hightechmouse

The refrain you usually hear when you ask unhappy people why they are working is the line, “It pays the bills.” This response implies that “the bills” are the unavoidable price of modern existence. It further suggests that we are helplessly chained to a cycle of financial burden.

Hmm.

It is true that a regular job appears to provide a consistent source of funds. Reliable employment translates into reliable income and our imaginative minds begin to project the present into the future, enabling us to make plans. With projections predicting a stable future, we buy houses for our families and occasionally spring for a new car. Self-employed individuals are at a disadvantage in this regard, because their income is not quite as predictable. Therefore, one of the advantages of having a job is that it allows us to believe that “it pays the bills,” and gives us confidence that the money will be there to meet current obligations and incur new ones.

Unfortunately, reality wreaks havoc on our projections. Organizations in this period of our history find it much easier to cut costs by cutting people; many employers have lost any sense of responsibility to provide secure employment. But despite the evidence of instability in nearly every organization on the planet, the regularity of a paycheck lulls us into the belief that it will always be there, making it too easy to create new financial obligations, making us feel more dependent on the whims of an employer.

We also forget that having a job is in itself an expensive proposition. Beyond commute and clothing expenses, there are dozens of hidden costs in having a job. These include: contributing to a co-worker’s birthday gift; laying out a couple of bucks on the football pool; being shamed by the company into contributing to their favorite charity; or feeling like you have to buy a couple of those waxy chocolate bars that working parents of high schoolers foist on their colleagues every school year. Taking into account the remarkable talent of most Americans to spend far beyond their means, it is safe to say that we waste a good two-thirds of our take-home pay on stuff we didn’t really want or need in the first place or on the trappings of employment itself.

While many people have told me that they work primarily for the money, the desire for money does not necessarily translate into having to have a job. There are hundreds of other ways to earn a living, many of which may be far more appealing than having to live your life by the clock and put up with the insanity of organizational life in the 21st century. So why do people automatically assume that the best way to survive in our culture is by getting a job?

I think it has to do with the hard-dying need for the appearance of stability. Having a job creates a routine that makes life appear to be a stable proposition. Going to work every day helps order our existence and human beings like a sense of order in their lives. A job gives us social validity, enabling us to confirm our right to respect when asked the question, “And what do you do?” While well-publicized layoffs and reorganizations have compromised this traditional meaning of security, having a job seems like a more ordered reality than working in the arts or starting your own business. The regularity of the weekly schedule provides a soft, steady rhythm in the midst of the chaotic dissonance of modern existence.

Unfortunately, this love of order is a two-edged sword. Our need for predictability can interfere with our ability to perceive new opportunities and consider new ideas. We get very stubborn when someone messes with our personal sense of order. However, when the need to preserve routine becomes more important than the human needs to learn, grow and contribute, we stagnate. Because organizations often reinforce our natural preference for order with endless rules and regulations, life in an organization can become so regimented that we start working far below our capabilities.

This need for order can also lead to absurd decision-making. I know many people who chose their careers simply because they believed that a particular field had a bright future. They didn’t bother to consider what the day-to-day reality of the job entailed, what kinds of people they’d be working with or even if they thought the work was particularly meaningful or important. They found careers that paid well or gave them status and it seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Unfortunately, they often find that years of education were wasted for a life at work that drained their spirit and left them feeling more trapped than ever. One woman I worked with who gave up artistic leanings to become an MRI tech spent most of her work life projecting her inner dissatisfaction onto her boss and co-workers, complaining constantly about anything and everything that triggered her inner frustration.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to let the economy control you or define you. We tend to start our search for work with the question, “What’s out there?” when we should be asking ourselves, “What do I really want to do?” You may not get there in your first attempt. It may take years of compromise and hard thinking to align your needs to something that will provide you with a decent income. But if you surrender your dream to the need for security at the start of your search, you’ll have a much harder time getting there. In the process, you’ll be compromising your psychological and physical self, which helps no one.

So, keep an open mind and open your eyes to the possibilities within you. Don’t get stubborn and affix yourself to a single possibility. Take the time to define what you really want and filter your choices through your true desires. You may have to settle for 40% for now, but if you keep pressing and refuse to give up, you might increase that percentage and wind up with something that makes you pretty happy.


