Tag Archives: change management

Finding Your True North—A Year-End Reflection


northAs I head into the end of each calendar year, I tend to spend some extra time in reflection. I recently found a list of ten things we should do to find our own true north. The list was in an old file, and I labeled it as coming from a presentation I attended by Dr. Terry Crane. However, I could not find Dr. Crane on the Internet, so I cannot provide further credentials. If anyone has links to Dr. Crane’s information, please send them to me in the comments below.

Here’s the list (it’s a good one):

1. Get an education.

2. Be an expert . . . in something.

3. Don’t take no for an answer.

4. Cultivate mentors—male and female—and never burn a bridge.

5. Build & keep your network; don’t lose a headhunter.

6. Be able to apply technology and understand how it impacts your business.

7. Become a mentor yourself—do not leave others behind.

8. Identify your support system—family and friends—know what’s important to you, and what your tolerance and flexibility are.

9. Take risks—do what’s uncomfortable, you can always go back.

10. Develop a passion for the work you do—it’s too much a part of your life not to.

Based on this list, how are you doing in finding your true north?

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The Difficulty of Hiring For Fit


team-115887_640Even though I managed a staffing department for several years, I have never liked recruiting. There’s too much marketing involved for my taste.

But I do believe in the importance of hiring for organizational fit. A good staffing process assesses the candidate against the job and the organization to make sure there is a fit, and also lets the candidate get a clear picture of the organization, so that the candidate makes an informed decision about accepting the job.

Laurie Glover, Contributing Writer for The Business Journals, posted a good article on April 2, entitled How to structure a search for the “right” employee.   Ms. Glover offers three strategies for hiring the right employee:

  • Look for someone who has the relevant skills and knowledge, not necessarily the most intelligent candidate,
  • Assess the candidate’s motivation, and
  • Select people who fit the culture of your organization.

Unfortunately, all three strategies are difficult to make happen during the “dating” that occurs during most selection processes.

  1. Skills v. Intelligence—Both Are Important

I disagree in part with Ms. Glover on the role of intelligence. She advocates not necessarily hiring the best and the brightest, but looking instead for someone with the skills and knowledge to do the job. Yet she also says that skills and knowledge can be fixed, implicitly diminishing their importance in the hiring process.

I agree with her to the extent that when she says not to hire “the best and the brightest,” she means not to focus on candidates cut from the usual mold—those who come from the best universities and have the same stellar resumes. It is important to have a diversity of perspectives within an organization. Hiring all your employees on the basis of their alma maters or GPAs can easily get you a cookie cutter approach to the job.

However, a wise man I once worked for told me, “The way to tackle a hairy problem is to throw a bunch of your best people at it. They’ll come up with a solution.” On another occasion, this same manager said, “It’s never a risk to hire someone smart.”

I took both pieces of advice to heart, and tried to hire people who were not only intelligent, but also had proven successes in their past. Doing so required that I look for more than “book smarts.” The “best people” have more than intelligence. They have the motivation and cultural savvy that Ms. Glover describes in her other two strategies.

  1. Motivation is Critical

I am in complete agreement with Ms. Glover that the best people are those who are independently motivated. As she states, you cannot motivate employees; they must motivate themselves.

All candidates will profess themselves to be self-motivated. It will probably take serious probing during interviews to find out how self-directed applicants have been in achieving results in their previous roles. Checking references is also important, as is reading between the lines, because prior managers may be reluctant to describe a former employee as unmotivated.

Look for candidates to display enthusiasm about earlier projects and to talk openly about why they liked their prior assignments.

  1. Success Requires Cultural Fit

conflictThe final strategy that Ms. Glover recommends is also critical to hiring a strong candidate.  I love the way Ms. Glover articulates the importance of cultural fit: “Can I stand them while they’re doing the job (and can they stand us)?” We have all worked with someone who had the requisite skills and abilities, but who absolutely rubbed us the wrong way.

Yet cultural fit is difficult to assess during the normal recruiting process. Both candidate and organization are typically on their best behavior. It takes strong interviewing skills to assess the “how” of a candidate’s past performance, as well as the “what” of the results achieved.

Moreover, there are times when it is important to bring in someone with new skills or a new way of thinking into an organization. When that is the case, it is very important to do so carefully. Some candidates will be too much of a shock to the organization, or will be ineffective because they cannot communicate with internal partners and customers. That balance—diversity of thought and perspective on one hand, and cultural fit on the other—is delicate.

