The Talent Crisis: Aspirational vs. Actual

candidate messaging

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.”

The truth. The actual truth.  

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Be an Advocate for LGBTQ+ Equality EVERY Month

Recently, in an online HR Group, a group member asked “what can I do to create an inclusive workplace to support LGBTQ+ employees at s small business?” “Small” business was important here; he went on to clarify that he had recently moved from a large (3,000+ employee) company with a thriving LGBTQ+ ERG and other plans, resources and commitments.

I chimed in with a few thoughts (as I am wont to do) and since I was the only respondent I figured I would share my ideas here as well:

  • Outline in your values how the company defines inclusion – and illustrate the behaviors that back up and reflect that commitment.
  • Ensure the company handbook and policies have been updated to reference non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
  • Review company benefits for inclusion to ensure that gender or stereotypical roles are not at play – this may include things like Leave of Absence (LOA) eligibility and how parents, partners or family members are defined in bereavement leave policies.
  • Review the language used on both company documents and within conversations – for example, use of words like “guys” and “ladies” in chat or as greetings and even the naming conventions used in job titles, For example, how many companies still use job titles that are exclusive – even in conversation – such as Maintenance Man or Sales Guy?
  • Celebrate people being “open” … but don’t have an expectation that people will come out at work – some may choose not to do so.
  • Determine how the company and employees can visibly display allyship … without being performative. As the saying goes “Don’t just wave the Pride Flag if you’re not also doing the work.”
  • Focus on compassion and empathy; sometimes it’s enough to be creating a safe space for people.

I also shared information about Out and Equal – a great organization of workplace advocates that focuses on LGBTQ+ workplace equality (chock full of resources, templates and toolkits).

As I’m posting this it is, of course, the last official day of Pride Month. But working for equality, opportunity, and justice for ALL people is not confined to just one month per year.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.

Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Dalia Lama

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HR’s Biggest Problem? The People Hiring HR.

hiring HR

The worst thing (probably) about your company’s HR Leader is the person who hired your HR Leader.

In fact, I would love nothing more than to banish, forevermore, the CEOs, Business Owners, COOs and CFOs who recruit, interview and select their company’s HR leader.  OK …not all of them need to go; there are quite a few who understand the value of great HR. But, alas, there are far too many organizational leaders who cannot grasp (or refuse to grasp) the fact that a smart, competent and creative human resources leader can bring value to their organizations.

Rather they want an HR policy cop who will quietly handle compliance, write and enforce policies, and (probably) manage payroll. They want a person who will chat with the benefit broker and the staffing agency sales representative. They want someone who will have the difficult conversations with employees who cry or dress inappropriately or don’t show up to work or have body odor problems. 

When the need arises to hire a new HR Leader, the job description is written and/or updated. Undoubtedly cut and pasted from somewhere else, it evolves into a lengthy laundry list and, at the direction of the Big Boss, includes nonsense like “will be responsible for company culture.”  The job post cites a preference for PHR/SPHR or SHRM-CP/SCP certification – simply because the Big Boss saw that listed on another HR job post on Indeed. There are buzzwords galore (gleaned from an article the Big Boss read on Fast Company) and phrases like “cutting-edge strategic HR,” and “transformative work” and “culture of engagement” are sprinkled as liberally as salt on the rim of a margarita glass. And, depending upon industry and/or geography, there may even be a glamorous job title that incorporates the words “talent”, “culture” and/or “people.”

The job is posted.

As resumes roll in the Big Boss reviews them (without actually understanding what they’re reading) and schedules interviews – often moving candidates into the “yes” pile based primarily on previous titles. (“She was an HR Business Partner at Behemoth Corporation, Inc; what’s that? I need someone who has held a Manager or Director title only.”).

The actual interviews are chock-full of affirmation, to the eager and interested candidates, that HR is important and valued. The Big Boss states a fervent desire to employ an HR leader who is pro-active and business savvy. Inclusive and affirming culture? (check!). Sufficient budget? (check!). Access to technology, systems and tools? (check, check and check!).

The position is filled.

Now sometimes, especially in small or growing companies, the Big Boss moves Sally from Accounting into the position “because all the employees like her and she’s a people-person.” (The Big Boss figures that anyone can learn HR; how hard can it be?). Or they hire Steve from outside the organization because he’s got HR experience and they tell him they want him to design a best-in-class (!!) HR department.

