Those Phantom Workplace Activities

You would think, in this day and age of transparency in the workplace and access to rapid-fire tech and communication tools that organizations would no longer be ready, willing and able to operate under a cloak of invisibility.

If you think that you would be wrong.

Over the last several months I have heard stories from both HR peers and folks who work in non-HR roles that brought to light some disastrous and bumbling maneuvers:

  • an executive leadership team decided there should be new service standards (retail environment) to which all staff must adhere. These new service standards were not only never properly defined (i.e. behaviors), the new expectations were never trickled down to employees. Awareness throughout the company only came about when employees began to be ‘disciplined’ for not performing to standards. Oh…did I mention there were scorecards being kept on employees to “rate” them on these behaviors which had neither been defined nor communicated?
  • ACME Corporation utilizes a focal point performance review cycle; still somewhat traditional (as many companies are by-the-way despite what the pundits tell us), employees receive an annual formal review. They are reviewed on the last 12 month’s performance, achievement of prior year goals is evaluated, and new goals are set for the upcoming year. Points are calculated (old school!) with heavy emphasis being given to goal accomplishment. One year, not that long ago, a new CEO joined the organization mid-year and, when performance review season rolled around, opted to “toss out” the existing goals that had been set during the last review cycle. Rather, when the process opened up at the end of the year (no doubt with heavy sighs of discontent all around since everyone despises these broken processes), the CEO instructed managers to evaluate employees on items other than the agreed upon goals set  during the previous cycle. News to all concerned. “We didn’t tell Bob he was going to be held accountable for an xx% increase in important-metric XYZ? Too bad; he should have made that improvement. No points for Bob!”

I was told about:

  • Company acquisition details that employees learned about via the internet or TV news stations rather than any one piece of communication coming from their own employer
  • Corporate shenanigans exposed publicly (i.e. SOX compliance stuff) yet never explained to employees
  • Head honchos (C-Suite) leaving the organization with nary a communique to the staff (unwashed masses?) within their span-of-control

Why does this sort of stuff go on?

Sometimes, as Executives and Leaders are sitting around a fancy mahogany table crafting the next great-step-in-the-company-history, they fail to take a look around the room and ask themselves “who else should be here?” …. “what could they add to the conversation?” ….“If they’re not here, what will they need to know …. and when?” ….”what could be the consequences if they aren’t here?” 

Sometimes, they just don’t care if they’re inviting ghosts and phantoms into the workplace.

Now that’s spooky.

 

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image via WikiMedia Commons

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The Dangers Inherent in “Keeping Sweet” at Work

There’s a mantra, a commandment really, amongst certain religious fundamentalist groups that women and girls should always “keep sweet.” While the concept seems to have originated in polygamous/FLDS cults society, it has reached into other patriarchal groups. The phrase is designed to remind every girl and woman how she should conduct herself. Whether she is encountering life’s daily frustrations or something more harmful such as being forced into a marriage or encountering abuse, a ‘godly’ woman should maintain a smile on her face and acquiesce to the men-in-charge.

This, of course, has led to some horrible and harmful outcomes such as FLDS girls being forced into polygamist marriages at a young age. All because “the prophet” admonished them, over and over, to not show emotions or ask questions. The manifestation of this belief has been described as being “immune to gloom.”

Somewhat extreme I know; I’m willing to bet very few of you reading this consider yourself a member of a cult. I mean, it’s not like you’re with a bunch of pals sporting the same hairstyle, wearing matching Nikes and waiting to transport to the spaceship to join up with the Hale-Bopp Comet. Right?

Not to make light of a situation that took a tragic turn back in 1997, but that Heaven’s Gate group’s  “Procedures Book” read somewhat like an HR Policy Manual. Among other things the book “enforced a 7:22 vitamin intake time, the direction to shave with a razor, and the proper circumference for pancakes.”  As pointed out in this article, “these rules were implemented with the argument that they were training for the strict and disciplined life they would live on alien spacecraft. But in reality they kept members obedient and subservient to the group and its leader.” ……….I think I’ve worked for that company……..

Disregarding the rules for pancake circumference, which we can all agree crosses over into the realm of too much detail-obsession, we have to admit that some of these cultish behaviors sound eerily similar to the exhortations that infest a lot of organizations.

Don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask questions. Follow the directions. Keep a happy countenance. Keep a smile on your face.

Keep sweet.

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A few weeks ago I was having a miserable (OK…let’s call it shitty) day. I was swirling about in a mental twister; simultaneously tracking and worrying about home/family/work/to-do-lists/dogs/parents/chores/not-enough-hours-in-the-day. At one point I took a brief stretch and wandered out of HR to get some coffee. In order to get to the employee dining room I had to pass through the casino lobby and walk past the Valet Office which was chock-a-block full of patrons, visitors and employees.  But it’s a quick jaunt and I quickly arrived at the blessed coffee machine.

