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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Trench HR: Where Java Means Coffee

Many years ago my friend Charlie Judy coined the phrase #TrenchHR. Boy oh boy did we run the hell out of that hashtag on the Twitterz circa 2010 – 2017 or so. (And then it kind of died off).

It’s still a shorthand I use quite frequently though because it perfectly (and succinctly) summarizes and encapsulates the HR practitioner experience. The phrase #TrenchHR (which, now that I think about it, would look really cool on a t-shirt), is a combination secret handshake, rallying cry and code word. It’s the opening shot to a conversation about REALITY:

Bob: “What do you do?”

Susie: “I work in HR.”

Bob: “Trench?”

Susie: “Yup”

Bob: “Me too.”

*** knowing looks ***

See here’s the thing; there really are different kinds of HR. While HR practitioners may have the same baseline/foundational knowledge and education, they practice their alchemy in different ways…depending, quit often, upon both their function and their environment. The act of #TrenchHR is not necessarily dependent upon organizational size; there are high-level HR professionals (with expansive span of control, fancy titles and an enviable HR tech stack) in enterprise organizations dealing with #TrenchHR issues every day. There are HR practitioners in start-up or growing organizations who rarely have to muddy their boots in the trenches.

For the most part, anyone who works as an HR consultant is not dealing with #TrenchHR on the regular – unless they are a number-crunching organizational wonk, truly embedded with their client, or serving in a Fractional type role.  This is also, by the way, why I firmly believe that no one (i.e. a newly minted HR grad) should EVER move right into “consulting” without spending some time in the trenches. They haven’t even LIVED real HR; how in the world are they going to advise someone? (Same with the academic types. But that’s another blog post).

So what is #TrenchHR? Well it looks like this….

  • Dealing with systems that are outdated and/or don’t function in the current era; stacks of paper for new hires to complete, spreadsheets as an HRIS, and paper time- cards that employees manually complete, sign and drop off (via inter-office envelopes!) in the Payroll Office each Monday morning
  • Being in charge of things like swag, t-shirts, Fitbits and pizzas for the weekly employee lunch (while also tracking shirt sizes and dietary preferences)
  • Needing to hire 40 people per month (#evergreen!!) with a monthly recruiting budget of $400
  • Battling with the CEO/Owner whenever there is a need to update or modernize the company’s people practices (“I don’t care if employees will quit if we don’t let them WFH; I want everyone back in the office NOW where I can see them!”)
  • Investigating in order to determine which employee felt the need to eliminate their bowels in a location not anywhere remotely near a toilet bowl (internal code name: “the mystery pooper”)
  • Completing an HR file audit (of any kind; I-9s; benefit files; training logs; you name it)
  • Having to maintain actual paper files in the first place
  • Conducting any sort of conversation about bodily fluids. This may include (a) discussing with a new hire why they felt the need to carry a urine-filled condom in their pocket to their post-offer drug screen appointment, or (b) determining why there is DNA (to use the approved terminology from Law & Order: SVU) on the sofa in the employee break room
  • Launching a harassment investigation that turns out to be nothing more than grown-ass adults acting like they have the hormones of 10th graders in a love triangle (or a love dodecahedron)

And so much more. So. Much.More.

Hanging in the trenches takes guts; though there’s minimal glory.  Positioning oneself in the trenches requires moxxy, a sense of humor and a whole lot of compassion for the human experience. It’s where I fell in love with this crazy profession of human resources and where I’ve spent the bulk of my time.

And, now that I think about it, #TrenchHR doesn’t just belong on a t-shirt. We deserve a monument.

******* 

shout out to my friend Andrew Gadomksi who, once upon a time, gave me the inspiration for this blog post title (and I’ve been sitting on it ever since)  

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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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Sights and Sounds: Carnival of HR – April 2021

Carnival of HR

A carnival, to me, brings to mind sights, sounds and smells. Carnivals have bright lights, laughing (and/or shrieking) voices coming from folks on rides, live music, and tantalizing aromas wafting forth from tents and food trucks. Sadly we’ve had to miss out on these events and experiences for the last 12 months; here in my corner of the world we’ve cancelled French Quarter Fest (times 2), the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, the Rayne Frog Festival and the ever-mystifying Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.  

