helping and Healing.)
We met many times with various groups of women and we talked and talked and it was at one of these gatherings that I had the pleasure of meeting Anya for the first time. She was the most beautiful young woman, as you can imagine, blonde and blue eyed. She and her sister sat quietly together, listening intently to the other women as they shared their stories. I watched Anya very carefully and I could see that she was trying to figure out how to say something in English – I reached for her hand and squeezed it gently and attempted to send as much supportive energy as I could. She started to speak – you could hear a pin drop. Very carefully and quietly she shared with the room of strangers, united by a bond that nobody wanted, many of whom were understandably angry and frustrated and others who were silent and crying as they listened to the women share their feelings.
Anya told of the horror she experienced – how she had sat in her apartment alone for the first few days and how she would hear the heavy footprints in the hallway outside her apartment; she would know they were coming for her to sign a receipt that another fragment of Alexander’s remains had been identified. She told of her difficulty in understanding what was being said; she told of her loneliness and terror in a foreign country. She told of her sister’s arrival days later and the comfort she’d found in being able to talk to someone in her own language. She spoke for several minutes – nobody cared that she struggled hard to put the words together to make sense and often used her hands to show her meaning and other times asked for help to clearly make her point understood.
She completed her story and then she shared something that was extraordinary coming from anyone, especially someone so young. Anya said that she didn’t want her wonderful memory of Alexander to be marred by hate. That she didn’t hate the people who had done this. She said that she felt sorry – terribly sorry. She wanted to understand why they hated so much and why they could do something so horrendous. She said she would spend the rest of her life teaching love and helping children build bridges of love and understanding rather than hate and terror.
You can imagine – the women in the room received Anya’s message with very mixed feelings – they certainly had a right to hate but here was a young women, who had gone through this terror alone, who was in a foreign country away from her parents – and her message was of love not hate.
I was very fortunate to become Anya’s surrogate mother in the US until she left three years later. We spent many hours on my porch in West Hartford, talking about her future, her past – what she was going to do with her life and how what had happened to her was going to influence her future. Anya went on to graduate from NYU and is now home in Siberia with her family, she has found a new love and one day she says she may get married. She’s a teacher, and best of all, she has founded an organization with a friend in New York to bring Siberian children to the US and American children to Siberia. Anya would often tell me, as she laughed with delight, that when people found that she came from Siberia they immediately asked “how?” She said the Americans she had met thought that Siberia was made up of snow and bears – they had no idea people actually lived there. The truth is that Anya lived on the second floor above an open shopping mall – she would make me laugh when she told me how she would have a date and have to run downstairs to the shops to buy a pair of tights! (FYI – her clothes were off the charts – fashion in Siberia is very high style).
I will never forget Anya and her amazing soul – old and wise beyond her years and blessed with a grace that is almost impossible to comprehend.
I met so many women, there were so many stories – those are the people I want to hear from this weekend. I don’t want to watch the planes go into the towers – that happened, there’s nothing we can do to change it. I want to hear and see about the incredible guts and determination that those left behind have harnessed and used to do extraordinary things with their lives – those are the people I want to hear about.
This Sunday I will go to church and thank God for standing by my side – even when I ignore him as I have done so many times. I will hang my American flag this weekend and I hope you will too.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the media – I have just heard another great story of a wife of a young husband and father of three who lost his life in September 11th 2001. She has started a foundation to help Afghanistan women create small businesses so that they can make their own money to buy materials and build schools to educate their children.
I wonder what I would have done had I been one of the women left behind – would I have had the guts to carry on? I wonder!
A number of years ago, as I was cavorting-in-the-job-market whilst in pursuit of a new gig, I had an interview for an HR Leader role when the site leader (we’ll call him Bob) asked me “what HR best practices are you aware of in our industry? I want us to implement all the best practices.”
