The Talent Crisis: Aspirational vs. Actual

candidate messaging

Last week my friend/colleague Jena Brown and I had a really good discussion about the role (perhaps) that HR, TA and Talent Marketers have played in our current talent crisis. What, we discussed, are some of the reasons that are causing employees to resign in droves? Why are organizations struggling with attracting candidates? Why are we hearing far too many stories of people going through on-boarding and then either pulling out at the last minute or simply no-showing on Day 1?

One aspect that Jena pointed out was that companies have created fluffy marketing and communications that aren’t real or realized throughout the company. She followed up with this example on LinkedIn:

Company says hourly employees are the heroes of everything but continues treating them like replaceable robots – work longer, work harder, and little room for flexibility (oh yeah, those flexibility benefits and messaging only applies to our non-hero employees). Employee sees company messaging vs their reality and is now faced with a value-based decision…. ‘Do I contribute to society like I want by working (like a dog for many) for some generalized praise or can I live off the stimulus check and not have to deal with the crap at work? Either way I have to find a way to regain dignity and sense of value.’”


The discussion moved forward into some other reasons that may be contributing to the current attraction/retention crisis including when one publicly positions their company as committed to an issue while simultaneously doing the opposite and the tendency of far too many organizations to merely copy the marketing/messaging from others (resulting in an overload of sameness).

In my estimation there are two factors at play.

First, as the folks tasked with attracting candidates and retaining employees, we often fail to distinguish between “aspirational” and “actual.” Sometimes it’s because we don’t stop to think about the difference between the two. Sometimes it’s because we know the actual is such crap that the only way we believe we can craft a compelling message is to just focus on the aspirational.

The aspirational world is, for many of us, the fantasy land where (a) people really are the most important asset (b) the workplace does provide flexibility, and (c) ideas are heard and collaboration is a shared value.

Secondly, we (the collective “we” in organizations around the world and in functions that cross ALL department lines) confuse activity with impact.  This is what leads companies to hop on the “performative acts” bandwagon; copying and pasting quotes, messages and graphics that align with whatever-month-we-are-celebrating (but only for that month of course) or deciding it’s time to insert the badge-du-jour because everyone else is doing it.

So what to do?

As Jena pointed out, panic has set in because our predictive models aren’t working, and the current candidate/employee behaviors aren’t what we’ve come to expect. (And thus, predictably, many have moved into reactive mode and tossed out any plans to work on strategy that truly can create more balance for those ‘heroes’ in the workforce).

The first step?  Speak the truth; and companies and HR, TA and Talent Marketing professionals need to be bold enough to do so. (and no; not with one of those bullshit and cruel job adverts that belittle and shame people). It’s perfectly fine to say “our pay is average, our benefits are mediocre, and when you punch in for the day you will work your ass off. But we’ll treat you fairly, work with you on your schedule, always tell you the truth and most importantly we’ll never sugar coat stuff.”

I once worked for a company with high-turnover (industry norm) and thus, obviously, high-volume recruiting. We had strong applicant flow, so we clearly communicated up front with candidates about the pay, the pace, the workplace rules, and the not-particularly-competitive benefits. (Our goal was to get folks to self-select out).  My favorite saying, crafted by one of our recruiters, was one we used across the department when speaking with candidates “we realize this will probably not be your forever job or even your forever company, but it can perhaps be a great job and a great company for you right now.”

The truth. The actual truth.  

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Trench HR: Where Java Means Coffee

Many years ago my friend Charlie Judy coined the phrase #TrenchHR. Boy oh boy did we run the hell out of that hashtag on the Twitterz circa 2010 – 2017 or so. (And then it kind of died off).

It’s still a shorthand I use quite frequently though because it perfectly (and succinctly) summarizes and encapsulates the HR practitioner experience. The phrase #TrenchHR (which, now that I think about it, would look really cool on a t-shirt), is a combination secret handshake, rallying cry and code word. It’s the opening shot to a conversation about REALITY:

Bob: “What do you do?”

Susie: “I work in HR.”

Bob: “Trench?”

