Tag Archives: culture

Is HR Still Relevant? Only If We Can Keep Up With the Speed of Change

HR wordleThis past summer, I read an article on TLNT.com asking “Is there still a need for HR?” Of course, as an Human Resources publication, TLNT.com answered yes.  And as a former HR executive, I think the answer is yes also.

Then I read another article on McKinsey.com on getting ready for the future of work. This article focused on the increase of artificial intelligence and what that will mean for organizations in the years ahead.  According to McKinsey, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with most occupations could be automated—including knowledge tasks.

It dawned on me that in my working career of thirty-some years, there have been two major shifts in what constitutes work for many people. The first shift arose with the computerization of what used to be manual tasks, vastly increasing the productivity of repetitive work. The second shift came with the speed of communications and data transfer, so that now many roles can be performed anywhere.

It could be that artificial intelligence will be a third momentous shift in work, if machines in the future will not only perform the processing tasks that humans now do, but also the thinking and conceptualizing roles that we have assumed differentiated human beings from non-human.

These huge changes in what constitutes work are significant because they have happened so rapidly. Shifts of this magnitude used to come only once in a century or every few centuries. Think of the Industrial Revolution, when machines started doing what human and animal labor had done before. Think of how locomotion shifted from wind or animal power to motorized power. We now move as fast as we can find power to move us—on land, water, air . . . and even space.

Why do I raise these subjects in a discussion about Human Resources?

HR signBecause to remain relevant in the future, HR must have ready the right talent the organization will need at the right time in the right place. We have barely dealt with the skill sets needed to handle digitization. We still don’t really have our arms around the globalization of the workforce permitting employees and those in the gig economy in disparate locations to form project teams that ebb and flow as the work requires. Yet we may soon be asked to manage the intersection between human and artificial intelligence, when most HR people have no understanding of the possibilities of AI.

And we need to help employees prepare themselves to adapt to changing and ever more complex roles. Job changes in the future will be less about moving from company to company in the same field and more about complete shifts in what work we do and how we do it.

Are HR’s abilities to predict the skill sets of the future sufficient to the task of helping employees keep up? I doubt it.

HR strategists today say that fostering organizational culture is one of the core strengths HR can bring to an organization. But are we prepared to develop a global culture that incorporates not only human capabilities but also includes AI in the work world of tomorrow? I doubt that also.

The McKinsey article argues that lifelong learning is the only way that humans will maintain their employability in the future. That goes for HR professionals as much as for any other worker.

As Jeff Dieffenbach, associate director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, is quoted as saying in the McKinsey article:

“While change is accelerating, one thing that is definitely not is the neuroplasticity of the brain. In other words, the rate of change in the world may have surpassed the speed at which the human mind can process those changes.”

That goes for HR brains as well as those of other workers. Frankly, I’m not sure HR will survive in a recognizable form. The machines may take over from us.

What do you see ahead for HR?

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Filed under Human Resources, Management, Philosophy, Workplace

Pay Transparency: Where Is Your Organization on the Spectrum?

In August 2015, I wrote a post that took a decidedly guarded position on the benefits of pay transparency. That post was written in the context of the SEC’s pay ratio disclosure rules, requiring the disclosure of executive pay as compared to the average worker’s pay. I’ve been mulling the topic of pay transparency ever since then, wondering if I was too conservative. I recently attended a webinar on pay transparency sponsored by PayScale and BambooHR which caused me to adjust my thinking. This post deals with the merits of pay transparency as a management philosophy, rather than as a response to a government mandate.

The thrust of the PayScale/BambooHR webinar was that pay transparency is really a continuum of pay strategies. Each organization must decide where on the continuum to place its pay philosophy, based on the organization’s goals and desired culture.

If an employer decides to migrate further along the pay transparency continuum, then management and Human Resources in that organization need to be more disciplined in setting pay and in discussing pay with employees. Making pay transparency work requires good market data and an understanding of what skills and performance the organization needs from its employees.

The PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum


As depicted in the webinar, there are five stages on the “PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum.” The remainder of this post describes the five steps as outlined by Payscale and Bamboo HR, but many of the attitudes expressed regarding the pros and cons of each step are my own, and not necessarily those of the presenters.

1. What — Employees understand what they get paid — how much, when pay day is, etc. This is a bare minimum, and certainly all employers should at least be willing to tell their employees this much.

