Tag Archives: employee engagement

Tearing Down the HR Silos


HR signI’ve worked in human resources for twenty years and was associated with professionals in the field for another fifteen. My involvement with HR dates back to the days when the function was called “Personnel.”

For the past quarter century, the profession has talked about the need to become more strategic and less siloed and about its desire to have “a seat at the table.” Yet there are still articles written on how to get HR out of its silo (see here and here).

Of course, the same is said of many other corporate support functions, including IT, Legal, and Public Relations. Every group wants a seat at the table, if only to insure its relevance. Although the plaint is true for all support functions, this post focuses on HR. How can HR become more strategic and less siloed?

Here are four suggestions:

1. Business Acumen — Both Financial and Specific

HR first needs to understand the impact of corporate policies and decisions on the bottom line. Every HR employee must be able to talk the business language of its business. Reading financial statements and budgets is a part of understanding the business, but only part.

Beyond familiarity with financial statements, HR employees also must understand the business drivers of their particular segment of the business. So, for example, if you support a production plant, you should know what drives productivity and quality. If you support a marketing group, you need to know the marketing cycle and critical events within it. If you support a law firm, you must understand both billable hours and alternative fee structures.

In other words, HR professionals need to worry about the same issues that your business partners worry about.

2. Communication and Engagement

Beyond understanding the business drivers, HR has to be prepared to help corporate leadership communicate with employees about the business. HR can offer expertise in employee engagement. But it is important for HR to focus on employee engagement from a business perspective, and not as social director or traffic cop.

The best way to increase employee engagement is to increase employee understanding of the business and of their role in it. HR should involve itself in educating employees about the business’s needs both today and in the future. HR provides the most value when it helps to shape the story that leaders tell in ways that employees can understand and internalize.

3. Collaboration Across the Company

HR can’t be the division that always says “no.” Along with employment lawyers, HR does have particular expertise in employment laws and regulations, which impact workforce management in every respect from hiring to compensation to firing. Sometimes those laws and regulations suggest that managers shouldn’t do what they want to do.

But the best way for HR to be strategic is to ask leadership “what is the outcome you want?” and then figure out how to get there. Risk assessment is a part of any field; HR is no exception. Pointing out the risks of various courses of action is a part of getting to the desired result. But just because risk exists does not mean the desired action should not be undertaken. And many times the same desired outcome can be achieved with slight changes to the plan.

Rather than focusing on what can’t or shouldn’t be done, HR can also help business leaders translate corporate strategies into workforce requirements. What talent will it take to make good on the strategic plans the business has developed? HR must step up to partnering with managers to hire, develop, and retain the best talent for the challenges ahead of the particular business.

4. Integration Within HR and a Customer Service Attitude

In addition to the perception of HR as naysayer, there is also a perception that HR is overly complex and compartmentalized. The great HR guru John Sullivan wrote back in 2006 about the need to knock down silos within HR. In many companies, this is still true today.

Human Resources

While specialization of some functions is important, HR should appear seamless to outsiders. Every HR employee can adopt the military attitude when asked a question—if you don’t know the answer or it’s not in your job description, you can say “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll find out.” No hand-offs from one HR department to the next. No visible arguments between HR business partners and functional specialists—the arguments need to be resolved within HR, not in front of the client.

If HR doesn’t have a cohesive sense of itself, then it cannot present a cohesive picture of people management to the rest of the company. And cohesion is key to any strategy.

Conclusion

HR has been saying throughout my career that employees are the biggest differentiator between companies. If that is true, HR has a critical role as partner in the success of the business—by helping to manage the people who work there.

The first step is getting out of the HR silo and assuming the seat at the table. Don’t wait to be invited. Provide the value, and the seat will be yours.

When have you seen HR professionals work outside their silos as a successful strategic partner?

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Four Tips on Engaging Employees Through Storytelling


MP900439486In her white paper, Increase the Engagement and Effectiveness of Your Training Through the Power of Story, professional trainer and coach Pamela Slim says:

“No matter the substance of our topic, powerful stories can make training more engaging, relevant and even entertaining.”