But then Sally, who IS great at relationship-building with people and understands the business and existing workplace culture and rapidly learns and absorbs HR fundamentals/knowledge is stopped from practicing great HR…by the person who hired her.  They refuse to provide her with access to professional memberships or adequate learning resources. They wonder why she insists on enhancing the existing HR tech stack and feels the need to implement an ATS when e-mail and spreadsheets have worked perfectly fine for years.  They don’t understand why she can’t continue to manage the Accounting Clerk who runs payroll and handles A/P. They give her a “Manager” title while the other 5 department leaders have “Director” titles.

Or Steve, who HAS solid experience in human resources and comes into the organization with stellar ideas for running an innovative HR shop, is stopped from practicing great HR…by the person who hired him. All those promises and sexy buzzwords? Nothing but empty glitter. Poor Steve has found himself walking into an HR role that is lacking both a budget and decision-making ability. In fact the Big Boss believes that while Steve should handle the dirty-work the managers don’t want to do (those pesky performance and discipline discussions), his expertise and advice on actual/factual HR matters is neither sought nor heeded.

So see? The problem is not with Sally or Steve – it’s with the CEO, Business Owner, COO or CFO who doesn’t care about HR excellence. The Big Boss (oh hell…the whole leadership team) believes that HR’s purpose is to merely make sure no one gets sued, hurt or upset. They’re content to let HR handle benefit enrollment, choose company swag (t-shirts!) and plan the employee holiday party. 

Of course they’re wrong.

We know that great HR Leaders are advisors, talent managers, partners to managers/leaders, and executors of operational excellence. When unleashed to perform their best work, they’re champions for driving the change that leads to improvements across every facet of the business.

And if THIS Big Boss doesn’t believe that…no wonder Sally and Steve leave to find a Big Boss who does.

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Your Mom Called (and she’s in HR)

HR mom

Many of us have fond opinions of mothers – whether those notions be based on personal experience or something fed to us via TV when we longed to be cozied up next to Claire Huxtable or Carol Brady at our own dinner table.  

The thought of “mother” brings to mind someone caring and nurturing. Someone who makes sure we take our vitamins, eat a good breakfast and do our homework. We like it when mom is cheerful, fun-loving and even downright silly.  And while mom may occasionally cramp our style, deep down we know that a good mother has to be stern and play the authoritarian when the situation warrants it.

  • “Put on a sweater, I’m cold.”
  • “No; I will not bring the homework you forgot to school. You should have put it in your backpack yourself.”
  • “I’m not going to tell you again.”
  • “I’m not running a taxi service.”
  • “Because I said so, that’s why!”

We love moms.

But we don’t want to work with them.

The HR Mom

Surveys regularly find that HR continues to be a female-dominated profession with representation hovering around 70% across the entirety of the HR workforce/profession. (and yes; approximately 65% are white). (Back in 2011, John Sumser let us know that HR is a 47-year- old white woman. She’s married, with kids and has pets that probably aren’t cats.”). 10 years later and all that appears to have happened is the average age has probably twitched up a bit.

And one of HR’s continuing problems is that there are lots of “moms” working in the field. NOT necessarily those who have children of their own but rather those who have decided they will ACT like a mother to the employees of their organization.

One would think that after decades (literally decades) of HR professionals desiring to be “strategic” and lamenting the fact that they are not taken seriously in their organizations, some of these mom-isms would disappear. But nope; there are regular chats, posts and discussions that could just as easily be taking place at the PTA meeting as in the HR office.

Over the last few months I have participated in discussions that provide lots of insight into how some HR practitioners feel the need to INSERT themselves into the types of situations that are either (a) placing HR in the role of caregiver and NOT strategic or business-critical in the least, or (b) reminiscent of an over-bearing and hovering mother intent on ‘”teaching a life lesson” to her offspring. To wit:

Topic: Companies providing menstrual products in employee restrooms.

  • Cossetting Mom: I keep supplies in my desk drawer in the HR office and employees who need a tampon or pad know they can come see me.
  • Harsh Mom: Nope. People need to be prepared for any emergency and make sure they bring their own supplies.

