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On the Other Side of 9/11

It has become a tradition for me to write a September 11th blog post here at The EO List.

Like many, September 11, 2001 was a defining time for me. And, I don’t think we’d have EO without it, so I feel it is important to pay the day respect each year here.

I have written all sorts of 9/11 tributes in prior years, some on the day. Before “blog” was even a word, I was a much younger HR professional, writing a weekly newsletter about my experiences in HR going back to the U.S. In creating this newsletter, I had documented my feelings and experiences in real-time. What has been interesting is over the years going back and adding sometimes insignificant but yet context-driving details about what the world was like in 2001. Here are the links to some of the prior posts:

Some of these posts are darker than others. This year, because I am working on the happiness project, and because I feel like we are on the other side of 9/11 now, I am focusing this post on three changes in human resources management since 9/11.

Here we go:

  1. Workplace security. There was a time in the olden days when you found someone you liked and you hired them, at best with a reference check. Today, the security/clearance process has become extensive, and entire new industries have been developed to assess the risk of bringing in new people. I was at the ACE Conference yesterday and spoke to a person who blew me away by showing me the extent of personal, accessible information that is available about an individual’s habits that would help an organization understand whether an employee is a security risk.
  2. Talent management. Sure, even thirteen years ago we used terms like “succession planning” and “career development” to describe human resources, but the process of finding, developing and managing the careers of individuals is light years beyond what it was in 2001. The day before September 11, 2001, I sat in my office and I listened to my first webinar. I have no idea what the subject was, but what I remember is that the software had features to raise my hand, tell the speaker whether I was bored, and much more. Those seem so basic now compared to the three-dimensional progressive systems. Tracking of training used to be done on multi-tabbed spreadsheets. Mentorship was a buzz word rather than a process. Feedback in real-time was minimal.
  3. HR–the profession. Sure, in 2001, there was a CHRP and an SPHR designation back then, but little of the profession was focused on strategy, workforce planning and architecting, and other aspects of business like it is today. Perhaps in this we have made the least progress. The critics of our profession accuse us of being process excellence individuals rather than thought leaders.

Back in the late 1990s, there was a great IBM commercial which focused on a future with e-commerce. Whenever something seems antiquated in our household, we always make a joke about whether we want a spinning logo or a flaming logo. In closing, enjoy some humour on this day:

What does luck have to do with it?

LuckThis blog post is the final of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer.

“You are so lucky you can — take time off when you want / work from home.”

I never know what to say when someone says that to me and I have heard this often since I started my HR practice over a decade ago. Being self-employed, I get to work from home and take time off when I want, but does luck have anything to do with it?

I started my HR practice because I wanted to help create happy, healthy and productive workplaces. That is the business reason. The personal reason was to provide health care support and advocacy for my mother who had a stroke and I could not do this within the confines of a 9 to 5 job. The concept of Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) http://gorowe.com/was not around at the time and compassionate care leave  www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/ei/types/compassionate_care.shtml#Definition would not have helped since my mother was ill for five years before passing away. I was a typical member of the sandwich generation and I was on the scary path of building my practice around visits to the hospital to Joanne's picsupport and advocate for my mother balanced with being present with my husband and two teenagers when I was with them. To make a living, I worked on client projects sitting beside a hospital bed and in my home office after my husband and children went to sleep. The ability to work when and where I chose helped the daily juggling of priorities. It kept me functioning during a challenging time and it let me spend precious time with my mother who needed me, balanced with the needs of my own family.

As a self-employed HR professional, I can choose to work in my backyard, in my home office or at a client’s office. I can take time off when I want. But the reality, now as it was then, is that whenever I am not working, I am not getting paid. When I come back, I have to work harder at business development and other non-HR related tasks, like writing proposals and marketing, when I would really rather be doing HR, recruiting and training.

Whether changing a job, a career, or venturing out on your own, knowing “why” you are doing something will get you through the not-so-great times and will make the best times more awesome.

The most important things in life take conscious choice and effort. Luck has nothing to do with it.

So You Fire People?

HRThis blog post is part of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer.

“So, you fire people?”

At a wedding last summer my fiance’s niece (who has an intense curiosity about work and jobs) had just been told what my job was.

“Well, sometimes.” I said, inexplicably feeling a bit defensive, “But I also hire people, and mostly I help resolve problems. You know, people problems.” She shrugged, clearly unimpressed by these less ruthless activities. Eight year olds are such savages.

There is no doubt that describing what we do day-to-day as HR professionals to non-HR people can be a disconcerting experience for everyone involved.

First, there is the sheer variation that exists between what we can credibly refer to as “HR roles”. A day in the life of two HR professionals can look as different as a Monet and a Picasso. What an HR person does at a small organization looks awfully different than it might at a large one. This makes any points of reference a non-HR person might have unreliable.

Non-HR Bob: “HR, right. Yes, we have an HR person who does payroll and organizes social events”

HR Sue: “Yeah, I don’t do any of that”

Then there is the unpredictable nature of working with people, change, and sometimes conflict.

Non-HR Bob: “So, what does your typical work day involve?”

HR Sue: “It depends…on whether we’re hiring, or firing, or if someone filed a complaint about someone else, or arrives in my office crying, or arrives in their manager’s office crying, or someone wants to do something that might get us sued, or…”

Usually at this point non-HR people will have given up and just muttered something about an appointment into their drink before shuffling away. Although every once in a while you’ll come across someone willing to persist.

Non-HR Bob: “So, when an employee comes and complains to you that their manager is a jerk, you sort it out?”

HR Sue: “Well, that depends…”

If at this point it seems that someone might be preparing to kick you in the shins, it is probably the opportune moment to bring up Scott Schaefer’s recent article in Harvard Business Review, which reminds us that “it depends” is by no means a sneaky side step. Rather, it is “The answer to every strategic business question”, and the trick is knowing what ‘it’ depends on. In my view, this is especially true in HR. How we respond and address concerns, conflicts, ‘people problems’ and opportunities are so dependent upon context: organizational, personal and circumstantial.

The reality is that an employee who complains about their manager might be the victim of a dangerous bully, or could be a serial complainant who is seeking retribution for a less than stellar performance review. Most likely, the truth is somewhere in between, and determining an effective response to this scenario (and most others) rests on identifying and weighing the factors that such a response depends on. Is the employee acting in good faith? What are their motivations and the desired outcome of their complaint – resolution or punitive action? What is known about the history of the employee? And their manager?

The factors that an effective response might depend on will vary depending on the issue at hand, the organization you work for, the people involved. Add to that the filters of organizational culture, policies, and precedent and it is a veritable ‘choose your own adventure’ story! Schaefer’s article notes that “Managers successfully address seemingly similar problems in very different ways and, as our corollary suggests, the trick is to find which solution fits with the specifics of your business.”That is a whole lot of ambiguity we wade through every day; x + y does not always equal z…but sometimes it does. No wonder trying to explain what we do is so difficult.

I for one accept this ambiguity, and in fact I look forward to continuing to confound eight year olds and non-HR people at weddings and cocktail parties for years to come. Don’t forget to tip your waitress…

What do you think? Does knowing what ‘it’ depends on feel like the right way to describe what we do?