Copley Square, Boston

Copley Square, Boston

Over the past ten days I have been following the stories about the Boston Marathon Bombing. Like so many others, I have felt the shock and anger at the brutal murders and senseless carnage, but have also been touched by the countless demonstrations of courage and support for every one whose life has impacted. Whether it was a runner in the London Marathon donning a black armband, or a survivor from the Boston Marathon returning to the blast site to leave a pair of running shoes, many people were trying to answer the questions, “What can I do in the face of this tragedy? How can I show solidarity and help people begin the healing process?”

For ten days I have been trying to answer those same questions, and as I sat in front of my computer to write this blog, I found my mind drifting to the times in my career when incomprehensible tragedy hit near or within an organization where I was the HR leader. I started to recall the actions my team and I took to show people that “the company” really cared and supported their employees in a very personal way.

I have been the HR leader more times than I care to count when a tragedy has impacted my organization. Each situation was different, each one was heart wrenching and none of them were easy to work through. In my case, each situation took place in a remote location, in an office or community located some distance from the corporate location where I worked. What was common to each situation is that HR was called upon to provide support designed to help the employees cope and set the stage for the healing to begin. It is from these experiences that I learned that HR must show leadership in the face of tragedy.

Below are some actions to be taken following an event. This is not intended to serve as a full business continuity plan but to summarize some key things HR must do:

Contact the senior manager of the impacted location to ascertain the status of the workforce.  Is everyone accounted for? Has anyone been seriously injured or had a family member or close friend seriously impacted? Is she/he aware of any specific issues that need personal follow-up?

Anticipate obstacles, barriers and disruption that have impacted the team and intervene. I cannot list all of the possible issues that an employee may have to deal with, since each event is unique and employees will be impacted differently. However, as you gather information, repeatedly ask yourself, “How can we make this easier?”  Be proactive and creative. If an employee is having trouble with approval for a benefit, call the carrier. If transportation has been effected, organize car pools, make Zip Cars available or offer telecommuting options.  A word of caution:  if you do offer “special benefits,” make sure to communicate that they are temporary, and establish an end date if possible.

Make grief/trauma counselors available and convenient. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, contact them and arrange to bring a counselor(s) on site or to a convenient location for several days. If you do not have an EAP you can find a qualified counselor through your health care provider or other resources. People will need to talk about their experience and emotions in a safe and confidential environment.  A professional will be able to help people process their feelings. He/she will also be able to offer suggestions about how the organization may best support the employees.

Develop and distribute communication to the impacted employee group, to the overall organization and to clients, if appropriate.  Act quickly to facilitate a communication strategy. At a minimum you will want a communication piece from the most senior leader to the impacted employees, using a method that is accessible and as personal as possible. Communicate with the non-impacted employees to provide them with the facts of the situation, any near-term changes in the operations, an overview of the support the company is providing and suggestions about how they can help. Develop any external communication that may be needed for clients, vendors, job candidates and others. Finally, be certain that key personnel understand any instructions or protocol for dealing with the press or investigators.

Allow employees the time to grieve and heal with their families and communities. Here’s where you will need to balance flexibility with reason. People will need time to heal and may need time to reorganize their daily routines for themselves and their families—give it to them. You may also need to make some personal exceptions and accommodations for unique circumstances.

Plan or participate in a group event that offers closure and sets the stage for healing.  In the case of death, this may involve time off to attend a memorial or holding your own special memorial time on site. If the company chooses to sponsor its own memorial service, use a professional counselor as a facilitator and make sure to avoid any religious overtones.

Stay in touch. Do not assume that once the initial event has passed that everything will return to normal.  Of course, the organization and the people will eventually need to move forward, so stay in touch with their progress. Talk with the local manager frequently. Provide support and follow-up as necessary for as long as necessary.


The entrance to companies with the industry experience fetish. You have to know the secret password to unlock the chain.

The entrance to companies with the “industry experience” fetish.

Many job postings list “industry experience preferred/required/strongly preferred/a must” or endless other variations of the theme.

I tend to view these blurbs with skepticism. In certain cases, industry experience can be a valid differentiator, particularly when the organization posting the ad needs someone to step in right away and hit the ground running.

On the other hand, I think some companies use it as a defense mechanism to hide lazy thinking and narrow-mindedness.

