Culture: A Confederacy of HR Dunces

Confederacy_of_dunces_coverOver the weekend I read another let’s-bash-HR article with the title Here’s why your human resources department hates you.” The author, Cliff Weathers, points out that HR practitioners have become “cold wardens of the workplace” and administrative bureaucrats who see themselves as “masters at the top of the corporate food chain.”

The article hits on multiple issues with modern corporate HR departments including their propensity to kill people with forms and paperwork (resulting in diminished productivity for all), the manner in which they muck up the hiring process, and how their actions ultimately de-humanize entire organizations.

Ouch.

One section stood out to me:

“One tool used by human resources professionals is the open manipulation of “workplace culture.” Employees are expected to follow cultural cues from HR departments, which model how they want employees to act to create a “positive work environment.” And you better like the culture HR creates for you, or else.”

I’m not sure we’re quite as Machiavellian as the author does; he believes this cultural manipulation is done by HR in order to ‘weed out’ (i.e. terminate) the undesirables. While getting the right people on the bus (to borrow the phrase) is important, I like to think we’re not quite so cold-blooded.

I do, however, see a lack of understanding about company culture feeding into the actions and activities of a fair number of HR professionals. Sometimes it’s a lack of clarity on the part of Janet the HR Director. Quite often it’s because the time-stretched – and misinformed CEO – tells Janet to “do something fun; we need to improve our culture.”

So Janet begins her quest to, well, OK – manipulate. ”We’ll have a scavenger hunt,” she thinks. “I’ll add a weekly dress down day and bring in donuts every Friday.” She mentally ticks off policies and activities and even employee benefits she can add…never once stopping to think if they fit the needs, wants or desires of the actual employees or culture. She forces adherence and when Bob in Accounting doesn’t participate in the Annual Halloween Costume Contest she – and the CEO – place him firmly on the “doesn’t fit in to our culture” list.

How do we fix this? It is, quite frankly an epidemic. I regularly see job postings for HR leaders that include duties such as “responsible for building a winning culture.” And ‘building’ is on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum from nurturing, ensuring alignment, and fostering the continuation of an existing culture or the migration to a desired state.

The way we change this is for HR leaders to band together and stand up to CEOs or other organizational leaders who command them (yes…command them) to “fix” the culture. The way we overhaul this is for HR professionals to educate first themselves and then their leadership teams on the real definition of company culture.

If we do that we can ALL be geniuses.

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Morals and Diverting

image: Louisiana State University Press

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note: even though I’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces 3 or 4 times, I intend to read it again; it’s the book chosen by the East Baton Rouge Parish Library as the spring read for our “One Book One Community” spring 2015 kick-off.  It’s one of my favorite books and truly reflects what Ellis Marsalis once said: “In New Orleans, culture is not handed down from on high; it bubbles up from the street.” 

Hmmm…culture. Again. 

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Write a Thank You Note

original_set-of-12-handmade-thank-you-note-cardsI don’t know about you but I still like holding an actual book in my hand. I enjoy the pleasure of flipping through a glossy magazine. I don’t mind being handed a sheath of papers and having the ability to sit down and read, mark it up, and curl the pages. I’m not a fan of newspapers though; I don’t think I’ve sat and read a printed newspaper for years.

But I like love hand written cards and notes.

A birthday card received in the mailbox. A note left on my desk. A post-it note slapped on my monitor.

Nice little reminders to stop for a moment and appreciate human connections.

So here’s something awesome you can do today.

Take a few minutes, sit down with pen in hand and compose a thank you note to someone who’s made a difference in your week. Surprise your co-worker in the next cubicle, the hard-working receptionist who manages the flow of visitors to your office, or a colleague in another department.

Deliver it yourself…or support the USPS. Your choice.

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image: (and cards available at) notonthehighstreet

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Join Me: Drivers of Engagement in New Hire Onboarding

We discuss employee engagement a lot don’t we? We realize there are benefits to our organizations when we have a highly engaged workforce; things like improved performance, higher productivity, and improved retention.

Across the continuum of the employee life cycle there are numerous touch points and multiple opportunities for us to focus on strategies that address our desired outcomes. And the onboarding of employees is one of those times.

But how do we tackle it? How do we improve the onboarding experience, ensure it’s aligned with our company’s business objectives, and measure success? What are key talent metrics? And how, if you’re considering revamping your onboarding program, do you get from here…to there?