Often, it will boil down to “can I stand this person for 40+ hours per week?”

What has been your experience in hiring for fit?

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Issues and Best Practices When Conducting Employee Surveys


survey imageWhen I managed the employee relations function in Human Resources, one of my responsibilities was to implement the company’s employee satisfaction survey. My employer had a twenty-year history of using one particular vendor, which conducted a survey of more than 100 questions. We switched to the Gallup Q12 Engagement Survey, with only thirteen questions. And still later, we moved to yet another vendor with more flexibility than either of our earlier vendors.

Throughout all these survey processes we debated the pros and cons of doing a survey at all. There were common themes to our debate, regardless of the tool we used. This post describes some of the issues of employee surveys.

Setting Up an Employee Survey

  1. What Do Your Employees Really Think?

The primary reason for undertaking an employee survey is to discover your employees’ concerns that you cannot learn through direct personal contact. If you knew all your employees’ problems, you wouldn’t need a survey. But people being people, some employees will not tell you their concerns, out of fear for what their supervisor might think, out of worry for losing their job, or out of simple reticence.

Most often, the reason they won’t talk to management directly is because of some prior problem with a manager or Human Resources. “It won’t do any good,” is the prevailing attitude.

An employee survey, then, is only as good as its ability to identify those latent concerns that you won’t hear about otherwise. If that isn’t the purpose of your survey, then maybe you need a different tool.

  1. Are Your Issues Broad or Narrow?

Decide upfront how broad to make the survey. You may have only one or two issues on which you need input, or you may want a broad assessment of your employees’ satisfaction with their workplace and/or management policies.

Surveys can focus on pay, benefits, working conditions, relationships with co-workers, management communication, quality of supervision, morale, and company reputation. Some of these are easy to ask about directly. Other areas require a lot of interpretation.

If there are trust issues between your employees and management, perhaps you should start narrowly and develop a successful response on a particular issue before taking on the broader issues of employee engagement.

On the other hand, perhaps you want a baseline assessment of your employees’ feelings about work, and you are committed to making changes in a broad array of programs, if the survey data warrant.

  1. Survey Methodology

These days, with SurveyMonkey and similar tools, most employee surveys are conducted online. This certainly makes data collection easier. However, if you want verbatim responses, you will need a way to review and interpret the data. Moreover, this can be time-consuming, so don’t take on more than your staff can handle.

Also, even if your survey is easy to complete online, you may get a low response rate, particularly if employees do not trust their managers. You cannot force employees to take it, nor to respond accurately. If trust is an issue, start with a survey on objective topics asking for limited responses, rather than verbatims.

You might also set aside work time for employees to complete the survey in a group. You still need to make sure the responses are kept confidential (see below).

Potential Pitfalls in Employee Surveys

  1. Poorly Drafted Questions

Poorly crafted questions can leave managers with little to go on in developing a response. Particularly where the survey is broad, it is important to write the questions carefully. Working with a vendor that has experience writing questions and interpreting data is helpful.

  1. Confidentiality

Confidentiality is another concern. Employees worry that their individual complaints will get back to their managers. The survey process and the follow-up communications must be unequivocal that the surveys are anonymous and that individual employees cannot be identified in the results. Even then, if your workplace has serious trust issues, some employees may not complete the survey.

  1. Management Expectations

Sometimes management thinks their workers are satisfied because they haven’t heard of any problems. But often, they’ve heard nothing because employees don’t feel there are good channels of communications. Top management needs to be prepared to deal with whatever is learned in the survey.

  1. Follow-up and Action Planning

Sometimes small group meetings are needed to expand on the survey data and turn the information into a meaningful action plan for a particular work unit. Conducting those meetings requires more facilitation skills than some managers have, which means that upper management or HR will need to supplement what some supervisors can do.

Developing meaningful action plans is also difficult. How do you build trust between managers and employees, when that is the issue? Is it simply a matter of lack of communication, or is there a fairness issue underlying the distrust?

But doing nothing in response is the greatest problem with undertaking an employee survey. As Shelley Freeman states in Employee Satisfaction: The Key to a Successful Company,

One caveat about employee surveys, suggestion boxes and the like: affirmatively asking for employees’ feedback and then ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.

You don’t have to take action on every point raised in the data, but you do have to address the major issues that employees have surfaced in their responses.

