Chaos in a Talent System

chaos

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.  

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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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What’s New? Cool Kick-Ass HR Stuff!

Over the last 10 years I’ve used my blog to philosophically wax and wane about all things HR. I like to think I’ve had some profound things to say when I’ve taken on a particular topic but, of course, also realize there have been many times when I was musing merely for my own enjoyment. I’ve talked, over the years, about Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy (the first one), menstruation, clueless HR and organizational practices and, in one of my most popular recent posts, the disconnect between “conference HR” and “real world HR.”

(Q: how many pundits does it take to discuss culture, engagement or “why recruiting is like marketing”? A: probably none).

Nevertheless, I persisted.

And now, because I can, I’m using my little corner of the internet to talk about something exciting and, quite frankly, a bit promotional.

The company I joined last year (as Head of People) is heading towards a new and exciting future as we recently transitioned to a new moniker (Peridus Group) and unveiled our sexy new web site!

We remain, at our core, a boutique consulting firm fixing problems and doing cool shit. We consult on HR Technology + Systems work (especially Workday integrations, implementations and managed services), Talent + Recruiting (contract recruiting and RPO), and NOW (here’s the new stuff!) we’ve added an HR + People Strategy practice headed by yours truly.

The HR + People Strategy group aligns with our firm’s raison d’etre: providing talent strategy and solutions for independent thinkers.  On the HR + People Strategy side that translates to mean “this ain’t your mama’s HR” since:

  • We believe the future of HR includes tossing aside non-functioning legacy practices in order to create people strategies that are vibrant, pro-active and nimble. 
  • We share research and insight that can inform decisions and drive innovation in all areas of an organization’s people operations and the experience of its employees. 
  • We don’t take what many think of as the typical (and stereotyped) human resources approach. While we’re mindful of underlying compliance and legislative issues (hey; we’re the SMEs after all) we like to focus on the “possibilities” … not the policies. We push our clients to contemplate “what CAN we do rather than what CAN’T we do.” 
  • And I, as the architect of this group, am most assuredly not your mama’s HR ……..

So yeah; pretty exciting. In addition to providing general consulting, project work and training/workshop facilitations, we also offer an HR managed service option which is ideal when the company doesn’t have a dedicated and experienced human resources leader or the Leadership team/HR Leader could benefit from additional support on planning, strategy and implementation of forward-thinking people strategies that can boost the attraction, recruitment, retention and development of talent.

Wanna chat about what I’m doing now? Hit me up at robin@peridusgroup.com.

Let’s work together!

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Workplace Realities: Recruiting When Your Staff Turnover Exceeds 100%

I’ve lived, worked and managed HR in industries where turnover for certain positions and/or departments exceeded 100%. It’s not fun.

I recently read this article (“Panera losing nearly all workers in fast-food turnover crisis”) about the increasing challenges in the restaurant industry related to turnover and, I must admit, it induced numerous stress-inducing flashbacks.

While the article discusses automation – kiosks for customers and robots back-of-house – the highlights for me were related to the human impact:

  • “The job no one really wants– Experts who have studied the restaurant business for decades and work with national chains are divided over the extent to which fast-food jobs can be made better. Some do not believe there is no formula combining pay, benefits, training and culture that can save the human worker in this sector.”
  • “There are no other job segments in the U.S. that have higher turnover than the fast-food and fast-casual segments of the restaurant industry, according to DiPietro at the University of South Carolina’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. “Not even retail.””
  • “…the fast-food industry, which faces steep price competition, is handicapped by the inability to raise wages much, as well as its limited career advancement opportunities. It also has little history of offering competitive benefits. Only 14% of all fast-food restaurants offer sick leave, and only 16% offer paid time off.”
  • “She (Rosemary Battchair of HR Studies and International & Comparative Labor at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations) said the labor problems can be solved by methods other than robots, such as chains putting more effort into hiring better managers and treating workers with more respect. That requires companies being willing to give workers more hours and more predictable scheduling. “That is not very costly for HR to invest in. It just takes managers to be frankly more competent and pay more attention to the issue. … Maybe they won’t optimize labor costs to the extent they want to, but it will pay off in lower turnover and more satisfies workers and better operations. That should not be hard problem to fix.””