Even conservatives like me would not object to this step on the spectrum. If this is part of pay transparency, then I can easily support any company getting to this first level.

2. How — Employees are told how the organization uses data to make pay decisions. If the employer uses market pay data, then employees are told how market studies are conducted, or at least which companies are considered comparable. If jobs are graded on a point factor system, then the factors are described.

Opening up pay calculations to this level on the spectrum can be a big step in helping employees accept the fairness of pay scales and understanding the value of their job versus working at another company. But employees will ask questions about how jobs are defined and whether the benchmark companies are good comparators, so managers and HR do need to be educated in how to respond to such questions.

Again, I can readily support this step on the continuum for most companies. Assuming that an employer does have a pay structure with job grades and salary benchmarking, then the employer should be able to explain to employees how that system works. Not all companies will choose to pay to market, but if they don’t, they should be able to explain why (“we choose to be an entry-level employer, and we understand turnover will be higher,” for example). By contrast, when a company wants to be an employer of choice and to pay at or above market, then they should be happy to explain that philosophy.

3. Where — The third step on the spectrum is explaining to individual employees where they fall in the pay range. This goes beyond explaining what the salary range for a position is (Step 2) and requires telling individuals how their individual pay was set and what their future salary expectations are.

For certain (typically non-exempt) positions, salary increases are based on seniority or time-in-grade or the achievement of specific skill sets. In those instances, where pay increases are based on objective factors, it only makes sense to tell employees about the factors. In addition, when a company wants to focus on employee development and career opportunities, reaching this step on the transparency continuum can enrich the career planning and performance discussions.

The more subjective the criteria for offering pay increases, however, the more managers and HR need to be trained in how to discuss pay with employees. I think this was my hesitancy when I addressed the topic before. I’ve seen too many instances when managers handled these conversations poorly.

4. Why — The fourth step on the spectrum is explaining to employees why the organization pays the way it does. This requires a good understanding of the desired workplace culture and how pay fits with that culture. At this step, employers not only tell employees how they can increase their individual pay within the pay grades and ranges, but the organization also explains what is important for the future success of the organization.

At this level, management training is even more important than at Step 3. The questions about paying to market or not must be answered to deal with pay transparency at this level. Not all managers are able to talk effectively about workplace culture and employee engagement and retention. Particularly when managers themselves are not satisfied with their pay—or don’t understand how their own pay is set—they will not be effective communicators.

The webinar presenters stated that this level might be a good goal to reach on pay transparency, although they did not advocate it for all employers. They did emphasize the need for management training. I am not sure that many employers are ready for this level. Certainly many that I have worked with would need significant improvement in their management ranks before reaching full transparency about the links between pay philosophy and culture. But organizations with professional employees and highly skilled managers might well have this level as a goal.

5. Whoa! — Yes, this was the fifth level on the pay transparency continuum. This is the level that is often discussed in the media—where there are open discussions about which employee makes what salary, and everyone knows what everyone else gets paid.

The presenters indicated that this level might not be desirable for many organizations. And this is certainly where I balked when I wrote about pay transparency before. I’ve worked in departments where everyone had access to what everyone else made, and it was a difficult environment in which to manage. That may be in part because we were not as data-driven as we purported to be—subjective factors such as performance and prior job history played a role on where employees ended up within their salary ranges.

I’m still of the opinion that most organizations are not ready for this level of pay transparency. Some might be, but they had better be ready for a lot of difficult discussions with employees.

How to Reach the Desired Level

The last aspect of the webinar I’ll mention was the emphasis by the presenters on the need for the organization’s leaders to determine their pay philosophy and set a target for where on the pay transparency spectrum they want to be to suit their culture.

It’s likely that the organization will have to evolve a step at a time. An organization that currently does not even discuss pay ranges with employees is not going to get even to Step 4 without a few years of transition.

And the more transparent a system company leaders want to have, the more they need to invest in management training. Not all managers, and not all employees, will make the transition easily. Some turnover of those whose philosophy does not align with the desired culture will happen.

The webinar was a huge help to me in defining my personal perspective. I’m somewhere between Step 3 and Step 4 in what I would personally recommend. But I can now better articulate to clients what their options are and how they could develop from where they are at present on the continuum and why they might want to change.