Conclusions and Best Practices

  • Before you even begin the survey, be sure senior management is committed to dealing with the results—whatever they may be.
  • Some preliminary investigation would be helpful. Talk with first-line managers to see what they think employee concerns might be. Exit interviews with departing employees might also be helpful.
  • Focus the survey, particularly if it is your first. Narrow the topics and state the questions clearly, so that you are focusing on what is most critical for management to know.
  • After the survey, communicate the results.
  • Do something with the results. Develop action plans. And most importantly, follow through on the action plans.
  • By the time of the next survey, you want to show positive changes in response to the last survey.
  • Decide on how long to go between surveys based on how long a reasonable action plan will take. There are organizations that survey employees every six months, but most employers find that a one or two year cycle works best.

For more on employee opinion surveys, see

The Pros and Cons of Employee Surveys, by R. Stell, at NFIB.com

The Pros and Cons of Employee Surveys, by John Faure, SPHR, on SHRM.org

An Introduction to Employee Survey Techniques, on InsightLink Communications

 

What has your experience been with employee surveys?

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Favorite Firing: Hang Up Your Superman Cape


rl-cape-01Most managers know that employees who are over forty are protected by the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and by similar state and local laws. Age discrimination cases can be difficult, because we all get older. No one is immune from aging, and it is typically a visible protected group.

Age-related remarks can be used as evidence of age discrimination, just as racist or sexist remarks can prove race or sex discrimination. But what, exactly, is an age-related remark? Our “favorite firing” case today shows that even a reference to “Superman” might be found to be age-related.

The Facts: A 76-year-old security guard, Carlyn Johnson, was fired by Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. (“Securitas”) after he was involved in a car accident while on-duty and allegedly left his post early. Mr. Johnson filed an age discrimination claim, and said that prior to his termination his supervisors had made negative comments about his age. One of the comments that he says a supervisor said to him was that he “needed to hang up his Superman cape.” The same supervisor who made this remark also said that Mr. Johnson was “too old to be working.”

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Securitas, concluding that Johnson did not present a prima facie case of age discrimination. On August 26, 2013, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying that the remarks alleged were enough to state a claim for age discrimination, and that Mr. Johnson should be able to take his case to trial. See Johnson v. Securitas Security Services USA Inc., No. 12-2129 (8th Cir. Aug. 26, 2013).

There was other evidence of age discrimination, such as that younger employees were not fired after they were in accidents and that those involved in Mr. Johnson’s termination knew his age.

Also mentioned in the Eighth Circuit’s opinion were some variations in the employer’s version of why Mr. Johnson was fired.

The Moral: It is important for employers to train all employees, and especially managers, to avoid making comments that might be found to be ageist, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise hurtful to some protected segment of the workforce. Employers are typically responsible for the stupid comments that managers make.

In Vance v. Ball State University, (U.S. June 24, 2013), the Supreme Court limited the definition of “supervisor” to those who have authority to make “a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” The Vance decision is helpful to employers, because it limits who is a supervisor under federal law. However, in Johnson, the Eighth Circuit found that the supervisor who had told the plaintiff to “hang up his Superman cape” was sufficiently involved in the decision to fire Mr. Johnson to raise a question of fact precluding summary judgment.

Even stray comments can become critical in a judge or jury’s reaction to a particular fact pattern. Non-discriminatory terminations can be twisted into illegal discrimination if the judge or jury decides that the employer’s decision-makers acted out of discriminatory animus. A few comments may be enough.

Despite the age-based remarks, this case is not a slam-dunk for the plaintiff if the case is tried. After all, he was hired when he was 70 years old. Moreover, the employer did not replace him with a younger employee, as often happens (in fact, no one was hired to replace him). Even the allegedly ageist comments could be found to be stray remarks unrelated to his termination, as the District Court determined in ruling on the summary judgment motion.

The employer may still win at trial, but the employer will not get off easily on summary judgment, due in large part to the comments by Mr. Johnson’s managers.

When has a silly remark created a problem in your workplace?

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A Labor Day Reflection on Leading in a World of Change


MP900382973Two articles published last week in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of the value of work and of leadership. Both articles alluded to the changes facing today’s workforce and the need for leadership to wend our way through these changes.

On August 31, 2013, Peggy Noonan wrote in a column titled, Work and the American Character:

“When you work you serve and take part. . . . There is pride and satisfaction in doing work well, in working with others and learning a discipline or a craft or an art. To work is to grow and to find out who you are.

. . . .

Work gives us purpose, stability, integration, shared mission.”

MP900321207How true. But how often do we think of the value of work to our spirits and our sense of self?

