Chaos in a Talent System


Recently, while lazily channel surfing, I watched bits and pieces of Jurassic Park for (approximately) the 372nd time. Fortunately for me they were the snippets with lots and lots of Dr. Ian Malcom action (and I think we can all agree that Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom, not the tribe of velociraptors, is the actual star of this movie).

Ian (we’re on a first name basis) is the voice of caution in the film. As a mathematician who specializes in the branch of mathematics knows as “chaos theory” he seeks to inform the others (and the audience) how minor events can lead to unexpected consequences. As he explains:  

“It simply deals with predictability in complex systems. The shorthand

is the butterfly effect, the butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park,

you get rain in central Asia.”

In other words, understanding chaos theory means understanding that systems that appear straightforward and deterministic can still exhibit highly complicated and seemingly random long-term behavior. Something we often forget about in our organizations; especially in our talent (HR) system.

The “talent system” as I’m referring to it, means all the aspects of the employment experience that fall under the bailiwick of the HR Department. From candidate outreach to off-boarding. From work technology usage to human interaction. From messaging to written policies to the nebulousness of organizational culture. And a system, quite simply, is a collection of parts and subsystems that are highly integrated to further the achievement of an end goal. Within any system there are various inputs and numerous processes and there are also, as we know, forces (both internal and external) potentially bringing friction.

Our responsibility, as the architects or caregivers of any given component of a talent system, is to be cognizant of the fact that chaos exists; it’s neither random nor wholly arbitrary. Within any system, even when there appears to be confusion and unpredictability, there is an underlying order. There’s even a name for it within the field of strategic management: complexity theory involves the use of the study of complexity systems in order to examine uncertainty to find understanding about how organizations adapt – particularly during times of change driven by micro-events or a coaction of events.

And talent systems, even when seemingly straightforward and modeled on well-defined processes, are forever at the mercy of chaos. The most linear action is not only inter-connected, but is also at the continual mercy of the flapping of butterfly wings:

  • The solidly built employer brand and messaging to candidates can be disturbed and thrown off course during the course of the interview process once the candidate interacts with people (ineffective hiring managers), processes (so many steps… including assessments, multiple interviews and post-offer hoops-through-which-to-jump), and systems (the employment application that takes 45 minutes to complete including resume upload and the answering of essay questions)
  • The fun, lively and engaging onboarding, effectively facilitated by an effervescent HR staff member, becomes but a distant memory once the newly hired employee is working on their team and provided with contradictory information from their manager (“well yes you’ve been front-loaded with 3 weeks of PTO for the year but I won’t be able to approve any time off until you’re here for at least 6 months”)

The talent system…can collapse.

Predictable? Yes. If you’re paying attention these sorts of system disruptions are both foreseeable and changeable. Then it’s time to figure out WHY …. and focus on improvement.

Because the butterfly will always be flapping its wings.  


I’m Hesitant to Ask, But…


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…


You Can’t Put a Sweater on a Jellyfish


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.


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.


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.”


Turnover, Retention and the Crusade to Assign “Responsibility”

Ask most any HR Leader “what’s your biggest pain point?” and I guarantee that retention/turnover will be up there amongst the top 3 answers. Quite often this answer is partnered up with its companion “recruiting/hiring” since, of course, they share space for all eternity on the organizational mobius strip. 

Depending upon one’s company, the responsibility for lowering turnover/increasing employee retention may be a shared goal (as it should be) or may belong to a specific department: usually HR. 

Which is crap.

When Stan in the Distribution Center resigns it’s not due to the interactions he had with Karen in the HR Department or Sherrie in Recruiting. (Recruiters are another group that tend to have their performance measured, inaccurately, on turnover numbers). It’s quite likely that Stan didn’t even resign because of his direct supervisor or department manager. Oh I know; every speaker at every HR conference for the last 2 decades has posted a slide with the seemingly profound words “people leave managers…not companies!” (And then they act like they are the first person to ever say this and all the attendees furiously scribble these seemingly transformative words in their notebooks). 

I detest that pablum statement. Are there horrible, toxic and downright inept managers out there that drive people away from organizations? Of course there are. But people do leave companies; I certainly have. People may have the best manager in the world BUT that manager’s hands may be tied by the company. 