Where is your organization currently on the pay transparency continuum?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

Workplace Culture and Psychological Safety


Photo from Pixabay

One of the Human Resources topics I follow is workplace culture. I was struck this past week by an article discussing Google’s Project Aristotle, which analyzed what workplace culture best leads to high-performing teams. In this post, There’s No Quick And Easy Fix To Building A Successful Workforce, by Carol Anderson, April 26, 2016, on TLNT.com, the author discusses another blog post by Aamna Mohdin that concluded:

Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.

In short, just be nice.

See After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice, by
Aamna Mohdin, February 26, 2016, on Quartz.

Ms. Anderson disputed this conclusion, arguing that psychological safety and “niceness” are not the same thing. I agree.

I once worked in an organization where people were almost always “nice” to each other, but the important decisions did not get made, or did not get made in a timely fashion, or were not communicated effectively to the people who needed to know. In fact, “niceness” got in the way of good communications and decision-making. People were too afraid of hurting others’ feelings to make the tough calls and then explain their decisions to each other. The problem began in the executive suite and trickled down through most divisions in the organization.

According to a New York Times article entitled What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, by Charles Duhigg, published February 25, 2016, in Project Aristotle, Google realized it was important for teams to have norms and to communicate those norms.

The right norms . . . could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

But which norms made for the best teams? Google found two important behaviors that good teams shared:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

. . .

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

To sum up these traits,

. . . all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While [the successful team] might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

In the Quartz article cited above, Aamna Mohdin summarized the Project Aristotle conclusions as follows:

the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

These traits are part of “psychological safety,” which has been defined by Professor Amy Edmonson of the Harvard Business School as:

a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish
someone for speaking up,’’

‘‘. . . a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

The reason that Carol Anderson believed that these conclusions have nothing to do with “niceness” is that

. . . psychological safety, at its root, means that team members feel comfortable to say what they need to say, because they trust that their team will not shut them down, humiliate them or otherwise ignore their words. It is about getting all of the issues on the table in an environment where the team members can focus on solving the problem rather than on being defensive.

As I noted above, “niceness” can in fact interfere with the communications necessary for good decision-making.

Psychological safety wasn’t the only norm found to be important in Google’s Project Aristotle—having clear goals and a culture of dependability were also important—but this safety was critical. And it has to be forged through experience and gaining trust in your team members.

In my opinion, the conclusions of Project Aristotle relate directly to diversity issues as well. As the NYT article by Mr. Duhigg describes, Google learned that

. . . no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

That feeling of leaving a part of one’s self at home is what many workplace minorities describe—whether their “difference” is based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, introversion, or any other category. A psychologically safe environment is critical to true progress on improving diversity in the workplace.

What difference has feeling a sense of “psychological safety” at work or lack of it made in your career?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

The Stories We Tell: Corporate Culture, Large and Small (Nike and Pocock)

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I was privileged to tour two corporate headquarters—Nike near Beaverton, Oregon, and Pocock Racing Shells in Everett, Washington. I love touring company facilities, so I looked forward to both tours. I like to see things being made, and I hoped to see these companies’ products and processes.

Although both Nike and Pocock make premier products in their fields, the company cultures I saw on these tours could not have been more different. I saw again—as I have seen at so many other companies—that corporate culture is created by the stories businesses tell.

The strongest cultures and brands develop when leaders send the same messages to employees, suppliers, customers, and the public. Consistency in message brings the right people together, both inside and outside the company, to deliver on the brand’s promise. Inconsistency in message sows confusion and strategic incoherence.

Nike 20150731_102922Nike’s headquarters is huge. It encompasses blocks of office buildings and includes soccer fields, a football field, indoor gymnasiums, and two child care centers. We were told that Nike has around 60,000 employees worldwide. I think about 6,000 of them are in the Portland, Oregon, area.

Nike doesn’t manufacture in the U.S., so we could not observe product lines. We were kept far away from any product design and development areas. We didn’t even see any employee offices. We were shown displays of old products, as well as as the state-of-the-art employee amenities. An employee soccer match was underway as we walked through at noon.

The headquarters complex is a paean to the company’s products and history, as well as to the champions who have endorsed Nike’s products. Most prominently, of course, is Michael Jordan, and some of his Air Jordans were under glass. Statues and plaques of famous athletes from all sports line every hallway and outside walk. (Some people on our tour became starstruck when Serena Williams rode past us in a golf cart.)