Everyone thinks their industry is special, unique and different. I’ve never met anyone in any industry who didn’t tell me that their business was incredibly complex and difficult to learn. This is always an exaggeration. Some industries have more rules, some use unusual language to describe their activities and some are in relatively new fields where there are no rules. None of that makes an industry more complex. The claim that their industry is uniquely challenging is something that people often use to make themselves feel important. They also use it in collaboration with others to form an exclusive club, and exclusive clubs always want to keep out the riff-raff and the people who don’t know the secret knock or have the secret decoder ring.

I base my argument on three key facts:

  1. I am no Einstein.
  2. I do not have a business degree. My degrees are in English (BA) and Public Administration with an OD emphasis (MPA).
  3. In consulting and in-house roles, I have worked successfully in all of the following industries: Health Care (clinical and medical devices), Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy, Environmental Services, Computers, Telecommunications, Software, Semiconductors, Wireless, Government, Higher Education, Military, Trucking, Internet, Food Services, Financial Services, Nonprofits, Social Services, Real Estate, Advertising, Business Analytics, Publishing, Entertainment, Employment Services, Construction and Precision Instruments.

So, if I am not imbued with any magical powers, how have I managed to accomplish something that most employment ads assume is impossible? Simple:

  • When I go into any company—even if I’ve worked in the industry before—I adopt the attitude that I am entering a foreign country where I know neither the language nor the customs. I listen, I ask questions and most importantly, I make no assumptions that my previous experience has any relevance to this experience. I will bring my experience into the conversation only when I have proof that it is relevant.
  • I’m not afraid to learn new things. Even though I’m the consultant and supposed to be “the expert,” I’m there to learn first, teach second.
  • I don’t let them intimidate me with buzzwords. If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language in school and you go to a country that speaks that language, you’ll have a moment of terror when you have your first encounter and find out that you can’t understand a word they’re saying and that you are completely unintelligible to them. What happens then? You get anxious, fearful, start beating yourself up for having had the arrogance to believe that you could master the language . . . and wind up forgetting everything you do know and disabling your ability to listen and learn.

To put it simply, it’s not industry experience that matters, it’s learning ability. Anyone can learn the essentials of any business in a relatively short period of time with an open mind. The advantage of hiring outside the industry are enormous. You get new perspectives on old problems and different ways of thinking. You get people who are unlikely to be bored because they’re learning new things. You’re more likely to get excitement and motivation from people who want to prove themselves as opposed to people who have been there, done that.

This brings us to the fundamental danger of insisting on an industry experience requirement. If all you’re doing is hiring people who think like you and talk like you, how are you ever going to innovate, deal with change, or create a learning culture? How do you expect your company to grow when all you’re doing is recycling old ideas? Why on earth would you want to duplicate the practices of a closed, stagnant culture like North Korea?

When I worked in health care (as closed an industry as there is), I knew we were making progress in our culture change efforts when one of our best leaders, a clinical professional with multiple certifications and a long career in health care, called me about recruiting front desk staff for the clinics. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t want anyone with health care experience. I can teach them what they need to know. What I want are people who are good with people and who have had customer service training at some of the companies known for great customer service. The candidates I get from health care don’t really connect with people. They seem bored.”

Bless her heart. To be fair, health care has more limitations than most other industries because you can only hire physicians, nurses and technologists from within the health care mindset. This is a major reason why health care is so slow to change and why a colleague of mine who recently entered the industry described it as “going back in a time machine twenty years.” It’s not going to get any better in health care until they remove that “health care industry experience preferred” tag from their employment ads for non-clinical positions. The sheer weight of custom and accepted practice needs a strong counterweight if the industry is to join the rest of us in the present day.

My feeling is that the industry experience requirement is overrated and sometimes dangerous. It reflects lazy thinking on the part of HR and hiring managers who don’t take the time to clarify what they really need. Sometimes it’s used to avoid the possibility of hiring someone who will challenge the status quo, and in that case limits the ability of an organization to diversify its thinking. Focusing instead on interviewing for the critical competencies of learning ability and flexible thinking will get you far better results than simply hiring people who may know your buzzwords but may have stopped learning long ago.

© Emadrazo | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images


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In an earlier post, I talked about The Purpose of HR. Another way to look at the problem of HR in modern organizations is to ask the question, “Why have an HR function at all?”