According to Ms. Slim, stories can be used to build rapport, to simplify complex topics, and to increase audience engagement. After many years drafting corporate communications, I could not agree more. Stories are the essence of what makes us human.

Here are four tips for using stories to engage employees:

1. Know your audience

The first thing to think about when using stories to engage your audience is to identify who your audience is. The stories you use must be appropriate for the audience. They should not talk down to your audience, nor use language the people you are trying to reach don’t understand. And above all, respect your audience—do not use cliches or stereotypes.

If you know your audience, you can better determine which examples (stories) will speak to them, and present your lessons in words and images they will understand.

2. Engage their emotions and senses

Next, try to engage your audience’s emotions. Use powerful images and appeal to as many senses as possible. Sometimes even raw financial data can be presented as a story. For example, if sales are down because of weather, then describe the snowstorms or floods and their impact on traffic patterns on the area. Then discuss how sales have fallen.

Think about the best advertisements you have seen and their appeal to emotions:

  • the MasterCard stories ending in “for everything else, there’s MasterCard”
  • the old AT&T commercials “reach out and touch someone” that mention touch, when literal touch through the phone lines is impossible
  • any Hallmark Cards ad showing families or lovers and the receipt of a greeting card

Emotions bring us together in the workplace as much as they do in our non-work relationships. Celebrate your successes by talking about the long hours and mishaps that occurred along the way. Compare the end result to reaching the mountain top.

3. Teach clearly and directly

Think of the best sermons or inspirational speeches you have heard. There is a lesson, but the speaker first draws you in by telling you a story. It might be a personal story, or a news event, or a Bible story. The story uses familiar situations we all understand, and helps the audience relate to the speaker as a human being. Then we are receptive to the lesson.

Employee engagement is no different. We all want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. By telling us stories, corporate leaders can build rapport with others in their organization.

Also, stories can demonstrate change for the audience. If you’re reorganizing your workflow, follow a particular product through your system to show how the old methods created problems and how the desired state will avoid these issues.

4. Tell them the story, tell them what it means, and tell them what they need to do

This is my version of the old adage “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said.” Repetition is important in oral storytelling. So whether it is a training session, a corporate speech, or a stand-up meeting, know what you need to say, tell a story to draw them in or illustrate the point, make the point, and then be specific in telling them what to do.

* * * * *

As I wrote my novel, Playing the Game, I had certain things I wanted to say about leadership, management, and work/life balance. I thought a fictional setting would be a good way to make my points and would be more entertaining for readers than another management treatise. So I illustrated issues around succession planning, employment law, workplace romance, and balancing work and family through a story about a business struggling to be profitable. I wanted to create a novel that was a good read, but also made the case for good people practices in an organization. I think it worked, and readers seem to agree.

When have you used stories to make a point?

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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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Fair Labor Standards Act and the Expanding (or Contracting) Work Week


laptop-260x173I’ve written before about the need to update the Fair Labor Standards Act. A recent article on the Knowledge@Wharton website reminded me of this need again. See Management, If Not 40 Hours, Then What? Defining the Modern Work Week, Jan. 28, 2015.  As the article states, “With the advent of telecommuting, flexible hours, globalization and answering emails after hours and on vacation, the American worker has entered the era of the fuzzy work-home divide.”

The blurring of work and home lives began decades ago for many professionals. As an attorney in the early 1980s I could bill hours from home or on the road, though face time at the office was definitely important. But today, with smartphones in the hands of every worker, even many traditionally hourly occupations can be performed anywhere and anytime. Whether this is a positive or detrimental development depends on how it is managed—both by management and by employees themselves.

There are also differences in what workers want. Some want longer work weeks for more pay. Others want shorter work weeks for more time for other activities. Similarly, managers want more work for the same pay, but they also want productive workers who are engaged in their roles (which requires that the rest of their lives also be running smoothly).

1. Which Direction Are We Headed?

The eight-hour day was one accomplishment of the early 20th century labor movement, protecting workers from terribly long hours in dismal factory conditions. It was also intended to spread work out across more laborers during the Great Depression. The eight-hour day and forty-hour week were certainly not traditional in the agrarian society that predated the Industrial Revolution. There is nothing set in stone about the eight-hour day or forty-hour week, other than that it is mandated for non-exempt employees under the FLSA and similar laws in other nations.