(I could sense the HR-splaining pride oozing out of Bob’s pores as he tossed that cliché (“best practices”) into the conversation. I decided he must have visited the SHRM website in preparation for hiring into an HR role he had not needed to fill for a number of years.)
“Well,” said I, “I’m not particularly a fan of merely replicating what’s been done at other organizations. I’ll most certainly look at our immediate market competitors and across the industry but I’m not one for simply ‘copying’.”
“Why,” I asked, “should we replicate when we have the opportunity to redefine?”
I got the job.
(And I like to think I kicked ass at the job).
It certainly would have been very easy to walk in there, researched a bunch of shit from other companies in our industry or in our geographic area, and copied and pasted every single HR/People Ops program and initiative. Bob, as a matter of fact, was a great believer in duplicating (even down to the “naming” of things) what others were doing. Not unlike many (many!) other leaders:
“Acme Company, LLC down the street is doing X. We need to do X too.”
“When I worked at Ginormous Corporation we did A, B and C. I want to do that here at Small Potatoes, Inc.”
“Did you see that recruitment campaign/post/job advert from Sexy Company? We need to do that!”
“Well, I know Big Bad Competitor Across Town, LLP is leading the market with compensation and coming in 20% ahead of us in starting pay but we really can’t compete with them….” (oh…wait…bad example…#snicker)
Here’s the deal…
Market intelligence is important. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world of work is necessary. Conducting regular environmental scans/PESTLE analyses is imperative. Finding out what job or environmental factors matter to candidates and employees is crucial.
And yes; taking something one did at a previous company, adjusting it and implementing at a new company is often a wise move. Over the years I’ve carried (digitally speaking) forms, templates, policies, and training curriculums from one company to the next. These are the sorts of things that don’t require a reinvention, as the saying goes, of the wheel.
But not everything is ideal for imitation. You shouldn’t blindly borrow, plunder or copy someone else’s:
Talent Acquisition Strategies
HR Metrics and Success Measures
Performance Management Process
Rewards and Recognition Structure
Why? Because their (the other guy’s) “best practice” may not be the BEST practice for YOUR organization.
Besides…it’s much more fun to CREATE rather than replicate.
The term “knowledge worker” joined our business lexicon courtesy of Peter Drucker; the concept of “knowledge work” first appeared in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow.
For the most part we all understand that knowledge workers access and apply information to answer questions, solve problems and generate new ideas. Knowledge workers interact with tools and systems that enable communication and information sharing. They acquire new information and use it in a creative manner. They produce, distribute, and share their knowledge with others. They never stop learning and acquiring new knowledge.
We often ascribe this moniker to scientists, engineers, programmers, design thinkers, creatives, academics, attorneys, and the like. Hollywood versions of the knowledge worker include Professor Indiana Jones, David Levinson (the Jeff Goldblum character) in Independence Day and Olivia Pope.
They “think” for a living.
Sounds like what we should expect of HR leaders…doesn’t it?
Yet far too many HR leaders, caught up in the grinding gears of the corporate machine, are losing out on providing real value (their knowledge) to their organizations. There are far too many HR functions where every moment is filled with tasks. Busy busy busy. Activity after activity after activity. All in a misguided attempt to demonstrate to CEOs/Owners/Leaders that HR is needed.
But knowledge workers – meaning HR leaders – need time to pause, review, research, read, and ponder. They need to explore hypotheses before acting. When making decisions and weighing “can” they do something versus “should” they do something, they need time for contemplation and evaluation.
Sometimes HR Leaders need to prioritize merely getting together with peers to think collectively. Every meeting doesn’t have to be about getting through an agenda, giving updates on task accomplishment (busy! busy! busy!), or racing though a post-mortem on a problem or incident. It should be about gathering with peers for an off-site discussion or forming a community of practice. It can be heading to a conference or event for the day rather than cranking out yet another report that no one will read. (Busy busy busy. See how busy I am?)
