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Workhuman and the Third Option

I am back from Workhuman and I am full of ideas of things to write about.  This annual four-day conference is amazing (earning the moniker the “Woodstock of HR”) and every year I’ve attended I’ve come back with new inspiration and passion.

It has been an interesting year for human resources. Many people made bad choices. In moving forward it is clear now that to operate effectively the business of people has to account for equity.  And not just the milk-toasted lip service variety of equity that we’ve all become accustomed to delivering. I’m talking about equity in every facet of work life.  Equity in who and how we hire. Equity in opportunity. Equity in dialogue. Equity in participation. Equity in channel access. Equity in compensation. To not is to operate in peril.  Workhuman took four days to explore nearly every nook and cranny of equity and I believe most left saying, “we have to change our ways”.  That’s powerful!

I was struck by a facet of equity right off the bat, in the opening presentation from Cy Wakeman.

At first, you might not have thought Cy Wakeman’s presentation was about equity at all, but ultimately it was, equity in participation and communication and the need for such things to be in real time, balanced and positive.

In her presentation, Cy presented a picture where the best companies set parameters of the employment relationship based upon two options: be active, supportive and positive or move on. She talked about the problem many if not most companies have, they offer a third option. That is, they allow an employee to disagree with strategy, opportunities and plans, halt the train, suck life out of the culture, and keep their jobs while doing it.

From an equity perspective, allowing the third option has all sorts of implications.  Naysayers rarely listen (a tenant of communication), and naysayers aren’t really participating either. They may even be preventing someone else from participating, creating inequity.

What causes us (and when I say us, I am referring to all of us humans in good companies and bad) to revert to the third option?  Following Workhuman, I took time to ponder this question and came up with a list of reasons why this is the case.

First, employment relationships, at least in Canada, have difficulty avoiding the third option.  There are legal reasons for this, namely that you can’t just ask someone to leave without providing notice, and for long-serving employees that can be expensive.  And, even for short-term employees, paying anyone to leave typically isn’t budgeted or planned. Few companies ever want to pay people to leave, and so they wait it out and pay the price for this in spades.

Second, talent acquisition is hard.  We spend a lot of money and effort toward building a brand for talent acquisition. Increasing turnover without a guarantee of a better replacement is a choice many organizations simply won’t make.

Third, is a replacement employee better?  There’s some truth in the adage that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

Fourth, great people understand the business.  To have great people you have to invest in all sorts of training and development.  This investment goes out the window when people leave.

This isn’t to say that we’re stuck, that a two-option world is implausible, but it requires a sense of strategy only organizations with a long-term view can use.

One way a two-option world can work is to be fearless on a number of fronts:

  • Fearless in dialogue with employees in a way that establishes employment in a single company as a step in the journey, not the destination. Good people don’t leave a business unless they are unhappy, and the longer you can connect the work to a state of happiness, the longer they will be your employee.  There are employers who pay employees to leave.  The smart ones do this earlier rather than later.
  • Fearless about conveying the value of passion and positivity. We need to recognize the good things people do, whether they’re small or monumental.  Positivity is a habit that can be established with a routine.  Having mechanisms to recognize others is an important step.
  • Fearless about being there for your team, in good times and in bad.  Much ado has been raised about the First Break All the Rules employee engagement question regarding having a best friend at work.  But ask yourself this, did you love working where your co-workers were co-workers and not your dear friends?  People who feel a part of a tribe will go to much further lengths to protect the well-being of the tribe.  Those are the types of employees who will deliver in tough times.
  • Fearless about being honest about the challenges and gaps, and to look to them not as weaknesses but rather opportunities.  Finding opportunities for real discussion in every day work life is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
  • Fearless about pursuing the long-term.  At another presentation at Workhuman, I listened to the business strategist Simon Sinek talk about finite and infinite strategies.  The easiest way to describe the difference between the two is whether your desired outcome is in the current time horizon or far in the distant future.  Simon used war strategy to illustrate the difference.  Countries with infinite strategies, essentially designed to wear down the all-in finite, get in and get done approach, tend to win over the longer term.  Companies who work at all costs to get the superior product on the market faster will not exist in the long-term.  The same could be said about equity.
  • Fearless about communicating.  Seeking feedback.  Listening.  Being clear about intentions.

One of the essentially prohibited questions to ask in the workplace today is, “When do you plan to retire?”  This is in part because it could be perceived to be leading to forcing an employee out of the business.  Successful organizations have put this sort of discussion front and centre though, by framing the discussion differently.  Having an open discussion about the destination at the beginning of employment at age 25 and continuing it throughout the employee’s longevity is likely to yield a much better result than starting to broach the subject at age 55.  It demonstrates to the employee that you have a plan for them and want them to be your employee for the long run. At the core of this is trust. Do I trust your intentions?  And it is worth saying that if you’re going to be having such discussions they need to be honorable.

The same could be said about launching the belief of the existence of only two options.  If we communicate about mutual long-term interest, the value of passion and positivity, the importance of relationships at work, and the requirement for honesty, then we can communicate about anything.

And that, my friends is a lesson of truly working human.