Susie: “Yup”

Bob: “Me too.”

*** knowing looks ***

See here’s the thing; there really are different kinds of HR. While HR practitioners may have the same baseline/foundational knowledge and education, they practice their alchemy in different ways…depending, quit often, upon both their function and their environment. The act of #TrenchHR is not necessarily dependent upon organizational size; there are high-level HR professionals (with expansive span of control, fancy titles and an enviable HR tech stack) in enterprise organizations dealing with #TrenchHR issues every day. There are HR practitioners in start-up or growing organizations who rarely have to muddy their boots in the trenches.

For the most part, anyone who works as an HR consultant is not dealing with #TrenchHR on the regular – unless they are a number-crunching organizational wonk, truly embedded with their client, or serving in a Fractional type role.  This is also, by the way, why I firmly believe that no one (i.e. a newly minted HR grad) should EVER move right into “consulting” without spending some time in the trenches. They haven’t even LIVED real HR; how in the world are they going to advise someone? (Same with the academic types. But that’s another blog post).

So what is #TrenchHR? Well it looks like this….

  • Dealing with systems that are outdated and/or don’t function in the current era; stacks of paper for new hires to complete, spreadsheets as an HRIS, and paper time- cards that employees manually complete, sign and drop off (via inter-office envelopes!) in the Payroll Office each Monday morning
  • Being in charge of things like swag, t-shirts, Fitbits and pizzas for the weekly employee lunch (while also tracking shirt sizes and dietary preferences)
  • Needing to hire 40 people per month (#evergreen!!) with a monthly recruiting budget of $400
  • Battling with the CEO/Owner whenever there is a need to update or modernize the company’s people practices (“I don’t care if employees will quit if we don’t let them WFH; I want everyone back in the office NOW where I can see them!”)
  • Investigating in order to determine which employee felt the need to eliminate their bowels in a location not anywhere remotely near a toilet bowl (internal code name: “the mystery pooper”)
  • Completing an HR file audit (of any kind; I-9s; benefit files; training logs; you name it)
  • Having to maintain actual paper files in the first place
  • Conducting any sort of conversation about bodily fluids. This may include (a) discussing with a new hire why they felt the need to carry a urine-filled condom in their pocket to their post-offer drug screen appointment, or (b) determining why there is DNA (to use the approved terminology from Law & Order: SVU) on the sofa in the employee break room
  • Launching a harassment investigation that turns out to be nothing more than grown-ass adults acting like they have the hormones of 10th graders in a love triangle (or a love dodecahedron)

And so much more. So. Much.More.

Hanging in the trenches takes guts; though there’s minimal glory.  Positioning oneself in the trenches requires moxxy, a sense of humor and a whole lot of compassion for the human experience. It’s where I fell in love with this crazy profession of human resources and where I’ve spent the bulk of my time.

And, now that I think about it, #TrenchHR doesn’t just belong on a t-shirt. We deserve a monument.

******* 

shout out to my friend Andrew Gadomksi who, once upon a time, gave me the inspiration for this blog post title (and I’ve been sitting on it ever since)  

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A Few Considerations for Remote “Team Engagement”

remote work from home

Even as we grapple, globally, with the containment and fight of the pandemic, there are many lovely things happening as a result of the ‘Rona. One thing I’ve noticed is how my neighbors on Nextdoor are less passive-aggressive and actually being, well, neighborly! No doubt you’ve seen (or maybe even participated in) activities like:  

  • Group sing alongs in places ranging from balconies in Italy to neighborhoods in Philadelphia
  • Teddy Bear Hunts for the kids in the neighborhood
  • Kids writing letters/drawing pictures to send to residents in nursing homes

On the work front, of course, the deployment of numerous cubicle-dwellers to a new #WorkFromHome arrangement has resulted in:

  • Thousands upon thousands of blog posts and articles about how to “work from home”
  • Massive growth and usage for Zoom’s teleconferencing software and Microsoft’s cloud-computing solutions
  • Lots of snacking and day-drinking

There’s also been a lot of scrambling, by managers of these newly virtual workers, to find ways to maintain a sense of camaraderie and connection for their teams. Tips and hints are shared across social media channels as managers and HR leaders promote holding:

  • Group coffee chats and Happy Hours 
  • Scavenger Hunts (in the house)
  • Game night with trivia, bingo or “two truths and a lie
  • Group lunch gatherings 

The efforts to do these things are lovely and it’s wonderful that managers realize the importance of the human-to-human connection. However, a word of warning is in order.