Nike was founded in 1964, and adopted the Nike name and swoosh trademark in 1971. It has, as we all know, grown into a worldwide conglomerate. Our guide told us about the early days of Nike, when Bill Bowerman developed the waffle bottom for the original shoes (allegedly after being inspired by his wife’s waffle maker).

Thus, despite its current size, the stories Nike tells still revolve around its humble beginnings. However, the tour guide also stressed Nike’s commitment to health, environmentalism, and charitable giving, in addition to improving sports equipment and apparel.

Nike also emphasized its relationship with the University of Oregon athletic program. One person on our tour had been to Eugene to see its athletic facilities and came away impressed with Nike’s contributions to the physical complex as well as with the products Nike provided the Ducks.


pocock logoIn contrast to Nike, the headquarters facility of Pocock Rowing Shells is a large metal shed, not far from the large complex in Everett, Washington, where Boeing manufactures airplanes. Although Pocock has been in operation in the United States since 1911, today it boasts only about twenty employees total. The company runs just one day shift of craftsmen making its synthetic rowing shells. Each boat is made one at a time from mold to finished product in that shed—no assembly line production for Pocock.

The small administrative area is on the second floor of the building, where there are a few offices holding dated furniture. Its inventory management system consists of a single whiteboard that shows the delivery schedule for each boat on order.

Knowing the reputation of the Pocock boats for quality, I was underwhelmed by what I saw. I had expected a much bigger facility, with far more boats being manufactured. Our guide indicated that Pocock intended to keep its small size and hand-crafted products.

Like Nike, Pocock’s public spaces feature athletes using its products. The difference is that there is only a single hallway, instead of a multi-acre property. Like Nike, Pocock maintains a close relationship with a college athletic program—in this case the University of Washington crew team.

At Pocock, too, the mythology around founder George Pocock and his son Stan (who died last year) were part of the story. Our guide pointed out George Pocock’s involvement with the University of Washington crew team that won the 1936 Olympics, as described in the current bestselling book, Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

Unlike Nike, Pocock let us watch its products being made. We observed a rowing shell under construction for about half an hour. (I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.). We weren’t allowed on the manufacturing floor, but we could see several layers of material laid down during the space of those thirty minutes. Our guide was fairly open about the materials and processes used on the shell, though it is a proprietary process. This was the type of experience I wanted out of both tours, but only received at Pocock.

* * * * *

Both Nike and Pocock operate in the world of sports. There are similarities in their stories—both talk about excellence, from the foundation of their companies to the present. But Nike’s stories also emphasize its worldwide reach and size, while Pocock emphasizes family and craft. Each is successful in its arena, but their cultures are different.

Another Pacific Northwest company’s culture has been in the news recently—Amazon. Amazon’s culture is said to be hard-charging and performance-driven. I’m sure if I toured Amazon’s headquarters, I’d see something quite different than I saw at either Nike or Pocock.

I wonder if the stories Amazon tells about itself match the stories that have been reported.

What company culture has impressed you? How do the stories told foster that company’s success?


Filed under Leadership, Management

How to Manage Beyond Employee Engagement

sekulic-Vetta-Getty Images

Sekulic-Vetta-Getty Images

“Employee engagement” became the buzzword for many Human Resources managers in the late 1990s. Previously, we talked about “employee satisfaction” to describe how we should gauge the likelihood of retaining good employees. But then the thrust changed from making employees happy to getting them engaged in the business. Gallup helped, with its Q12 Employee Engagement Survey, which the company refined through the 1990s.

Gallup_Corporate_logoThe Gallup methodology focused on measuring employee engagement through four levels: (1) whether their basic needs were being met, (2) whether they felt supported by management, (3) whether they felt a sense of belonging or teamwork, and (4) whether they felt they were growing at work. Obviously, all four levels are important to keeping employees motivated in their roles.

Through the recent Great Recession, many businesses spent little effort on retention, or focused that attention only on key employees. Now, with the labor market finally becoming more fluid, employee retention is again receiving management attention. According to recent Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends research, 78% of business leaders rate retention and engagement as urgent or important.