Join me next Thursday (2/26/2015) for “Drivers of Engagement in New Hire Onboarding” when I’ll be part of a panel discussing the essential elements of high-performance onboarding, key practices for gauging impact, and the importance of talent technology.

Hosted by cfactor Works Inc. (developer of Vibe HCM suite) and Brandon Hall Group, a leading HCM research and advisory services firm, and will feature, in addition to me, a whole bunch of smart people:

I promise we’ll have a great discussion and share some interesting information, so go here to register and join us.

Onward to onboarding!

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Invite a Colleague to Lunch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIsolation at the office.

People trudge into the building, settle into a cubicle or work station, and never leave the confines of their department. Lunch is consumed at one’s desk and, unless one has meetings to attend or conference calls to join, the only conversations occur with those in close proximity.

So here’s something awesome you can do today.

Grab a co-worker or colleague and invite them to lunch. Talk about music, movies, Mardi Gras plans…whatever. Ask them about their family and tell them about yours. Build a bond. Build trust. Connect as people.

EXTRA points for this if you work in human resources and head to lunch with someone from IT or sales or marketing or….?

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How To Build Your HR Empire

empressRecently, I was doing some reading about internal barriers in organizations created by fear. In Tom Rieger’s Breaking the Fear Barrier he points out these barriers take three forms: parochialism, territorialism, and empire building. As he states:

Parochial managers do not necessarily want to take control over other departments. Instead, they build walls against others’ empire building attempts to keep outsiders from interfering with their own local focus and viewpoint. Territorialism is about keeping things just the way they are; empire building is about changing the balance of power. While territorialism seeks to impose limits over what people can do inside the silo, empire building seeks to change the focus of what those in other departments do. Territorialism is about defending the current span of control, but empire building is about expanding it.

Huh. I’ve known some human resources professionals that fall into each of those categories. Parochial HR leaders say things like “You can’t do xyz because it’s against policy/law/my wishes” or “We need you to complete that annual checklist performance review so we have documentation” or “Because I say so.”

The territorial HR manager will let you know, quite happily, that she controls your training budget so you best justify to her why one of your staff members needs to attend a $159 training workshop. You need to go through her (not IT) to get a new laptop and gain her approval before you allow a staff member to spend the afternoon working at the local coffee shop.

Interestingly enough, Tom Rieger shares an HR example of empire-building:

“A multibillion-dollar company centralized several support functions under its head of human resources. As a result, that executive became chief administrative officer over human resources, accounts payable, legal, real estate, and several other departments. Although the IT needs of the businesses were specialized in research and development, she insisted that IT should also be under her charge and successfully fought to add IT to her growing empire. The outcome was inefficiency, wasted resources, disengagement, and lack of focus, all of which resulted in unnecessary costs for the organization.”

Now I dare say the way this works in a multibillion-dollar company is just a tad different from how it occurs at Acme Financial Services with 300 employees. In some ways it’s easier for the HR leader to assume control of people, functions or resources in a smaller organization. No one wants to manage the vehicle fleet? HR will take it on. That administrative assistant whose job has become somewhat redundant in the last 10 years? Bam! We’ll put her to work in HR!

Next thing you know, the human resources span of control includes customer service/reception, purchasing, and facilities maintenance.

Is this always a bad thing? Not necessarily This sort of structure might be appropriate for Company A even though it’s not going to work at Company B. But, as Tom Rieger points out “Often, organizations will permit or overlook an empire builder’s encroachment because he presents his attempt at conquest as a faster way to meet an objective. In other cases, the empire builder is more subtle, taking over inch by inch. By the time anyone notices, the change has already occurred.”

Do the HR Empire Builders want to find ways to meet objectives? Get stuff done? Eliminate redundancies and remove impediments? It’s possible.

It’s also possible some just want power in whatever way they can get it.

But size – and control – have nothing to do with real strength and power. Wise HR leaders realize it’s not about gobbling up additional territory as if sweeping the board in a game of Risk in an attempt to conquer the world. Instead they realize it’s about delivering value by supporting and enabling the execution of company strategy. Period. End of story.

They understand that HR influence isn’t dependent upon the size of one’s kingdom. They know it’s about acquiring knowledge and mastering the HR fundamentals. It means they never stop learning and they look forward to the future rather than trying to run from it. They know that great HR is often invisible.

And that’s how they build an HR empire.

 

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Henry The Fourth, Part 2 Act 3, scene 1, 26–31

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