At other times HR leaders need to purposefully carve out the time for silence and concentration during the workday; grab a cup of coffee, turn off the phone and put on some headphones in order to scroll through the internet or page through a book to foster ideas.
Unfortunately that’s viewed as idleness in far too many organizations. “Susie, our HR Manager, wastes a half hour every day scrolling through websites,” an organizational leader once said to me. “She’s not even working! I need to write her up!”
So yes; it’s often about finding an organization (and a boss) who supports creativity and intellect. A boss who encourages their HR leader to use their brain. A boss who realizes – or to whom it’s explained– that it’s not about formatting and running reports; rather it’s about designing the strategy behind the report data.
Sssshhhh. It’s time to think.
“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”—Voltaire
Last week my friend/colleague Jena Brown and I had a really good discussion about the role (perhaps) that HR, TA and Talent Marketers have played in our current talent crisis. What, we discussed, are some of the reasons that are causing employees to resign in droves? Why are organizations struggling with attracting candidates? Why are we hearing far too many stories of people going through on-boarding and then either pulling out at the last minute or simply no-showing on Day 1?
One aspect that Jena pointed out was that companies have created fluffy marketing and communications that aren’t real or realized throughout the company. She followed up with this example on LinkedIn:
“Company says hourly employees are the heroes of everything but continues treating them like replaceable robots – work longer, work harder, and little room for flexibility (oh yeah, those flexibility benefits and messaging only applies to our non-hero employees). Employee sees company messaging vs their reality and is now faced with a value-based decision…. ‘Do I contribute to society like I want by working (like a dog for many) for some generalized praise or can I live off the stimulus check and not have to deal with the crap at work? Either way I have to find a way to regain dignity and sense of value.’”
The discussion moved forward into some other reasons that may be contributing to the current attraction/retention crisis including when one publicly positions their company as committed to an issue while simultaneously doing the opposite and the tendency of far too many organizations to merely copy the marketing/messaging from others (resulting in an overload of sameness).
In my estimation there are two factors at play.
First, as the folks tasked with attracting candidates and retaining employees, we often fail to distinguish between “aspirational” and “actual.” Sometimes it’s because we don’t stop to think about the difference between the two. Sometimes it’s because we know the actual is such crap that the only way we believe we can craft a compelling message is to just focus on the aspirational.
The aspirational world is, for many of us, the fantasy land where (a) people really are the most important asset (b) the workplace does provide flexibility, and (c) ideas are heard and collaboration is a shared value.
Secondly, we (the collective “we” in organizations around the world and in functions that cross ALL department lines) confuse activity with impact. This is what leads companies to hop on the “performative acts” bandwagon; copying and pasting quotes, messages and graphics that align with whatever-month-we-are-celebrating (but only for that month of course) or deciding it’s time to insert the badge-du-jour because everyone else is doing it.
So what to do?
As Jena pointed out, panic has set in because our predictive models aren’t working, and the current candidate/employee behaviors aren’t what we’ve come to expect. (And thus, predictably, many have moved into reactive mode and tossed out any plans to work on strategy that truly can create more balance for those ‘heroes’ in the workforce).
The first step? Speak the truth; and companies and HR, TA and Talent Marketing professionals need to be bold enough to do so. (and no; not with one of those bullshit and cruel job adverts that belittle and shame people). It’s perfectly fine to say “our pay is average, our benefits are mediocre, and when you punch in for the day you will work your ass off. But we’ll treat you fairly, work with you on your schedule, always tell you the truth and most importantly we’ll never sugar coat stuff.”
I once worked for a company with high-turnover (industry norm) and thus, obviously, high-volume recruiting. We had strong applicant flow, so we clearly communicated up front with candidates about the pay, the pace, the workplace rules, and the not-particularly-competitive benefits. (Our goal was to get folks to self-select out). My favorite saying, crafted by one of our recruiters, was one we used across the department when speaking with candidates “we realize this will probably not be your forever job or even your forever company, but it can perhaps be a great job and a great company for you right now.”