And, as Batt also pointed out, “Because turnover is getting so serious and because chains have the ability to do the HR analytics, they can begin to cost out turnover and say, ‘This is not a cost we have taken seriously, because historically we were counting on high turnover model as acceptable.'”

All of it. Just all of it. 

A few of the realities I experienced:

  • A mindset that employees are as replaceable as the other supplies and materials used to run the restaurants.
  • The cost of high turnover is anticipated, expected and budgeted for much as the company budgets the cost of replacing xx.x% of the kitchen equipment each fiscal year.
  • Jobs are ALWAYS open and hiring is ONGOING. Of course, when squiring candidates through the recruiting process it’s impossible to discuss specific schedules because the shift, days and availability of hours will change, undoubtedly, before the person even reports for Day 1. This is based, of course, on how many people will either quit or start between now and, oh, two days from now.  
  • Benefits will be offered and touted (tuition reimbursement! flexible schedules!) because there are sufficient qualifiers in place to ensure a minimal number of employees will even get to take advantage of them. (i.e. “tuition reimbursement is available for full-time employees with at least 12 months of continuous service who are enrolled in a curriculum related to their job.”)
  • Annual wage increases of 1.5% – 3% (and on $9 per hour, a 3% increase equals 27 cents) ensure that the INSTANT a competitor starts paying an additional .50 per hour, the staff will practically leave mid-shift and sprint down the street to start a new job.

But…yet…sitting up in the corporate HQs somewhere far, far away from the day-to-day realities of life in the kitchen, HR teams devise catchy tag line and launch compelling CAREER sites even though, let’s face it, most job seekers are not viewing these gigs as ‘careers.’ While some folks may, in fact, start in a restaurant and ‘move up the ladder’ (and there are, certainly, people who work at corporate offices in ‘careers,’) these sites are promoting employment to candidates who are applying for jobs paying anywhere from $7.25 to (maybe, if they’re a ‘manager’ with 10 years experience) $12 per hour. 

So I decided to take a look at what the talent acquisition teams (and the multitudinous employer branding consultants) at limited service restaurants have put together on their various career sites. 

Here’s what I found: 

Panera“Fresh, food, fun work”

Taco Bell Careers“Start with us…stay with us”

McDonald’s Careers“Where you want to be” 

Subway“Careers on the rise” 

Chipotle“The difference is real. Work with the food you love.” 

Burger King“Bring it @ BKC” 

Dunkin’ Donuts“Here today – here to stay” 

Chick-fil-a“Growing together, prospering together” 

Wendy’s“Are you a Wendy’s kind of person?” (“we love to have fun, and hopefully you do too”)

Whataburger“Do work that makes you proud” 

Raising Cane’s“We make fun of work” 

Sonic“This is how we Sonic” (“we encourage and attract wildly creative people”) 

KFC“Join our KFC Family” 

Dairy Queen“Create unbelievable moments in everyday lives” 

Popeyes“You belong at Popeyes” 

Qdoba – “Craveable food. Raveable careers.”

Well…if nothing else, I’ve now got a hankering for some good old-fashioned carbs and sodium delivered in a paper bag. 

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Walking Towards Futility: A Wellness Fail

It seems there is nothing that brings HR professionals as much joy as rolling out tortuous physical activities for unwitting employees in the name of “Wellness.” There are companies that, in the quest to promote healthy lifestyles (aka “lower health care premiums”) have mandated everything from Jazzercise to rock climbing to participating in a local 5k run/walk for their employees. And yes…mandated; meaning they’ve tied participation in such activities to performance appraisals and salary reviews.