As I was filling up my mug (java!) an employee grabbing a Coke next to me asked “are you OK Miss Robin?”

“Oh no!,” I thought, as I quickly rearranged my face into the super friendly welcoming smile we’re accustomed to plastering on our faces in the hospitality industry.

“Oh sure. I’m fine!” I chirped.  *** Grin Grin Grin ***

And then I thought to myself, what load of fresh crap is this? I seriously think I need to pretend with an employee? Because I’m the head of HR or what?

“You know,” I said, as I let my countenance shift back into not-so-sweet-and-smiley-mode, “I’ve had a rough couple of days. I’m dealing with a sick dog, we’re slammed in HR, and I’ve just got a lot on my mind. I’m tired and just not feeling it today.” *** Shrug Shrug Shrug ***

“Sorry to hear that Miss Robin,” he responded. “It will get better.” (and then he gave me a hug)

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A few weeks after that I attended WorkHuman in Austin where, among other things, we discussed creating connections, exhibiting empathy, and finding ways to create a deeper sense of belonging for individuals at work. “Let people be themselves” was a phrase I heard uttered a gazillion times (and then I flashed back to my non-smiling-RBF hug at the coffee pot).

I spent a lot of time at the event thinking about the importance that ONE person can have in an organization. The symbolism of ONE act. The impact that ONE person can make when challenging the status quo.

I think when we talk about “working human” it’s moving it from the macro-enterprise-company level and being up-ended and inverted. Over the last four years at WorkHuman we’ve moved from talking about the “organizational change” and now discussing how ONE person, perhaps at the bottom or in the middle of the org structure, can be the catalyst for creating a more human-centric company.

By questioning and challenging those in authority.

By calling out institutional racism, sexism or other -isms.

By shining the light on destructive policies, programs or practices that destroy, rather than uplift.

By refusing to “keep sweet.”

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Your HYPER-Local Workplace Culture

micro cultureAmy and Becky have adjoining cubicles in your Midwest Region Customer Care Service Center. They’ve sat within 10 feet of each other since 2002 and together have survived 2 CEOs, 3 Department Directors and 6 Supervisors. Amy took care of Becky’s dog when she and her husband Jeff went to that all-inclusive resort in Cancun for their 10th wedding anniversary. Becky helped Amy’s mom throw a surprise birthday party at Applebee’s when Amy turned 40.

Your Midwest Region Customer Care Service Center is located in Glendale, WI (just a bit north of Milwaukee; lovely suburb) and reports in to the Customer Care HQ located in downtown Chicago which, in turn, feeds up, (through various Regional Directors, VPs and a few SVPs), to the corporate office located in Atlanta on Peachtree Street. Well…one of the Peachtree Streets.

There are 327 FTEs toiling away (Monday thru Saturday; 7A-7P; 6 holidays) at the Midwest Region Customer Care Service Center in Glendale, WI. When it’s baseball season they have a company tailgate at a Brewers’ game. During football season, everyone wears Packer gear on casual Fridays. And when you need a custard fix? Jason on the New Accounts team is your go-to-guy for a Kopp’s run at lunch time.

No one at the Midwest Region Customer Care Service Center cares too much for the folks from Customer Care HQ in Chicago. (”Damn FIBs” as Jason likes to call them).

And those Corporate people from Atlanta? Seriously? WTF is up with them? Who can understand what they say?  Why are they so….southern? Did you know they served grits for breakfast when everyone went down for training?

One company.

Same mission, vision and values.  Same corporate web site and, of course, the same corporate career page with the same branding, videos, stories and “EVP.”

Yet each of these teams and locations has a distinct, specific and unique micro-culture. Heck…Amy and Becky have a vastly different culture than Jason and he’s just located on a different floor of the building in Glendale, WI.

And the three of them are most assuredly not having the same cultural experience that Rebecca and Traci are having down at the Atlanta corporate office.

Yet, as happens in organizations the world-over, when a rising star arrives via their promotional travels at a new location (requisite company newsletter blurb: “Meet Brandon Smith, our new VP of Special Projects! Brandon has transferred from the Akron, OH office!”), there’s tension and friction as s/he struggles to determine what, exactly, seems to be “off” about the culture.

There are different foods and rituals and customs. The Boston office is so ‘formal’ while everyone in the Hattiesburg, MS office is a bit too chummy and familiar with each other. (They call each other “sweetie!” Can you imagine?)

But guess what? Amy and Becky, in their micro-culture comprised of 10 cubicles in Glendale, WI, are not ‘wrong.’

They’re simply living the culture in a different way.

HYPER localized.