People quit, resign, mentally check out, get fired and just plain stop-showing-up for a variety of reasons. And yes; while some people get fired for an egregious act wherein they may go out in a blaze of glory, there are sufficient numbers of people who are terminated for performance because, well, they just stopped trying or caring.

NONE OF THIS IS THE FAULT OF THE HR DEPARTMENT. Heck, I would argue, again, that quite a bit of it is not even the fault of the person’s manager.

The reasons why people leave their jobs can be classified, fairly simply, into either PUSH or PULL factors.

Push factors are those over which the organization has control. This includes factors such as overall company culture, pay and benefits, working conditions, trust (or lack of trust) in leadership, and opportunities (or lack thereof) for development or career progression. Push factors may also include the annoying co-worker in the next cubicle, the lack of up-to-date technology one has to do their job, and the company’s propensity to rule via death-by-a-thousand-cuts-HR-policies. 

Pull factors are those things that are outside of your organization (and outside of your control). These factors include family responsibilities (a move, family care issues), personal decisions (returning to school), commute and travel issues, and personal/family finances that necessitate a change.

Some may argue that the siren call of a competitor (they pay more! they have free snacks in the breakroom!) is a PULL factor. In the vast majority of cases I disagree; the number of regular employees (i.e. not top tech talent, the superstar marketing professional, etc.) who are recruited (sourced, called, woo’ed) for another job is pretty slim. But even if it does happen, there is some underlying PUSH factor that leads the person to go through an interview and application process beyond simple curiosity. 

They want to leave. And NOTHING you can do is going to get them to change their mind. 

So what IS the role of Human Resources?

HR’s responsibility is to recognize and understand the reasons why people leave the organization, identify the problem areas, and develop solutions to lesson the impact (financial and otherwise). This requires gathering data (exit interviews anyone?) and synthesizing it, appropriately, to provide some real multi-layered answers. 

There are areas, fully in the control of HR, where adjustments can be made:

  • Attraction and recruiting initiatives lay the foundation for retaining talent and HR/TA needs to get this shit right. The “employer brand” should be real and truthful; there should be no sugar-coating of what the day-to-day reality of working at the company is like. Never (ever) should applicants be promised one thing to get them in the door and then the organization delivers an employment experience that is entirely different  
  • HR, with some heavy-lifting from managers, manages the onboarding experience from the time-of-offer to a date well after the newbie employees start. HR should dive deep to ensure onboarding includes sufficient aspects of cultural assimilation, socialization and opportunities for relationship building (in addition to all the “how do you DO your actual job”) 
  • HR staff should work with managers, and equip them with the training, time and resources, so they can provide a high-feedback/high-touch work environment. Do some supervisor/manager training? Sure. But back that up with the time and money to let them do-what-you-hired-them-to-do.

In addition, there are certainly other areas where HR professionals can have an impact on some of the PUSH factors including offering pay and benefits that are competitive and at appropriate levels and ensuring development opportunities truly exist (and aren’t just paid lip service on the company career site). HR professionals should also do some soul-searching and find ways to ‘lighten up’ on the draconian, bureaucratic HR policies and procedures that provide much of the fodder for the “I hate HR” crowd. 

Easier said than done of course. Depending upon ones’ level in the organizational hierarchy (i.e. any layer below the CHRO) and/or the size of the organization it can be a downright futile exercise. Karen the HRBP covering a small region for an enterprise with 50,000 employees unfortunately doesn’t have much input into the drafting of the corporate HR policies or defining the compensation philosophy. (YET SHE IS STILL TOLD SHE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR TURNOVER!) 

Here’s the deal though…

So often, when lectured by a CEO/Owner/Big Shot VP that she is responsible for lowering turnover, Karen in HR (as mentioned above) who is sitting out at a regional site and has no real power to make deep and abiding organizational changes, will do a bunch of “activities.” She’ll hand out water bottles with the company logo, order in pizza, and kick off an Employee of the Month award. 

But no one’s going to stay just because they might – one day – win the “Employee of the Month” award and receive a $25 gift card and their name on a plaque hung in the breakroom.

The Push/Pull factors are still there.


How much do I like this diving into this topic? So much that I’ll be speaking about it at the Talent Success Conference in September. 

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