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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.

We need help

Photo Credit, Valerie Everett, Flickr

The great Tim Sackett recently admitted that he, like millions of middle-aged guys, was lonely.  He explained that his profession, HR and blogging, pushed him into a world where relationships are wide and shallow.

Indeed, I’ve spoken with many HR folks who have said that they lead a double life.  There’s the real world where you function like other people, hoping that when you open your underwear drawer in the morning that you’ll find something to wear that you wouldn’t be mortified to be caught in in the off-chance that you actually were in that accident.  Then there’s the work and online world, where you have to mask your experiences somewhat to protect the innocent, or the guilty.  We substitute describing our feelings for the really bad decisions our clients make for videos of puppies and kittens doing cute things. I’ve decided to interpret the release of dog videos by friends in HR as the equivalent of releasing hostage videos with a lot of blinking going on.  We clearly need help.

Then there’s the issue of authenticity.  Let’s face it, most people really don’t like HR people.  We have this reputation for being a bit wooden; and a bit out of touch.  We get delegated the role of cop.  We’re either too cheerful or not cheerful enough.  Fake.  We attempt to counteract the accusation with being prolific posters of all things delightful.  The dichotomy of this leads to a terribly screwed up picture.

The interesting thing to me is that other professions, those that have to deal with a lot of crap, well, they have support lines. Police officers who witnessed violence or are exposed to the drug trade, they have access to professional help.  So do child welfare workers and first responders.  But HR folks, who have to deal with people sometimes at their worst, well, we’ve got bupkis. And in most organizations, we are a small contingent whereby we can’t really speak with each other about the PTSD associated with dealing with supporting the person publicly humiliated by the boss in a meeting. We set up the EAP but we don’t use it, out of fear of that .000098% chance that confidentiality will be breached.

Well for the benefit of everyone, I think it is time to STOP IT.  Unicorns and rainbows are OK, but that’s not all we are about. It is time we supported each other more deeply.  It is time to develop deeper friendships.  It is time we all told the real story of our lives as a whole and not in parts. Raw rather than idyllic.  And this story needs to be told on other platforms beside social media.  If there’s one thing that I take away from the Workhuman movement, it is this.

Tim’s advice, “Stop reading blogs and go touch someone. Not inappropriately, but physically see them and talk to them. The human body needs real life relationships to thrive.”   Well said.

Making Lemonade

The good news is that it is March and spring is in sight.

The bad news is, wow, I have been dealt a lot of lemons lately.

Of course, I am referring to where I am at on the Bruce Trail right now.

Ahh, setting a goal of walking 1000 kilometers in the wilderness in one year, it was so lofty.

Then came the downer of realizing in about September that there was no way it was possible to do it at my pace, and that I’d have to revise the goal to extend to 18 months.

Deep Snow in Meaford

Then December came. It snowed. A lot.

Most of you know little about winter “up there”.  Geez, it sounds funny even saying it that way.  After all, you can get in a car and start driving and as long as there’s no snow, you can get there in 3 hours.  How can the weather 300 kilometers northwest of Toronto be so dicey?  Well it is.  It is kind of the Buffalo of Canada. The wind comes off the Bay and brings gads of snow.

Then in January it was freezing.

Then in February it started snowing again.  3 feet deep in some places.

Try to imagine how far you would get in a single trip walking in 3 feet deep snow?  3 kilometers, 5 kilometers?  And would you get in an accident in your vehicle on the way up those slippery roads?  We nearly did, twice.  And at one point I had to be towed out of a hole.  Lemons, lemons, lemons!

Walter’s Falls

So, in 3 months, instead of walking from Epping Lookout to perhaps Wiarton, we’ve been stuck in the nothingness of countryside around Walter’s Falls.  I have nothing against Walter’s Falls.  Cute falls, little Inn next to it, but I have grown to hate the road signs to it.  There are many.  Once you get there it feels like Hotel California.  You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Rock Walls West of KOA in Owen Sound

I am determined to make lemonade from this experience.  Despite long drives for short hikes there have been some bright spots.  For one, I’m getting pretty good on snow shoes.  For another, there have been some surprises, like the day we skipped forward by 10 walks and saw Inglis Falls just after a heavy snowfall.  Or, the extraordinary rock wall just west of the KOA in Owen Sound.  Or the caves to the west of the Owen Sound airport.

By the way, the greater Owen Sound area is a pretty big place.  I think I have been walking there for 8 weeks now.

I am still in the game.  You can’t get to where I am on the trail right now and give up.  They tell me the best parts are still to come.

It is this part of the experience that I hope will resonate with you.  Look, I know that the chances are that none of you are ever going to try and walk across Ontario.  That said, it is important to find something challenging in your life, something where you will win and you will lose.  HR can be a tough field to be in. It is helpful to have something else challenging in your life that you succeeded in to refer back to when you just don’t see a positive light.

Do you want ice with your lemonade?  I’ve got a lot of it right now.