But now, as the light seems to be shining at the end-of-the-pandemic-tunnel ,  I am 100% in a CARNIVAL frame of mind! Bring on the frozen drinks in big plastic cups! Give me something deep fried on a stick! Allow me to cut-a-rug at the Fais Do-Do Stage at the Festival International de Louisiane!   In the meantime though I’ll easily stay-up-to date with some of the latest and greatest thoughts and ideas from HR writers and podcasters.

So welcome to the April 2021 Carnival of HR – won’t you join me?

Sights (stuff to read)

John Baldino –  “Knowing Me, Knowing You” –  exploring the need for timely and deliberate competency mapping (skills, aptitudes, knowledge base and abilities) in organizations.

Jon InghamHR’s Skills, Competencies and Capabilities (part 2) – reflections on the competencies and capabilities needed by HR professionals (now and for the rest of the 2020’s).

Amanda Nunez at PandoLogicBig Data Metrics that Matter for HR Recruitment – as we know…what matters gets measured!  

Paul LaLondeHR, Be Water“HR needs to be able to find the space to go where there is seemingly no space.”

Bennett Sung at ERESports Legends Share Advice on Building Super Teams – what does it take to build high performing teams? Let’s see what some sports legends have to say.

Victoria Miller at PlumHow Leaders Can Keep Employees Engaged When Working Remotely, in Person, or Both – (hybrid baby!)

Ty Gowen at PlanSourceTop 10 Questions about the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) – got questions about the ARPA? Find some answers here.

Julie Winkle Giulioni –  What Does a Career Look Like in Today’s World – the old view of career development and progression — that predictable climb up the corporate ladder — is no longer valid. What’s the new way to think about careers?

Melissa Suzuno at Udemy 5 Advanced Techniques to Accelerate Workplace Learning – some great tips here for how to learn anything! (especially in a work setting).

Kevin EikenberryWork Flexibility is Quickly Becoming an Expectation – the change has come!

Micole Garatti at FairygodbossHow Major US Companies Are Hiring Women in Technology – attraction, connections and engagement; we got this people!

Prasad KurianSimplicity @ the other side of Complexity – exploring if there is really something like ‘being stuck at the right level’ when it comes to career development. 

Rachel Serwetz (Woken) at WedgeHRA Career Coach’s Tips to Thrive in a Pre-Recorded Video Interview – need to build your confidence for a video interview? Check out these great tips!

Robin Schooling (hey that’s me!) at HRAcuityIs your D&I Approach Getting Lost in the Chain of Command? – what to do (and what to avoid) in order to make sure your D&I approach is not jammed-in-a-bottleneck.

Sounds (stuff to listen to)

Punk Rock HR with Laurie Ruettimann – Doug Shaw joined Laurie on this episode of Punk Rock HR to chat about how art and creativity are an integral component of mental well-being.

HRUprising with Mervyn DinnenInternal Mobility as a Talent Strategy – great discussion with Lucinda Carney (Actus) about internal mobility as a talent (management and acquisition!) issue.

Virtual Conversations with Anthony Paradiso – check this discussion with André Robert Lee, an Educator, Film Maker, & Speaker about Anti-Racism, Inclusion and Diversity.

Drive thru HR with Michael VanDervort and Robin Schooling  – Empowering Differences with Ashley Brundage – Michael and Robin enjoyed a conversation with Ashley Brundage about her personal and professional journey and her leadership across the LGBTQ+ community

Inclusive AF with Katee Van Horn and Jackye Clayton – Cancel Culture – (hint: it’s about ‘accountability’)

Fire Away with Stuart RudnerSocial Media: A Useful HR Tool or a Liability? (yes; the conversation continues)

Smells (stuff to eat and drink)

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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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