Repeat After Me: Just Don’t Be a Richard

I’ve had numerous conversations over the last several months that have given me pause as an HR professional.  Wait, let me amend that. Conversations that have given me pause as a business professional.

These conversations were with employees, managers and leaders who work in fly-over country for salt-of-the-earth, middle America, un-sexy companies in non-glamorous industries.  Insurance companies, manufacturing plants, and hospitals. Restaurants, transportation providers, call-centers and governmental entities.

You know…real jobs with real people; not the “world of work” we’re fed via the glossy pages of Fast Company magazine and its brethren.

This, my friends, is the world where punitive attendance polices still exist (as opposed to flexible work/life integration practices) and performance management programs cozily snuggle up next to forced rankings. A place where business owners and/or organizational leaders still feel it’s A-OK to suggest that a female candidate can be paid less because “she’s probably not the primary bread-winner for the family.”  A reality where not everyone has access to Slack or Dropbox or, believe it or not, even a mobile device with WIFI capability. This, of course, means that work schedules are posted on a bulletin board and employees take a bus across town to physically visit the workplace to check their schedule for the next week. And, in a perverted distortion of humanity, if they can’t physically view their schedule (or get hold of anyone via telephone) and thus miss a scheduled shift, they are then penalized via that draconian attendance policy. Full circle in a Kafkaesque world.

These are the workplaces that are veritable orgies of old-school management practices overlaid with a slick (and false) veneer of culture, values, and sexy branding. The sort of places that win a “Best Places to Work” award conferred by the Chamber of Commerce, local media conglomerate, or a third-party Rewards and Recognition vendor that paid big bucks to ‘sponsor’ the awards.

Workplaces where, sometimes, the managers/leaders still operate as if they’re running a Dickensian workhouse. Why? Sometimes it’s due to… 

  • Narcissistic love of power – “I’m in charge and I make the rules” (Waah ha ha!!)
  • Managers who developed their personal style of management at the knee of a mentor (raised up in the 70’s) and are too afraid or too lazy to adjust at this stage of the game
  • The ingrained belief that “everyone is out to screw us” (most often evidenced in business owners as opposed to leaders in an enterprise organization or governmental entity)
  • Stereotypes
  • Prejudices
  • Privilege

When will the day arrive when more workers can reap the benefits of our “new way of working?” Will we ever bridge the digital divide and find a way for everyone to benefit from the use of technology? What about workplace flexibility and the ability to take sick leave and not be ostracized for giving birth or having surgery or spending time with an ill family member? I think we can look back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (106 years ago) and see vast improvements…but there are still locks on the doors.  Those barricades, placed on the doors by owners and managers, are now preventing people from opportunity and freedom of another kind.

Workplace freedom.

Note: this post, and its title, was inspired by a recent conversation with a business owner who said that her company’s policy around unlimited vacation for employees is “take off whatever time you need, just don’t be a dick about it.”  

Simple. Easy. Common sense.  


image: via tshirt hub


A Tale of Disengagement: The Marginalized Employee

A friend of mine is frustrated at work. Frustrated enough to adopt the mantra “I’m learning to not even care.” (as he so succinctly put it). 

And he is, by nature, a very caring person. 

He cares about his customers, his company, and his performance.  He continues to focus on results and doing the best job he can.  But his joy, delight and mojo has left the building.  The energy – the effort! – he’s always put forth has been dialed down a few several many notches.

We can pontificate all we want about ‘attitude’ being a personal choice.  We can exhort people to show up at work and put their nose to the grindstone.  But we can’t, and we know it, make people give a shit.  And then, when they don’t give a shit, we absolutely cannot wonder “why.” 

But we do. We still aimlessly meander down the leadership trail in our pointless journey; doling out surveys, studying reports and lamenting the lack of employee engagement. Which, by the way, we have neglected to even DEFINE.

Naturally we look internally and pat ourselves on the back for doing it right (“damn straight Mr. CEO! We’re most assuredly doing all we can!”) and therefore decide it must be that individual.  That lazy employee.  That person who just shows up to collect a paycheck.  “We’ll never change that person”, we decide.

And deep down we know that’s the biggest crock ever.  But we’re afraid, more often than not, to take a real hard look at how things really are in our companies.  Am I right?

My friend?  A perfect example of how an organization can make someone a statistic and cause an individual to become yet another disengaged employee.  A few  of the recent happenings at his company:

  • A command and control management culture has returned after a brief hiatus (once upon a time some C-suite dude heard that, you know, command-and-control was ‘dead,’ but then…they somehow managed to bring it back to life).  Orders once again come trickling down from on high – through layers of management – and employees are expected to execute.  No input, no discussion and no questioning.
  • My pal, as are many others at his organization, is effectively out of the loop.  Business decisions and organizational strategies – even those which directly impact how he does his job – are not shared.  He operates in a vacuum. A giant corporate soul-sucking Dyson.  It may be the fancy kind with the patented cyclone technology, but it’s certainly not a vacuum with desirable features.
  • His position, one that is absolutely critical to success in the organization, has been relegated to the sidelines.  “Do as you’re told until we tell you to do differently.  That information is on a need-to-know basis.  And you don’t need to know.”




