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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.

Workhuman–Sugar Plums

Workhuman is just a little less than 24 hours away, and I’m so excited that I can hardly contain myself.  Tonight I will have visions of #sugarplums.

That I am so excited, in spite of the fact that I’m terribly distracted with other things right now, surprises me.  But it shouldn’t be surprised.  Workhuman is an absolutely awesome conference and I’m sure everyone who has been to Workhuman is looking forward to it.

Let me put this into perspective.  My life has been the epitome of upheaval these past six months.  I’m exhausted.  It has been a whirlwind of hiking, moving to a new locale, and more work than I should’ve taken on.  If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been blogging much, this is why.

But I wouldn’t miss Workhuman for anything, exhaustion and all.

This year the conference is taking on a slightly different theme.  It feels more timely than ever.  Sure, Workhuman is about great people practices, but it takes on more urgency this year than in the past.  I can’t hardly wait to hear from the speakers, many who are actively involved in #metoo.  I am especially interested in hearing from companies that have chosen the high road on things like pay transparency and pay equity.  These are lofty and important ideals, but in a world of supply and demand not always so easy to hold to.  How did they implement?  What had to change?  How did they/will they get past the notion of it being compliance and more importantly good business?  How did it/will it become a part of their culture?

Workhuman is also a reminder to me that life does sometimes go in odd twists and turns but it is important to get back to the things that matter.  While there I will be with people I love, try to get enough sleep, get around on my feet, eat well, experience new things, and learn.  I am reminded that I learn best when the other aspects of life are in balance.

For those that are attending, I’d like you to write down how you feel right now.  Identify your general mood, and the personal goals that are closest to your chest.  In addition, identify what at your workplace has to change for you to feel like you’re making a difference.  Then, when the next four days are over, look back on what you’ve written and determine what you have gained by attending and what you’ll do next.

I can hardly wait to see what we all come up with.  Here’s to Workhuman.

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.