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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The Importance of Using the “Write” Language

write-up

“I’m going to issue a write-up.”

“He should be written up.”

“Her manager is going to give her a write up.”

“HR must be present when a manager gives an employee a write-up.”

“Should I write-up this employee?”

“The employee refused to sign the write-up.” 

“Write-ups don’t work; our employees are still doing the same thing.” 

***** 

I can barely begin to tell you how I abhor this list. These articulations, as captured above, have recently appeared in various and assorted Facebook groups where HR practitioners gather. And while HR folks are accused (and sometimes guilty) of any number of bone-headed maneuvers, the language used by many around employee performance is one move that’s in serious need of adjustment. 

“Write up” (used as both a verb and a noun) is up there in my top 5 most-hated-phrases-uttered-by-HR-people. 

It’s lazy. It’s infantilizing. And it reduces the manager/employee relationship to one of parent & child. Or school principal and pupil. Or lord-of-the-manor and servant. The use of this phrase communicates everything wrong with an organization’s culture, its views on performance management and the employee experience.

It has to go.

I implore you HR – stop being the master of the one-note samba (“write up!”) and sing a different tune. 

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Employee Experience: More than a Buzzword

Employee Experience (EX) is one of those phrases that, if one were so inclined, could fill a “Buzzword Bingo” card at most any HR conference/event over the last few years. We’ve been talking about it for a while now so, inevitably, there are folks already casting about looking for the next shiny-object-du-jour.

I say hold up; our understanding of the importance of the employee experience, and our ability to make improvements, is nowhere near the “check it off the list’ phase.

So what is it… exactly? One easy definition is “employee experience is the “user experience” of your company — it’s the intersection of employees’ expectations, their environment and the events that shape their journey within an organization.”

It includes understanding the moments that matter – for all employees. It requires HR professionals to step outside of their interaction with the experience (a process and interaction THEY created!) and put themselves in the shoes of the end-users (employees). It’s about nurturing a workplace environment where every individual can feel a sense of belonging and be successful.

It’s something we should continuously discuss – and we’re going to do just that next week!

Join me on next week’s #MercerChats (on the twitterz!) on Tuesday, 11/26 at 10 AM ET when we discuss “Who’s Driving the Modern Employee Experience?”

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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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