HR professionals are raised (trained? taught?) to view labor unions as the enemy. Unions are the Moriarty to our Sherlock Holmes. The Hans Gruber to our John McClane. The Ursula to our Ariel.
But unions served a historically important role fighting for many of the workplace norms we now take for granted. Early organizing efforts advanced women’s rights and gender equality while the voices of the labor movement brought awareness (and change) to dangerous and unsafe working conditions.
Occasionally I wonder if HR professionals should exercise their collective voice and form a union; after all a group of organized workers is, at its most elemental, dedicated to furthering the economic and social interests of workers.
And if we do so I have decided we can call it the HRPWU – “Human Resources Professional Workers Union.”
If HRPWU came into existence there would be no more dependence upon “the world’s largest professional HR association” (also known as they place where one gives money but has no voice) as the place for peers to gather. Rather, with HRPWU, members could elect their own officers, determine their own goals for the profession, set their own dues and choose the rules by which the union operates. Banding together, HRPWU members could negotiate, on behalf of HR workers everywhere, better working conditions and wage equity. HRPWU could promote better work/life integration and working hours flexibility; no more of this 60+ hour per week crap that many HR professionals find themselves sucked into against their will. I also envision a GROUP collective bargaining process; negotiating with ALL employers across the board for appropriate pay, benefits, health and safety policies and practices (including access to mental health resources) and workplace equity and justice.
As a bonus, being represented by HRPWU, Human Resources professionals could, once and for all, be assured a seat at the (bargaining) table.
Talk about making an investment into the future of HR…
A number of years ago, as I was cavorting-in-the-job-market whilst in pursuit of a new gig, I had an interview for an HR Leader role when the site leader (we’ll call him Bob) asked me “what HR best practices are you aware of in our industry? I want us to implement all the best practices.”
(I could sense the HR-splaining pride oozing out of Bob’s pores as he tossed that cliché (“best practices”) into the conversation. I decided he must have visited the SHRM website in preparation for hiring into an HR role he had not needed to fill for a number of years.)
“Well,” said I, “I’m not particularly a fan of merely replicating what’s been done at other organizations. I’ll most certainly look at our immediate market competitors and across the industry but I’m not one for simply ‘copying’.”
“Why,” I asked, “should we replicate when we have the opportunity to redefine?”
I got the job.
(And I like to think I kicked ass at the job).
It certainly would have been very easy to walk in there, researched a bunch of shit from other companies in our industry or in our geographic area, and copied and pasted every single HR/People Ops program and initiative. Bob, as a matter of fact, was a great believer in duplicating (even down to the “naming” of things) what others were doing. Not unlike many (many!) other leaders:
“Acme Company, LLC down the street is doing X. We need to do X too.”
“When I worked at Ginormous Corporation we did A, B and C. I want to do that here at Small Potatoes, Inc.”
“Did you see that recruitment campaign/post/job advert from Sexy Company? We need to do that!”
“Well, I know Big Bad Competitor Across Town, LLP is leading the market with compensation and coming in 20% ahead of us in starting pay but we really can’t compete with them….” (oh…wait…bad example…#snicker)
Here’s the deal…
Market intelligence is important. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world of work is necessary. Conducting regular environmental scans/PESTLE analyses is imperative. Finding out what job or environmental factors matter to candidates and employees is crucial.
And yes; taking something one did at a previous company, adjusting it and implementing at a new company is often a wise move. Over the years I’ve carried (digitally speaking) forms, templates, policies, and training curriculums from one company to the next. These are the sorts of things that don’t require a reinvention, as the saying goes, of the wheel.
But not everything is ideal for imitation. You shouldn’t blindly borrow, plunder or copy someone else’s:
Talent Acquisition Strategies
HR Metrics and Success Measures
Performance Management Process
Rewards and Recognition Structure
Why? Because their (the other guy’s) “best practice” may not be the BEST practice for YOUR organization.
Besides…it’s much more fun to CREATE rather than replicate.
The term “knowledge worker” joined our business lexicon courtesy of Peter Drucker; the concept of “knowledge work” first appeared in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow.
For the most part we all understand that knowledge workers access and apply information to answer questions, solve problems and generate new ideas. Knowledge workers interact with tools and systems that enable communication and information sharing. They acquire new information and use it in a creative manner. They produce, distribute, and share their knowledge with others. They never stop learning and acquiring new knowledge.
We often ascribe this moniker to scientists, engineers, programmers, design thinkers, creatives, academics, attorneys, and the like. Hollywood versions of the knowledge worker include Professor Indiana Jones, David Levinson (the Jeff Goldblum character) in Independence Day and Olivia Pope.
They “think” for a living.
Sounds like what we should expect of HR leaders…doesn’t it?
Yet far too many HR leaders, caught up in the grinding gears of the corporate machine, are losing out on providing real value (their knowledge) to their organizations. There are far too many HR functions where every moment is filled with tasks. Busy busy busy. Activity after activity after activity. All in a misguided attempt to demonstrate to CEOs/Owners/Leaders that HR is needed.
But knowledge workers – meaning HR leaders – need time to pause, review, research, read, and ponder. They need to explore hypotheses before acting. When making decisions and weighing “can” they do something versus “should” they do something, they need time for contemplation and evaluation.
Sometimes HR Leaders need to prioritize merely getting together with peers to think collectively. Every meeting doesn’t have to be about getting through an agenda, giving updates on task accomplishment (busy! busy! busy!), or racing though a post-mortem on a problem or incident. It should be about gathering with peers for an off-site discussion or forming a community of practice. It can be heading to a conference or event for the day rather than cranking out yet another report that no one will read. (Busy busy busy. See how busy I am?)
At other times HR leaders need to purposefully carve out the time for silence and concentration during the workday; grab a cup of coffee, turn off the phone and put on some headphones in order to scroll through the internet or page through a book to foster ideas.
Unfortunately that’s viewed as idleness in far too many organizations. “Susie, our HR Manager, wastes a half hour every day scrolling through websites,” an organizational leader once said to me. “She’s not even working! I need to write her up!”
So yes; it’s often about finding an organization (and a boss) who supports creativity and intellect. A boss who encourages their HR leader to use their brain. A boss who realizes – or to whom it’s explained– that it’s not about formatting and running reports; rather it’s about designing the strategy behind the report data.
Sssshhhh. It’s time to think.
“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”—Voltaire
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.”
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: “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
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)