Just as no one wants to have to be at the office (building) for extended hours, no one wants to have to be at the virtual office for hours on end. Even in the best of times it’s often a challenge for those who WFH to shut-it-down and draw a distinction between work time/home-time. And now, during this strange-new time when people have been sent to WFH, often with no preparation or planning, it’s more challenging than ever. I fear that for many the pressure to be “always available” is already strong, even while emanating from a place of good intentions, and will only increase as our #StayAtHome situation lingers. 

So here are a few tips for managers and HR leaders:

  • Rather than institute a group lunch (“let’s all bring our sandwich and get on a Zoom call together!”), allow your team members to take a REAL lunch break so they can get up from their work station. Encourage them to walk around the block, play with their dog, do a few stretching exercises, or take a power nap. 
  • Happy Hour is fun; for some. Just as when you gather for an in-person Happy Hour, not everyone may want to attend…and that’s….OK.  Make it acceptable for your team members to bow out, no explanations necessary.

Keeping your team connected is more important than ever…but a little team-distancing, just like social distancing, is OK.

*****

Note: the great folks at Workhuman have made their Life-Events and Conversations Products available to all organizations in response to COVID-19 crisis. Check it out here.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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A New Normal (?) for the Employee Performance Review

Facebook has announced, via an internal memo, that Mark Zuckerberg sent to employees earlier this week, they would be paying a $1,000 bonus to every employee to help during the coronavirus outbreak. In addition, Zuckerberg also said the company will pay contractors in full even if they are unable to do their work from home.

In addition, the company said it would give all employees an “exceeds” rating for their first six-month review of 2020. At Facebook, as at other companies, these ratings tie directly to bonuses and, according to reports, could result in all full-time employees earning significant bonuses.

Kudos to Facebook; of course they have the money so can afford to do this. But it’s still affirming to see employers (of all sizes) that are doing what they can from a financial support perspective at this unprecedented time.  

To me however the most interesting aspect of this is the use of the performance review to “get cash in hand” to employees. While getting managers to do 9-Box grids and “performance feedback sessions” is the absolute last thing HR professionals are focusing on right-this-moment, it DOES raise questions for when we come out the other end of this.

Among other things, this maneuver brought to mind:

  • When the performance review is directly tied to compensation (and, apparently the only mechanism for determining bonus level) we now have a company outright acknowledging that ratings can be ‘manipulated’ to give an employee a desired raise or bonus.
  • In HR we have worked diligently over the years to fight manager bias (calibration meetings!). We’ve created convoluted programs and valiantly messaged to employees that everything is “fair.” Now, however, they can say “see! It IS easy to adjust the rating to give me a raise!” (or withhold one….)
  • Will 2020 be the year when no employee – at any company – around the world – has an official/documented performance review?  Who is going to have time for that crap? Companies are in survival mode right now and will be for the remainder of the year.
  • Will the evaluation of job performance shift towards the best-it-could-be out of necessity? Right now we have managers providing continuous, immediate, face-to-face (or camera to camera) feedback. No need for forms, checklists and laborious processes.
  • What creative finagling will HR professionals have to go through to adjust their 2020 performance review process one we hit the end of the year?   

The business exercise of annual (or quarterly or semi-annual) performance reviews is not, nor should it be, what we’re thinking about right now. But we will.

Maybe this really will be the death of the performance review.

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Realism vs. Idealism: Why HR Should Tilt at Windmills

I’ve worked in HR for decades and I want to tell you a secret.

For all our chatter about the transformation of HR, the new and elevated role of the HR leader, and the name change from CHRO to Chief People Officer, we are still, by and large, doing the same shit, in much the same way, that we did it (back at the dawn of time) when I took my first gig on an HR team. 