Under traditional theories of employee engagement, the attention managers paid to their employees was deemed critical to employee retention. However, these days, according to Josh Bersin in Forbes, employee retention is dictated more by co-worker relationships than by supervisor relationships. See It’s Time To Rethink The ‘Employee Engagement’ Issue, by Josh Bersin, Forbes, April 10, 2015.

As Bersin says,

“When people leave it is usually a combination of the organization and all its elements that cause turnover. A bad manager can force someone to leave, but usually there are many other factors that create low performance or a departure.”

Some of these other factors are the lack of opportunities for development and leadership and poor relationships with peers.

Now more business commentators are questioning whether engagement is the right strategy for employee retention. Employee engagement should not be an HR activity, but a business strategy. Employee engagement leads to positive interactions with customers which leads to business success.

Bersin says that leaders need to build an organization that is “exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.” Employees don’t just need to be “engaged,” they need to be committed to the organization’s identity, mission, and culture. They need to be excited to come to work each day.

According to Bersin,

“Companies that understand this topic go beyond engagement surveys: they re-design jobs, they change the work environment, they add new benefits, they continuously develop managers, and they invest in people. They are “mission-driven” and they make sure people are screened for culture and job fit (the wrong person cannot be “engaged” regardless of what HR does).”

Bersin advocates committing to the concept that people are the key to a business’s success. People aren’t our most important resource, they are our business.

What leaders have you known who understood that people are the business? What did they do differently?

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A Kosher Deli, A Modern Bakery, and Religious Accommodation

side-images-deli-platterMany years ago I was planning a party at my home for a large crowd. I planned to serve sandwiches, so I called a local deli that had been recommended to me. I discussed the kinds of meat the deli offered, and ordered several pounds of pastrami and corned beef and turkey.

“What about ham?” I asked.

“No ham. We’re kosher,” the proprietor responded.

I hadn’t realized the deli was kosher, but I could do without ham, and I added another pound of pastrami to my order. “And I’d like a cheese platter also,” I said.

“We don’t serve cheese with meat.” Now the proprietor’s tone was curt.

OK Kosher CertifiedI was embarrassed. I knew that keeping kosher meant keeping meat and milk products separate—”thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” being one of the dietary commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But I had forgotten. I knew the deli offered both meats and cheeses for sale, but apparently they did not sell them together.

I was a member of the public placing an order with this deli. But it never once occurred to me to insist that I be sold both meat and cheese in violation of the proprietor’s religious beliefs. In fact, I felt I had been insensitive to his desire to operate his business in accordance with his religion. It was my faux pas, not his, I thought, though I did think he could have been a little more gentle in his response to me.

If I did not get indignant at my desire for cheese being refused, why do homosexual couples think that the owner of a bakery who believes gay marriage is not acceptable must sell them a wedding cake?

And why do people wanting birth control medications or devices think that a pharmacist must sell such goods when the pharmacist believes birth control is immoral?

Should I have insisted on getting my cheese at the same place as my meat? I don’t think so. Or canceled my meat order because I couldn’t get the cheese? That was my perogative, but it wasn’t worth bothering. There were plenty of other places to get my cheese.

I recognize that our nation’s history is full of examples of people being refused service because of their race, their gender, their national origin, their religion. I believe that in most of those situations, the business owners were wrong.

But let us also recognize that our nation was founded by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit. Religious freedom is one of our bedrock principles.

In most situations, we should permit business owners to set their own terms for what they will and will not offer for sale and when they will sell certain products. We should accommodate people’s attempts to make their livelihood in a manner that is consistent with their consciences. In a society as pluralistic as ours, there should be room to accommodate our differences.

Why can’t we just give each other some space to live and let live?


Filed under Diversity, Law, Philosophy

Vote Tomorrow (If You Haven’t Already)—Pros and Cons of Early Voting and Mail-in Voting

vote-stars1I’ve made my political leanings on many topics clear in this blog, but I encourage readers of all political persuasions to vote tomorrow. I’ve worked on several voter registration drives over the years, and I have probably registered more people who vote contrary to me than I have supporters. But I believe in the importance of every eligible citizen weighing in on the issues of the day, and tomorrow’s election is no exception.

In recent years, many states have loosened their requirements for early voting. Some states permit voting more than a month before election day. Other states (including Washington and Oregon) now conduct their elections completely by mail, without any polls on election day.