I once worked for an organization that, to be fair, was very transparent about why it ran and supported a wellness program; to save money. Health insurance costs were forever rising at a seemingly exorbitant rate and, as the company had a self-insured medical plan, this meant each month the checks cut from the company checkbook were growing ever larger. In addition, those expenses that had not sufficiently budgeted for came right out of the end of year calculation for the bonuses paid to leaders. In other words, a few medical catastrophes spread across the employee population (or their covered dependents) might mean that VP Bob wouldn’t be able to buy his vacation home in the mountains.

Sad.

So, with lowering costs as the primary reason, the company launched a Wellness Program a number of years ago. It’s important to note that when a company labels such an initiative a “program,” you have your first clue it has nothing to do with truly caring about people’s health, financial stability or mental and emotional wellness. And this program, like many before and since, had all the hallmarks of failure including making participation a chore (“track your meals and turn in this checklist!”) and running multiple “Biggest Loser” contests which are just about the worst activity to run from both a legal and health standpoint.

There was also, as you may imagine, quite a bit of employee shaming that ran rampant. One of the HR zealots told me, with quite a bit of pride, that he saw it as his DUTY to promote healthy eating. He would wander through the employee lunchroom, on a regular basis, and stop and have discussions with employees about their meal choices: “Sandy! Do you really want to eat that leftover friend chicken? A better choice would be a healthy salad with some lentils and a vinaigrette dressing!”  (inner monologue from Sandy in Accounting: ‘get out of my life crazy HR dude.’)

At one stage, amongst this backdrop of ill-informed and ill-placed intentions, it was dictated from those-on-high that additional physical activities were needed in order to ‘get everyone healthy.’  The answer, determined by an avid runner sitting up high on the org chart, was to institute walking activities! This was to include:

  • Setting up an obstacle course in the company parking lot so employees could head outside during their 10-minute breaks and 30-minute meal time to ‘get in a few steps’
  • Running a Couch-to-5k challenge
  • Awarding points, on the employee’s annual performance evaluation, if they participated in one of several chosen Run/Walks on a Saturday morning

OK, you may think, those aren’t so bad (well, other than the tie-in to a job performance review). But here’s the deal:

This was not a 9-to-5 organization; people weren’t cooped up in an office and sitting at desks all day and thus eager to ‘stretch their legs’ at lunch time.

  • The majority of employees worked evening shifts or overnight so talking a walk in the parking lot would have meant strolling around, in the dark, at 11 PM or 2 AM.
  • The nature of the work meant that most everyone’s job included STANDING ON THEIR FEET and/or WALKING for the duration of their shift; by the time meal time came all they wanted to do was sink into a chair for a few blessed minutes.
  • This was in south Louisiana. In the summer. With heat, humidity and mosquitos as big as your fist.

But running a couch-to-5k challenge? What’s wrong with that? Well, when the average hourly wage is just over $12 per hour it’s a bit much to expect someone to purchase appropriate footwear ($150? $200?) and pay the entrance fees for a 5k.

As for those somewhat-mandated Run/Walks and 5ks, well, all of them (I mean all of them) occur on Saturday mornings; usually kicking off between 7 AM and 9 AM. On a day, and a time, when the vast majority of employees were either just getting off shift after working all night, or, sleeping because they had worked until 3 AM.

Oh yes…there were many wellness fails at this organization:

There was no consideration of the fact that in a multi-gendered workforce that spanned ages 18 to 80, individuals would have not only varying physical abilities but also differing metabolisms.

Activities and plans were formulated by leaders with lots of disposable income and disposable time. Their prism of privilege meant they never gave any thought to the fact that employees had multiple jobs to make ends meet or ate white bread and processed-lunch-meat sandwiches because they couldn’t afford to purchase fresh fruit with granola when their take home pay for the week was $300.

This stuff drives me crazy.

Pass me the quinoa please.

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For a recent conversation “Calling BS on Wellness Programs” – check out this episode of New Yawk HR where we also offer some helpful (hopefully) tips.

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