That’s a broad sweeping statement of course. Many of you will ridicule this sentiment and cry that it’s a bit of a generalization. “Take a look at the innovation happening amongst contemporary HR professionals!” you may say.  I don’t completely disagree with that viewpoint; there certainly ARE people and organizations moving HR forward as captured in this excellent Fast Company article by my friend Lars Schmidt – “7 Ways HR Looks Different in 2020.”  As he points out “HR is a spectrum. While the majority of the field is somewhere in the middle, the leading edge of HR is having a transformational impact on business.” He also acknowledges that modern people teams/practices are a “subset” of that spectrum.

It may appear as if the visionaries are tilting at windmills. Yet some of the enemies of progressive HR are all-too-real and not imaginary at all. I love it when HR professionals take a quixotic approach even though it’s usually not easy. Yet why do those who push for HR change struggle? What holds more from pushing conventional and outdated practices and thinking to the side? In my estimation there are 4 types of people who keep our shoes nailed to the floor:

Those who decide they “don’t need” HR  

You know these people and these organizations. It makes sense when a small business with less than 10 employees realizes they don’t require a full-time HR leader (the wise ones of course engage a consultant or tap into resources as needed). What’s a bit more mystifying though is when larger organizations opt out and decide that the people-driven side of the business is not worth any attention. Just the other week I had a conversation about a multi-state employer with 150+ employees and zero HR resources. They do not have one single dedicated HR staffer and the Controller “handles” HR.  So while I’m fairly certain (hopeful?) employees are getting their paychecks, with no proactive people strategies it’s probably not the greatest place to work. 

Those who “hire” HR

These are the folks who get the HR they desire – and deserve. They’re also the group that keeps the practice of HR about as relevant as it was circa 1985. You can usually tell when a job posting for an HR Leader has been devised by the CFO/COO/CEO; there’s a laundry list of “tasks” related to compliance, benefits and maybe even payroll – usually capped off with “responsible for employee engagement.” These are the business owners/C-Suite folks who believe the role of HR is to navigate the complexities of employees’ medical bills, host pizza parties and run an “employee of the month” program.  

Those who “direct” HR

There is no one who holds her team and organization back from modern workplace realities than the #LegacyHRLady. While she’s often a lovely person, Linda the HR Lady was trained how to practice HR 30 years ago and sees no reason to change. She’s fearful of technology, sees no need to automate or streamline outdated busy-work processes, and  firmly believes that “HR’s role is to protect the company.” She has long been convinced that every applicant, employee and manager is forever looking to “get away with” something nefarious so she adds policy after policy to her already voluminous Employee Handbook while simultaneously devising ways to “catch” employees breaking the rules.

Those who “do” HR 

Linda the HR Lady has, of course, trained others who have come behind her and so now Chad, Heather, Jason and Julie are “doing” HR in much the same way. Oh sure, they may be using a new-school ATS with automation, and they’re accustomed to being in touch via Slack throughout their workday (unlike Linda) but they still maintain a distorted view of the role (and value) of HR. Rather than viewing the possibilities the future brings, they quickly became entrenched into legacy HR work by inserting themselves into every EE performance discussion and monitoring the breakroom refrigerator. These are the folks who develop a great sense of self-importance when they assume the power of rejecting job applicants or insist on personally delivering an “employee write up” to Shanna in A/P because she came to work with purple hair.  

It’s like quicksand; continuing to suck us down. 

So for those of you mired in the cautious and sober world of hum-drum HR I encourage you to ponder:

  • “What would the ideal practice of HR look like?”
  • “If I strive to make things better (for HR) how can that also make my workplace, and the world, a better place?”
  • “Is this change I envision really impossible…or is it, in fact, possible?” 
  • “What’s holding me back from acting for change?”

The phrase “tilting at windmills” often infers that one is pursuing something foolishly impractical; on a quest for something unreachable.

But, my friends, isn’t a bit of tilting worth the effort? 

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