I have worked most of the elections in my precinct for about six years now, and I see pros and cons to early voting and mail-in balloting. First, readers should realize that a common election day was not required early in our nation’s history. The first time the United States had a common election day for the Presidential election was in November 1848.

The advantage of early voting is that citizens can vote when it is more convenient for them, which should increase turn out. However, a disadvantage is that when voting is permitted over a long period, citizens cannot include information that surfaces during debates or in the media and last-minute developments in their decision-making.

Moreover, I see value in citizens coming together on a common date (or narrow window) to decide on their elected representatives. It just feels more democratic when we all act at the same time.

Balancing the pros and cons, I support early voting of a week or two before election day. Six weeks feels entirely too long. But I can see allowing citizens a free opportunity—without having to explain their need to vote before election day—to vote the week before the election for their personal convenience.

With respect to mail-in voting, one advantage is that voters can research the candidates and issues as they cast their ballot, and their choices might therefore be more informed. However, in every jurisdiction, voters who care can research their decisions and take that information into the voting booth with them. So this advantage is only important if voters won’t do research before going to the polls, but would if they voted at home.

The disadvantage of mail-in voting is the increased possibility of fraud. When a ballot is voted at home, there is no way to ensure that someone else does not complete the ballot for the voter and simply tell them to where to sign. This could happen when a parent completes the ballot for a college-aged child, or if an adult child or other relative or friend completes the ballot for an elderly person who may not be able to see well or may even not have the requisite mental competence to vote. Or parties or candidates could buy votes and demand to see the completed ballot before making the payment. All these fraudulent situations are easier in the absence of supervised polls.

Based on my experience as a poll worker, mail-in voting is more likely to result in fraud than the absence of photo identification cards, which is the issue being debated in many states this year (though I support reasonable photo ID requirements for voting as well).

What does any of this have to do with corporate America? I believe that workers who are educated about and engaged in the political process are more likely to be educated about and engaged in their jobs as well.

What do you think of the loosened requirements for voting in recent years?

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Filed under Politics

GM’s Culture: Is It So Different From Your Company’s?

I’ve been following the news stories over the last several days about General Motors’ report of what led to the delay in addressing their defective ignition switches for so many years. Report to Board of Directors of General Motors Company Regarding Ignition Switch Recalls, dated May 29, 2014, by Anton R. Valukas, of Jenner & Block. The full report can be found on The New York Times website here.

I know nothing about the manufacture of automobiles, nor about the regulatory requirements for reporting defects. But I do know something about corporate culture, and the aspects of the GM report that touch on their corporate culture have fascinated me.

How many of the following aspects of the GM culture sound familiar to you?

  • The GM Nod—when everyone nods in agreement at the meeting, but leaves the meeting with no intention of following through on any action
  • The GM Salute—when employees cross their arms and point their fingers outward at other people, indicating that someone else is responsible for making a decision or handling a problem
  • Information Silos—where one department doesn’t know what another has done, so doesn’t have the information to address the problem

If your organization doesn’t have these precise examples of passive-aggressive management behavior, I’ll bet it has something similar. It doesn’t matter if you work for a corporation, a non-profit, a governmental agency, or in academia. These types of nonproductive behavior can be found in any organization.

In essence, the GM report states that the investigation revealed witnesses who said there was a reluctance first to report problems and then to deal with issues when they became known. But that is a frequent development in insular organizations with hierarchical structures. In these environments, no employee wants to be the bearer of bad news, nor to have the  responsibility of fixing the problem.

raci_23And often in large corporations, no single person controls decision-making. Sometimes the person responsible can’t even be identified.

How many RACI (Responsibility, Approval, Consultation, Information) matrixes have you seen in organizational design meetings. These forms designate which employees are Responsible for the decision, which employees must Approve it, which must be Consulted, and which must be Informed?  (Sometimes other terms are used, but the general concepts are the same.)

Regardless of the terminology used, with all these people involved, even the manager who makes the decision on paper often does not make the decision in reality—because the system is deliberately designed to include too many people and take too much time.

So the decision gets made—if it gets made at all—in a back room, after the meeting.

Remember: Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

In this case, GM has fired some managers and recommends some overhauling of its management structure and culture. But remember—every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.

And no design is perfect.

When has your organization made poor decisions because of its culture?



Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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?


Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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?


Filed under Benefits, Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace