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Alternative Facts in the Workplace

Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo Credit: B. Titgemeyer

Please bear with me, I have a lot of explaining to do to get to the point of this post and I will admit that the premise is a little strange, but relevant.

The idea for this blog post hit me on a recent tour of Vietnam.

On one of our free days, my husband and I decided to go and visit the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. As an American, I knew it as the “Hanoi Hilton”, the place the Vietnamese kept the American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam War; the place where the now infamous photos of a young John McCain were taken when he was a POW.  I had no idea about its history.

I found it fascinating to visit this prison today.  It is in the middle of one of the better neighbourhoods in the Old Quarter. It is no longer in use, and is rather something of a shrine. Today, the Vietnamese seem to embrace their communism (even changing the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, after their revolutionary leader), and the prison is a tribute to those who were tortured there in the past for their political views.  90% of the displays at the prison are devoted to the circumstances of the political resistors of earlier eras, in a sense recognizing prisoners as martyrs.

What is said about the American prisoners who were held there is limited.  There are a few photos, and a suggestion that the American prisoners played sports and led somewhat of a normal life inside the walls.  At one point there is a statement that the Vietnamese people treated the prisoners as best as they could considering that they themselves were in a terrible state.

So herein lies the posit of this post.  The term “alternative facts” is a raging discussion in North America, and is largely discounted. But given the circumstances is Hoa Lo a case of legitimate alternative facts?  And if yes, what can we learn from it from a human resources perspective.

First, I should fess up that I know so little about Vietnamese history that it is hard for me to legitimately criticize their version of history prior to the Vietnam War. And for the purposes of this post, I’m not going to criticize it. It is a version and there are facts to support it. Even when talking about the Americans held there, what was likely never reported accurately in America were the comparative living conditions of the Vietnamese people themselves at the time. Given their living conditions today, it isn’t a leap to think that 50 years ago they were a lot worse.

Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd recently said, “Look, ’Alternative Facts’ are not facts, they’re falsehoods.” And until I stared at the comparison between the Vietnamese and American versions of history, I tended to agree with him.

We live in a world with a very blurred line between facts and perspectives, where 1 + 1 may not equal 2 when you factor in other details.  Sometimes it is difficult to even know the difference. Perhaps it has always been that way but it seems more real now.  Certain things you cannot assess by simply adding up the facts.

Without intending to compare the persecution of the Vietnamese people to modern human resources (which would be insulting and wrong), I want to apply the context of alternative facts to the subject of employee experience.

If you were to say, for example, that productivity is directly related to employee experience, what facts would you use to support your position?  Could you point to statistics that show in macro that happy employees produce more?  How would you include the cost of developing a culture of employee experience?  And alternatively, if you were to say that an employer’s obligation is only to meet minimum employment standards and that productivity is simply an expectation of employment and a simpler human resources system is of lower cost, thus increasing productivity, what facts would you use to support that position?  Could you point to statistics that show that the value/need of happiness-focused workplace initiatives is limited to certain demographic groups?  Would you call these alternative facts or just perspectives?

Without question, there is a strong movement in the industry that suggests that failing to provide such an experience is toxic, resulting in unfathomable outcomes and certain death to the organization.  After twenty-five plus years in the business, I’m certainly on the bandwagon toward providing a friendlier human resources experience for employees; selfishly, these kinds of organizations are so much more fun to work with.  However, organizations have survived for centuries without such focus.  Instead, the focus has been on personal responsibility for happiness.  And it is a lot less work to create a system that provides little employee experience and places personal responsibility on employees to find what works for them.

Both sides have compelling facts.

And then, think about employee experience from the eyes of the employee.  What do they want?  What do they need?  Are our approaches meeting those needs?  Do they believe we’re doing our best to give them what they need?  Do they believe what is being provided to them is generated from a position of genuineness?  When reading the circumstances, what are their facts?

All to say, that when we are considering any course of action, looking at facts from various angles is important. Ultimately, my point is that perhaps in taking any course of action, it is good to be slow to judge and look at a very broad spectrum of facts.

I would like to say that when I go on vacation, I can put aside my work, but that never really happens.

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