So when he says “I’m learning to not even care,” it’s because that’s what he’s being taught.

Not exactly what’s meant by learning and performanceis it?


this post is a re-run/re-work of one of the most (still) searched/linked/googled/found posts on the HRSchoolhouse (my old original site). I think it’s worth a re-run. I’m also re-running the picture/image from that original 2013 post because I just freakin’ LOVE this picture of the kitty with the vacuum cleaner.  


Employees as Re-Consumers

when-harry-met-sally-800-75The other day as I lay prone on the sofa flipping through channels I happened upon “When Harry Met Sally.” The last 30 minutes of “When Harry Met Sally.”

Now I’ve seen this movie so many times I feel as if I not only assisted in writing the script but also hung out during filming and gave notes to the actors, picked out the set decorations, and had a hand in Meg Ryan’s wardrobe. I can sing along to every song on the Harry Connick Jr. (who, btw, I adore with the heat a thousand burning suns) infused soundtrack. I laugh at the same lines (every time) and usually tear up, right on cue, at the end.

So, naturally, I settled in and re-watched the ending. One more time.

I am, as American University Professor of Marketing Cristell Russell calls it, a “re-consumer.”

In research published by the Journal of Consumer Research, Russell and co-author Sidney Levy (marketing professor at the University of Arizona) explored the motivation of people who go on vacation to the same place year after year, re-watch their favorite TV shows and movies, and re-read the same book over and over again. (note: my top book is Thorpe; I’ve done an annual re-read for at least 30 years).

The authors explored the drivers of re-consumption as well as the psychological and experiential aspects. “We interviewed people in New Zealand and America to determine why they chose to repeat their behavior,” Russell has stated. “We determined that that re-consumption behaviors serve five main purposes: regressive, progressive, reconstructive, relational, and reflective. The reasoning that people had for their repeat behaviors was far more complex than simply nostalgia. For people to take time out of their busy lives to do something over and over again, the motivations required were usually deep-seated and poignant.”

Some people, it turned out, re-consume due to familiarity; their brain signals to them exactly what sort of reward they’ll receive in the end whether that be a good cry, laughter, or relaxation. Others return for a do-over because, subconsciously, they’re using the activity as a measuring stick for their own life. When re-consuming in this manner, a person mentally categorizes the changes they’ve experienced since the first time they sat, as an example, in a darkened theatre watching the WHMS “I’ll have what she’s having” scene.

While people might re-consume unpleasant things (perhaps inadvertently or against their will) they’ll also return over and over and over again to those things that serve a deeper purpose. They may repeat these consumer activities due to affection (“I always watch any Law & Order episode with Chris Noth!”), nostalgia (“Hey honey…this is ‘our song’!”) or for therapeutic reasons (“When I need a good cry I watch “Steel Magnolias”)

Now think about this from an HR perspective; it ties directly into the true brand of the employment experience and the corporate culture at an organization.

If increased retention and higher engagement (as examples) are desired outcomes at your company, then here’s another lesson to take from our friends in marketing.

Speak to the hearts and minds of your employees and they might, just might, continue to buy what you’re selling.


This post originally ran at the HRSchoolhouse


What to do BEFORE the “Engagement Survey”

darkedinburgh_couple2Gather ‘round and let me tell you a story about employee engagement. This is a simple tale. When you hear it you’ll realize it required neither the purchase of shiny new technology nor the services of a high-priced consultant. No project plan and no additional dollars budgeted for tchotkes in an attempt to curry favor with the masses. Not even a strategy map.

Engagement, of course, is not a strategy. Rather it’s the outcome after implementing steps designed to accomplish some fairly specific things. Organizations usually set out with the intent of creating a better work environment, promoting trust, increasing collaboration, or strengthening an organizational culture that aligns with their values and vision.

Google “engagement” and you’ll uncover numerous definitions (and find yourself the victim of retargeted ads from any number of vendors and service providers trying to get you to spend money money money!). Most pundits are in agreement, of course, that engagement is not the same as employee happiness or employee satisfaction. Although I venture to guess many of us who’ve worked in hellish companies would have traded our souls for a few days of happiness or satisfaction. Am I right?

Nevertheless, most people who worry about this sort of thing concur that engagement means emotional commitment. It refers to employees who care about both their own work and performance and the organization. They go the extra mile. You never hear an engaged employee utter the phrase “that’s not my job.” Stuff like that.