Topic: Workplace attire/dress codes

  • Cossetting Mom: I have pins and a sewing kit available and some clear nail polish if an employee needs to mend their pantyhose.
  • Harsh Mom: I expect people to dress professionally even while we’re working virtually; I wrote a dress code for Zoom meetings.

Topic: Attendance (sick, tardy, emergency)

  • Cossetting Mom: *** rare and almost non-existent ***
  • Harsh Mom 1: If someone’s start time is 9 AM, I expect them to be at work no later than 8:55 AM. They need to plan for bad traffic and potential road accidents; there’s no excuse. Time for a write-up and attendance points!
  • Harsh Mom 2: Sick? But they can go to shopping because another employee saw them at Walgreen’s? If they’re too sick to come to work, they’re too sick to go outside. I don’t believe they’re really sick.

Topic: Meetings/Parties/Events

  • Cossetting Mom: I need to come up with a theme, purchase and wrap gifts for employees, determine what games we can play, and coordinate the food for 100 employees.
  • Harsh Mom: No drinking, eating or vaping allowed while you’re on the 4 PM Zoom team call.

Topic: Morale and Culture

  • Cossetting Mom: I bake something every week to leave in the breakroom and we have candy for employees in the HR Department; they love coming to visit us!
  • Harsh Mom: When I want their opinion we ask for it with an engagement survey; random and anonymous employee complaints are not useful at all.

Sound familiar? If so it may be time to go to your room and think about what you did…

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Work in HR? It’s Time to FIGHT for Workers’ Rights.

There’s a peculiar mindset amongst far too many HR practitioners. Due to their fervent and often all-consuming desire to be considered “business partners,” they’ve adopted a capitalist perspective that places them somewhere on the spectrum between Scrooge McDuck, Rich Uncle Pennybags and Mr. Burns.

Attempting to be fiscally prudent and, as I’ve heard it described, to be “a steward of the company’s money,” manifests itself when they:

  • ‘fight’ every unemployment claim as if the very sustainability of the company depended upon victory 
  • craft policies that, if legal in the state/jurisdiction, ensure that departing employees will NOT be paid out any earned/accrued vacation/PTO balance
  • concoct convoluted job descriptions in order to mis-classify certain jobs as exempt (per the FLSA) so workers are not eligible for overtime pay even while the company expectation is that they toil away for 50 hours per week minimum
  • shelter workplace harassers and keep them in place by failing to investigate allegations of harassment especially when an employee bringing forth an issue is viewed as a “chronic complainer” 
  • turn a blind eye to both blatant and subtle discriminatory behavior whether it takes they form of systemic cultural traditions and norms or overt hiring “preferences” as articulated by managers … and other HR team members

And they valiantly fight, either of their own volition or because they believe their company’s CEO and CFO expect them to, any attempts to raise the mandated minimum wage, explore Medicare For All or de-couple healthcare in the US from the employment relationship.

This doesn’t shock me of course. As with most any type of meaningful change in the relationship between employers/employees over the course of our history in the US of A, it’s taken blood, sweat, death and – ultimately – legislation to provide protection to workers. Child Labor Reform. The Triangle Shirtwaist FireThe Civil Rights ActThe Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, including Title I covering employment, went into effect in July of 1990 – 30 years ago – and HR practitioners are still fighting against the very basic tenets of the law. The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 and there are still numerous HR practitioners who work to circumvent the protections afforded to their covered employees. 

These are the people running HR functions. They are often the first ones to talk about a desire to increase employee engagement or improve company culture. They are also, quite frankly, the ones who need to be reminded of what that “H” signifies and remember that Workers’ Rights are “human” rights.

The US Department of Labor clarifies there is not a definitive list of workers’ rights however the International Labor Organization (ILO) identifies what it calls “fundamental principles and rights at work”:

  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
  • effective abolition of child labor; and
  • elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

The effective delivery of HR designed to ensure profitability and sustainability of the business is not at odds with the delivery of HR designed to promote or protect workers’ rights. The two can – and should – co-exist. 

It’s not about profit or people. It can easily be about profit and people. 

Work in HR? You say you’re all about the employee experience and engagement and “improving” your culture? Then you need to respect and promote Workers’ Rights before anything else.

After all…you’re a worker too. 

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