The truth is that most, if not all of the functions that make up the PHR field of study can be outsourced in a heartbeat. Benefits? Let your broker and a few specialist companies deal with benefits. Compensation? There are plenty of competent consultants who can design comp programs, and almost any decent HRIS can make administration a no-brainer. Employee Relations? I know of several organizations who have adopted a call center approach to dealing with ER problems. Recruiting? That’s the easiest function to outsource because of the easy availability of employment agencies and headhunters. Everything in HR from onboarding to termination can be outsourced as easily as a manufacturing operation can be transferred overseas, which today is a relatively simple thing to do.

So, why bother with an HR department? Why bother having an internal function that rarely pays for itself and is perceived by many to be more of an obstacle than a valued service provider?

Well, if you’re a cost-control driven company with a bureaucratic HR department, I’d say, “Sure! Outsource the whole thing.” In this case, HR is an unnecessary expense that provides no value. Some business leaders are all about profit and loss, believe people are always replaceable and couldn’t care less about creating a great culture, no matter how many studies you show them linking engagement to profitability. HR exists in such an organization only out of habit or history. Get rid of it and move on. Let your HR people go find more fulfilling jobs elsewhere.

And where might those fulfilling jobs be found? In organizations that value HR because HR is focused on facilitating decision-making rather than processing transactions and making rules. As I stated in The Purpose of HR, the primary mission of HR is to facilitate, to make it easy for people to make intelligent choices. This applies to things as simple as helping an employee choose the right medical plan or helping the leadership team work through a tough decision. In a world awash with too much information, HR can help everyone in the organization make intelligent choices, from the entry level to the executive level. They can remove unnecessary hassles that waste time and reduce productivity.

On a practical level, HR has another vital purpose, particularly in a non-union organization. HR is the place where people go to talk about things they don’t think they can talk about with the boss. Many employees don’t like calling the Employee Assistance Program for a good chunk of the problems they encounter because they associate EAP’s with “serious problems” like drug dependency or family crises. They want to go to someone they know and trust to talk things out, to figure out their options, to consider the possibilities. HR should be the place where people go to make sense of organizational life, and there is no other function in a modern organization that can do that. How HR handles such visits is one key to understanding what differentiates an effective HR department from a bureaucratic, meddling HR group. HR’s goal is always to move the conversation out of HR so that the person with the issue eventually goes to the person they have the problem with. This is often a boss or a co-worker that the employee is reluctant to confront. HR can’t be their parents or play big brother/big sister and step in to take control of solving the problem. Every person who comes to HR with a problem should feel empowered to solve that problem when they leave. Needless to say, this service also has a very practical purpose: if the employee feels they have no one to talk to inside the organization, they might seek help from regulatory agencies or law firms.

HR provides value through facilitation and empowerment, not by processing electronic data or paperwork. If a transaction can be handled through self-service, do it. If the energy invested in administration distracts HR from facilitation and empowerment, outsource it (COBRA, for example). Things like FMLA and unemployment are borderline and depend greatly on organizational size and location. The bottom line is that an HR department has limited time and staff and an HR leader needs to separate what must be done internally from “would be nice” and definite distractions.

I believe firmly that HR’s reason for existence is strengthened by integrating HR, OD and Learning & Development into a single, united team. This increases the value of all three functions and supports the model of a facilitating, empowering HR function. It also puts HR in the business of providing what people need most in a modern organization: ongoing learning and teamwork skills. Such integration also facilitates skill sharing, so that HR people become more skilled at the arts of learning transfer and dialogue that are core skills of Training and OD professionals.

In an information-saturated world full of expert specialists who will often know more and be more current about a given HR subject area than internal HR professionals, it is critical that HR leaders realize that the strength of HR does not lie so much in functional expertise as in knowing where and how to get quality information. This means that the reason for HR cannot be functional expertise, which can be found elsewhere, but in synthesizing information with the needs of the culture to help the people in that culture make the best possible choices for themselves. If I’m a business leader, I’m going to value a function that reduces complexity instead of increasing it. Because HR is concerned with the human side of organizations—the most complex aspect of any organization—its most important function is to synthesize complex information impacting the human side so that all of the people in the organization are empowered to make effective choices.

Therefore, the reason for having an HR function is because any complex organization needs a function that facilitates collaboration. Like the Blue Hat in De Bono’s thinking model, HR is the neutral party whose only interest is to help people work together to solve problems. A great HR department is the glue that holds things together, focused only on strengthening the culture and the people in that culture.  By providing services that allow people to make choices and through processes that help people make effective choices, HR becomes a function devoted to creating a culture of personal responsibility . . . a value-added reason for existence in any modern organization.