 

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image courtesy of Odyssey

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Elephants in the Workplace

An elephant never forgets. We all know that saying. It implies, for some reason, that elephants possess some incredible long term memory. (Apparently though, there is some research backing this up).

There are also elephants at work. Which can be super awesome.  Or sometimes quite dreadful.

On the plus side of the column there’s the “institutional knowledge” guy/gal. I can’t tell you how many times, upon joining a new organization, I’ve relied on the HR or Payroll lady who remembers (with amazing recall) the minutiae of an employee investigation that took place years before or can recollect, with incredible clarity, the ER/EE medical co-pay rates circa 2005.

But, more often than not, these pachydermian recollections are used for evil as opposed to good. Have you ever heard…

  • “Susie is inflexible” (Because Susie didn’t want to change the office hours and start at 8:30 instead of 8:00 back in 1999)
  • “Tom has a bad temper (That one time? He yelled at Stu in Receiving? Remember?)
  • “Trixie provides really poor customer service” (OMG! In 2010 Mrs. Szymanski called and she was so pissed it went all the way up to the CEO at magical-corporate-office-in another-state!!)

Naturally, most of these stories are based on ancient information and, more often than not, very few data points. Any self respecting statistician who claimed to draw meaning from such lackluster numbers would be drummed out of business.

Trixie, (as just one example), in the course of her career with ACME Corp, may have dealt with 20,000 customers. But it’s the 5 (.00025% of customers) who asked to speak to a supervisor or, in 2018, left a comment on the company Facebook page, who have become those data points.

Of course, it’s today. We can use technology and gathering of e-scores to determine exactly what Trixie’s deal is.  We do pulse surveys and NPS and whatnot. Can’t we?

But not all organizations have that technology at their disposal.

So the elephants are consulted

And they … never forget.

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The Employee Experience: As Simple as “X” and “Y?”

Sixty years ago Douglas McGregor from the MIT Sloan School of Management presented two theories of workforce motivation he named “Theory X” and “Theory Y.” Over the intervening decades these theories have been used by leadership teams, HR professionals and OD folks as they craft and create HR policies, performance management programs, rewards and recognition, and work space design.

If it’s been some time since you gave much thought to McGregor’s work, here’s a refresher:

Theory X assumes that:

  • people dislike work
  • people want to avoid work (i.e. “people are inherently lazy”)
  • people do not want to take responsibility

Theory Y assumes that:

  • people are happy to work
  • people are self-motivated to pursue objectives
  • people thrive on responsibility

In a Theory X organization:

  • management is authoritarian
  • control is centralized with a belief that people must be coerced
  • a reward and punishment style (i.e. “carrot and stick”) is used; financial incentives (or financial punishments) are believed to the best motivator

In a Theory Y organization:

  • management is participative; employees are involved
  • feedback, especially positive feedback, is continuous
  • it is assumed that control, rewards and punishments are not the only ways to stimulate people
  • people have self-direction and self-control

Simplified perhaps. Because, of course, we all learned in our earliest forays into leading others that management of a team requires some combination of Theory X and Theory Y style.  Every employee is unique.  Yet “simple” is helpful as we tackle what we consider to be the nuanced and complex workplace issues today; decades after McGregor first shared these theories in 1957.

So as I sit here, day-in-and-day-out, and think about the employee experience (which, let’s face it, is merely an amalgamation of previous terms and is now the trendy catch phrase/buzzword for everything else that has come before it) I often find myself stripping all the glam and sexy stuff down to a pretty basic question… “Do you provide an X or a Y experience?”

For therein lies the problem; without asking that question and truly examining a few key principles about how people are viewed, numerous organizations continuously circle round and round in a never-ending journey of futility.  They may telegraph to candidates, applicants and new hires all the Theory Y things they do when, in reality, the policies, rewards and management style exhibited by the vast majority are most assuredly Theory X.

Not to mention there’s a real danger of ongoing confirmation bias; a Theory X organization which operates with control and coercion may find, as time goes on, that employees become so accustomed to punishing behavior (“you’re 5 minutes late! Here’s your penalty!”) that they do, in fact, exert minimal effort and thus confirm all the assumptions that managers have had all along. “See how lazy they are!  You can’t trust people to show up on time. We have to punish them or no one will come to work!”

Let’s be real though; there is not one single HR pundit or “Future of Work” speaker out on the vast global conference speaking circuit touting “Top Ten Ways to Motivate Your Lazy Unwilling-to-Work Employees!”  Nope; that wouldn’t sell a lot of tickets.

Instead, managers from assorted disciplines attend their specific professional development conferences, sign up for the “HR Track,” and take copious notes as some HR consultant/speaker talks about “The New Way of Work.”

And then those very same managers head back to the office, roll up their sleeves, and bust out the Theory X.

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