Noonan then acknowledges the changing workforce in her suggestion that

“What is needed now is a political leader on fire about all the possibilities, . . . someone with real passion about the idea of new businesses, new inventions, growth, productivity, breakthroughs and jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The need for creativity and innovation is both a cause of and a result of our changing workplace. And it isn’t just political leaders we need, but business and union leaders as well.

In an op-ed piece last week, Richard Pieper reminded us why modern labor unions were developed in the first place. See Richard S. Pieper, A Wish for Labor Day: Visionary Union Leaders, Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2013.

“While employers’ unwillingness in the 1800s to recognize the necessity of providing basic benefits for workers remains a shameful stain, unions deserve all the credit for guaranteeing fair compensation, health care and pensions for workers.”

MP900321214Pieper then contends that union membership is declining in the 21st century because most union leaders are still focused on improving wages, benefits, and job security, rather than on designing the workplace for the challenges ahead.

Preparing workers for the ever-increasing changeability of the workplace is a crucial leadership issue for both union and corporate executives. Technological developments flay whole industries with the click of a button. Government regulations at home and abroad can change expectations in what sometimes seem like capricious flukes.

Businesses – and by extension their employees – must adapt to these developments. Those that cannot adapt will not survive. Only strong leadership can make change happen.

MP900321219Here are a few articles with suggestions on how to manage change:

Most of these articles focus on the need for communication, which is, after all, the first job of leadership. And the last.

When have you seen leaders rising to help the workforce adapt to change?

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Why Have an Independent Board of Directors in a Privately Held Corporation?


Formal Corporate Meeting RoomEvery corporation – public or private – legally has to have at least one director. Most state laws on incorporation require three or more directors. Therefore, there is technically a board of directors in almost every corporation, no matter how small the company. The board is elected by the shareholders, and board members elect the officers of the company, approve by-laws, and otherwise govern the corporation.

But in privately held companies, the role of the board of directors, beyond these minimal legal requirements, depends on what the shareholders want. In a family-owned business, the family shareholders may want only family members to serve as directors. In these cases, the board will not be independent of management and may not bring any outside expertise. That is how most small corporations start.

Other closely held businesses – whether owned by a single family, by a small group of unrelated partners, or by a few outside investors – may want independent directors who can offer financial, technical, and/or strategic advice to the operational officers of the company. In these businesses, the owners and managers in the firm have experts to go to on a regular basis, people with some knowledge of the firm’s operations.

Even if the business is not a corporation, but is a partnership or LLP or LLC, it might be a good idea to have an advisory board that serves the same purpose as the board of directors for a corporation.

If you are the owner of a small, privately held business, why should you consider forming an independent board of directors? Because it is unlikely that you and the other managers running your company have the breadth and depth of experience that today’s business environment requires.

Here are a few examples:

  • First, most businesses operate in a heavily regulated environment. Whether it is food safety rules, or environmental impact, or financial disclosures, or labor relations and employment law, or licensing requirements, the law impacts every business. Perhaps the business could benefit from an attorney on the board.
  • The financial and securities industries have come under increasing scrutiny since the recession in 2008. Even if your business isn’t in these industries, you are likely to need financing as you grow, or perhaps you are considering a public offering or other means of raising capital. You might need someone with strong financial acumen or who is familiar with borrowing opportunities in your region or industry.
  • Every successful business suffers growing pains over time. Perhaps your employee base is increasing faster than your existing managers can handle. Perhaps you have ideas on how to expand, but don’t know how to handle the logistics of your growth – IT systems, people systems, sales channels, etc. Maybe you need someone with experience doing what your business is about to do.
  • Or maybe you know you need to grow, but aren’t sure what the best opportunities are. Perhaps it would be helpful to have someone to walk you through a strategic planning exercise, and then figure out how to bring the best growth options to life.
  • And lastly, perhaps the owners or key managers in your business are ready to retire, and there is no good succession plan in place. Again, outside directors could help your company through a selection process and the transition to new management.

In the examples outlined above, it would be possible for a business to hire consultants or contractors for a well-defined assignment. Or perhaps there is an employee with the skills to help the ownership of the business through the issue.

But there is an advantage to having people with an ongoing knowledge of the business available on a regular basis to provide input to management. The challenge is to use these advisors well. Even in large public companies, this is difficult, as a new McKinsey study points out. Directors need to have the time and the skills to provide the right assistance to the corporations which they serve.