This doesn’t remove an expectation of some quid pro quo such as the psychological contract concept as developed by Denise M. Rousseau which refers to the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee. If there’s a contract “breach” around pay or working conditions Sally Employee may walk out the door. But Sally, dare I say, also isn’t going to extend a whole lot of discretionary effort while she’s an active employee if the CEO is a mythical creature and her own manager is a tool.

My personal definition of engagement has long been “the extent to which employee attitudes, actions, and behaviors demonstrate a commitment to and alignment with the goals of the organization.”

So why do organizations fail in devising actions and strategies when they’re hoping for an outcome of enhanced engagement? When they desire that alignment and commitment?

I’ll tell you why.

The buzzword bandwagon pulls up, everyone hops on, and before you know it Joe CEO is attempting to measure something with a lack of internal clarity on work factors or conditions. He lacks the rudimentary knowledge about the critical drivers of trust, collaboration, cultural alignment or yes…even the basics of the psychological contract. Comments like “people seem unhappy” or “turnover is increasing” or “we’ve lost our collective mojo” can very quickly lead organizations, at the behest of Joe CEO, down the path of collecting annual survey data with no underlying rhyme or reason.

So now to the story. (Finally. Am I right?)

An organizational leader was recently hired to take the reins of a mid-sized operation. Along with all the necessary stuff to sort out – “Are we efficient? How are our customers being served? When is my laptop going to arrive?” – he knew that employees (people! human beings!) were the foundation to everything he might plan for the future.

So he held some roundtables. Easy peasy, to some degree; most every new leader, unless she or he is incredibly anti-social does something similar. Usually.

Here’s the cool thing though; the point of this particular tale. This new leader spent the first several months working in every department and in most every job across the organization. Full shifts. Days, nights, weekends. He donned the appropriate uniform and worked side-by-side with employees with 20+ year tenure and newbies who had just landed the gig themselves. And no; not in some Undercover Boss bullcrap-for-the-camera sort of way.

He gained clarity by walking the walk and demonstrating a willingness to fully and completely understand what-people-do-and-deal-with before launching any snazzy sexy consultant-sold initiative designed to increase excitement, motivation or innovation. Absent surveys and measurements and “scoring.”

Is gathering data – through a feedback mechanism or an engagement survey tool – somewhere in his future? Sure it is.

But it will launch with understanding and on a foundation of human connections. It will be real-time. It will be integrated and holistic …not a stand alone checklist. It will reinforce support for employees; support that has already been demonstrated.  Deep-in-the-gut things that can actually impact attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

Survey or not.


Work, Culture and the Tension Headache

The_Head_AcheI recently had a conversation with a friend who, while sharing some updates about his current work environment, summed it up by simply stating “it’s just really tense.” Tense; defined as

  • stretched tight, as a cord, fiber, etc.; drawn taut; rigid.
  • in a state of mental or nervous strain; high-strung; taut: a tense person.
  • characterized by a strain upon the nerves or feelings: a tense moment.

Huh. I do believe I’ve worked there. Perhaps you have too.

My friend elaborated a bit further, His workplace, unfortunately, is characterized by a high degree of cronyism, extremely poor communication, and the fear of taking a misstep lest one piss off the powers-that-be. Any time an employee leaves (hurray!) for another organization a high percentage of co-workers make secret and furtive pleas to the soon-to-be-departed: “hey man…can you pass on my resume? Take me with you!” There is also, apparently, a hostile and defensive HR leader who contributes to the rather dismal situation. Employees expect to find a bit of humanity and care when they bring an issue or pose a query to the staff in the human resources department but, instead of attentiveness and assistance, they encounter dismissiveness.

That, in particular, makes me really sad.

While all of these things are a reflection of the overall organizational culture there are some bright spots; a few positive departmental and work team countercultures are thriving. Smart managers are keeping out the evil forces that threaten to destroy any remnants of good will and good work they’ve built within their functional areas. The fortunate few who work on those teams realize how good they’ve got it; after all they have furtive conversations with their not-so-lucky coworkers in the bathroom.


An employee heading to the office every Monday with a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach; usually after spending a restless Sunday evening filled with dread. Staff members who paste on fake smiles whenever a member of the executive team walks past their cubicles or deigns to say “hello” in the hallway. Employees suffering with symptoms that aren’t even due to long hours, unreasonable work demands, or mentally taxing and labor-intensive duties.

Those who have endured this sort of debilitating affliction realize that relief is not available over the counter.

If you’re an organizational or HR leader your responsibility is to regularly assess, evaluate, and diagnose. Make sure your employees aren’t in continual discomfort due to the excruciating pain of tension headaches.

Merely passing the aspirin is not enough.



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