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After working in the field of organizational development for several years, I have had to learn many hard truths about organizational change in business.

The first hard truth I’ve had to accept about business is that the good guys don’t always win. I know of several massively dysfunctional organizations that make tons of money and are recognized as the darlings of Wall Street. In these organizations, vision and values have no connection to reality, and people remain primarily because they get a piece of the action in the form of “sticky” compensation plans or relatively rich benefits. While these organizations may advertise themselves as places where people matter, or as collaborative environments where people can make a difference, the truth is that their employee relations strategy is to pay off the people they need, and replace the rest whenever it’s convenient or practical to do so.

Truth #1: Cynical, sad, but true: organizational success, defined only in bottom line terms, has nothing to do with whether or not people are happy, fulfilled or have the opportunity to find meaning in their work. If people believe that profit is all that matters, whether you’re talking about business or personal profit, there is little you can do to change the belief if they can “prove” that it’s true and their needs for money and status are satisfied.

Another hard truth I’ve had to learn is that what people believe is more important than “the truth,” and that even distorted beliefs can have enormous staying power. All of the dysfunctional organizations mentioned above have a core of “true believers” in leadership positions who, as long as they perceive themselves as favored children and continue to get a piece of the action, will defend the organization and hold the vision and values as gospel, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Much like the Communists of old, they constantly and publicly proclaim their loyalty and commitment to the organization’s direction and dogma, and root out non-believers who fail to get with the program. Generally they avoid the “show trials” used by the Communists and instead use stealth and secrecy to maneuver non-believers out of the organization. They do this because deep down inside, they know that the foundation on which they’ve built their beliefs is a very fragile thing, so they feel threatened by anyone who questions that foundation.

Truth #2: Organizational success depends more on the strength of the belief system, no matter how distorted that belief system may be. “If we believe it, it must be true” is a very powerful force. As long as an organization possesses a few leaders with the ability to effectively respond to opportunities and threats in the marketplace with crystalline clarity, its chances of bottom line success remain high if those leaders can convince the people that do the work that the direction has a payoff. The process of convincing people of that does not require in any way that leaders tell the truth. “If they believe it, that’s good enough.” Distortion “works” if enough people believe in the distorted information.

The third truth is the most important, because it opens the door to positive change. Sometimes leadership’s sales pitches don’t work and people don’t get with the program. The frustrated response of leadership is to “clean house.” These efforts are rarely successful because the belief system has a life of its own. If you talk to people who have served in the Navy, you’ll find that many are absolutely convinced that there’s such a thing as a “bad ship.” This is a ship that is so cursed and unlucky that even if you replaced all the officers and crew with new ones, the curse would remain in place and it would continue to be a bad ship. They’re actually right! The myth of the bad ship spreads like wildfire through the ranks, so anyone transferred to the ship goes in believing that they’re in for an unlucky experience. It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true for organizations with a bad reputation in the employment market: if “everyone knows” that an organization is a mess, they’ll either avoid the place entirely or, desperate for a job, join the organization with teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.

Truth #3: Belief systems can become myths and myths have a life of their own. Ignore myths at your peril! The key to successful and healthy organizational change is to identify the myths, expose them as myths and reeducate people to deal with the world as is rather than what they would like it to be.

That last truth is connected to another truth: organizations move away from a bottom line mentality only when its members, especially those in leadership, feel enough pain to motivate them to change their beliefs and habits. When everyone’s making money and feeling flush, it’s easy to ignore the distortions, waste, inauthenticity and absurdity that characterize a dysfunctional organization. Only when an organization experiences failure will its members become willing to face the truth and begin to create an organization that is something more than an entity that exploits and is exploited by its members.

The final truth involves something every organizational development practitioner has to accept: not everyone shares your values! While you may believe in the importance of creating a humane workplace where people collaborate to create a truly meaningful and productive work experience, that belief may not be shared by people grounded in the hard world of profit and loss. This is why an OD practitioner has to assess each consulting opportunity with cold objectivity, and determine whether they’re hiring you to help create positive change or engaging in a window-dressing exercise.

Still, even if you think the odds are a long shot, go for it if there are few slivers of tangible evidence that positive change may be possible. There are few experiences in life as satisfying as helping people face the truth, learn how to deal with it and choose their own directions.

© Aydindurdu | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images