The novel I am writing deals with a family-owned business in the throes of change. Its directors have been family members, but the business  is at the point in its growth cycle where it probably needs outside assistance. Its current leadership will have to grapple with this among many other issues.

For more information on the role of directors in privately held businesses, see articles such as:

The Responsibilities of a Board of Directors for Privately Held & Publicly Held Companies, by Derek Dowell, Demand Media

What Are the Responsibilities of a Board of Directors Within an Organization?, by Bonnie Conrad, Demand Media

Should a Private Company Have a Board of Directors?, by Theodore F. di Stefano, E-Commerce Times, February 8, 2008

Why Your Privately Owned Company Needs a Board of Directors , by Janet B. Fierman, Sheehan, Phinney, Bass & Green PA, Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Privately Held and Family-Owned Businesses Should Have Independent Boards of Directors, by Carl Kampel, Financial Executive, November 2012

Outside Directors: Do You Need Them and Where to Find Them?, by Joe Hadzima, reprinted from Boston Business Journal

Startup Voice: Private Company Board of Directors FAQs, by Inna Efimchik, White Summers Caffee & James LLP

Are there other advantages to having an active, independent board of directors in a private company? What are the disadvantages?

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How To Conduct a Layoff – Go Beyond the Basics


MP900341467One of the regular features of this blog is a series of posts about “favorite firings” – situations when an employee has been fired that are unique, because either the employee or the company (or its manager) has done something questionable. But what about situations when an employer needs to fire multiple employees? Whether because of a business downturn or a reorganization, there are occasions when even good employees cannot be retained.

Many Human Resources managers have to work with line management to design the new organization, slot existing employees into the new roles in the organization, and determine how to transfer or lay off employees who do not fit the new roles. This is not an easy part of the HR function, and it is fraught with legal and employee relations risks.

I worked on several reorganizations during my corporate career, both as an employment law attorney and as a HR director. Layoffs, or reductions in force (RIFs), are also a large topic in my novel in progress, Playing the Game (which I hope to publish this fall).

As a result of my past and present involvement in RIFs, I was interested in the recent Inc. article, Lay-Offs: This Is Exactly What You Don’t Want to Do, by Francesca Fenzi.  Ms. Fenzi gives the following broad tips for how to terminate employees during a layoff:

(1) Do it face-to-face.

(2) Rally the (remaining) troops.

(3) Go the extra mile.

These pointers are correct, as far as they go, and Ms. Fenzi’s article is worth reading. But whole books – “how-to” books, not novels – could be written on each of these three tips, and much is left unsaid in each simple statement.

Face-to-face = RESPECT.  It is critical that the fired employees believe the organization values their past work and is treating them as humanely as possible. Before the employer can authentically show respect for terminated employees, managers and HR need to have done a thorough job in determining that there is in fact no role for each individual who must be let go. And they need to be sure that the reorganization has not been implemented in a manner that adversely impacts a particular racial, gender, age, or other protected group. Only when the leg-work is done ahead of the RIF can the fired employees feel they were given a fair shake.

Rally the remaining troops = CHANGE MANAGEMENT.  This is about the morale of the workforce going forward and change management. Not only must the departing employees feel they have been treated as fairly as possible, but the remaining employees must feel that way also. Those who are left behind – the “survivors” –also must understand their new roles in the organization, believe they have the training and ability to do the job, and not feel overwhelmed by the change. Managers and HR need to re-engage the remaining employees in their work.

Go the extra mile = LEADERSHIP.  This is about communication and leadership. The old adage “communicate, communicate, communicate” applies at every step after a layoff is announced. There is a time for confidentiality before the decisions are final, but once the RIF is public, leaders must step up and own it – this includes leaders at all levels of the organization – from the C-suite to middle managers to front-line supervisors. Each level of management must be equipped to communicate to their reports, until they feel they are over-communicating, and then communicate patiently again. All leaders need to visibly support the organization, so that their employees will buy into the future. HR should drive that process.

For good overviews of the details in conducting a reduction in force, read articles such as:

Layoffs, Downsizing & Reductions in Force: How to Do Them Right, by Greg S. Labate, on the Labor & Employment Law Blog

QuickCounsel: Planning and Conducting a Reduction in Force, by Scott T. Baken and Penny Ann Lieberman, Jackson Lewis LLP, on the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) website

Tips for Planning Reductions in Force – Michael L. Rosen, Foley Hoag LLP (ebook)

And talk to your own employment law advisor early in in the process.

What experience have you had as a manager in conducting layoffs? What do you wish you had known before you started?

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