The Wharton article focuses on a number of possible developments in defining the work week of the future, mostly focused on requiring fewer hours in the week. And yet, U.S. workers currently work an average of 46.7 hours per week, and 18% work more than 60 hours.

Will workers continue to increase their time spent working? Will managers permit more flexibility?

With today’s more flexible work and more flexible technology, the fixed eight-hour day may have outlived its usefulness. Yet in which direction will the work week of the future move—toward more hours or fewer? There are strong arguments for both. Whichever direction we take, managers will be challenged to comply with regulations that change much more slowly than the workplace does.

2. How Do We Manage?

imagesTraditional management: One option in managing work time is for companies to forbid any work by hourly employees except during certain hours. This makes compliance with the FLSA easier, but the trade-off is that company policies typically then do not permit employees to perform personal assignments during working hours. Otherwise, productivity suffers.

This option also penalizes employees who want to put in extra time or have flexibility in when and where they do their work. Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps, depending on your perspective), the FLSA is set up to regulate defined work times and to require payment for all time spent working.

Tracking Time: Another option for managing time is to require hourly employees to keep time sheets, where they log on and off the clock to handle personal matters. This is a difficult policy to enforce, and also runs the risk of violating the FLSA’s requirements that non-exempt employees must be paid for all breaks unless the break is long enough for them to leave the premises. So, employees could be permitted a half-hour of personal time in the middle of the day, but not a series of five-minute breaks to handle personal phone calls.

I predict that companies will develop diverging policies on this issue. Some will become more flexible, despite the management challenges. Others will hold to traditional schedules, at least until the FLSA changes significantly.

Congress should debate this issue and develop 21st Century laws for 21st Century workplaces.

What do you think? Should the FLSA permit more flexibility?

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Holiday Parties: Party Like There Is a Tomorrow (Because There Is)


nix mistletoeOne of the things I disliked most about working in Human Resources was my role as social director.  For some reason, managers thought HR should plan any parties that the organization wanted to hold—recognition events, anniversary and retirement celebrations, and, of course, the annual holiday party.

It’s probably too late for this year, but if you haven’t already arranged your company’s holiday party, here are some suggestions:

  • Be sure you follow all applicable wage and hour laws. If employees are required to attend, then they must be paid. If the event is after-hours and voluntary, then be sure no one is penalized or downgraded for not attending. Voluntary must be truly voluntary. And remember that this month is a very busy time for many families.
  • Watch the singing, praying, and any other activities that might give a religious bent to the celebration. I remember a party where everyone sang traditionally Christian Christmas carols. Some people loved it, but non-Christians were made to feel very uncomfortable.
  • Remember that alcohol is not a good mixer with work. Unless your event is at the end of the work day, off company premises, AND you are willing to monitor your employees’ behavior and arrange for rides home for those who imbibe too much, you shouldn’t serve alcohol. Sorry, folks, but it’s not worth the risk of bad behavior at and after the event.
  • Avoid dancing and mistletoe. See above regarding alcohol. Combining alcohol with dancing and/or mistletoe is just asking for trouble. Your company’s anti-harassment policy remains in full force through the party, whether it is on premises or off.

You might be better off waiting until after the Christmas spirit has worn off, and hold an event to celebrate your company’s year-end results in January.

For more on holiday parties, see

Office Holiday Parties: Revel without Regret, by Anita Setnor Byer

Planning the Company Holiday Party: A Guide for HR, by Shaun Reid

Some Advice with Your Company’s Holiday Party, by John Hyman

Yes, Most People Really Do Hate (and Dread) Your Annual Holiday Party, by  Patty Azzarello

And for an old joke describing the degeneration of one HR manager’s attempt to throw a good holiday party, click here.

When have you seen problems related to a company holiday party?

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Situational Leadership Theory: It’s Just Common Sense


Situational Leadership Model

Situational Leadership Model

I talked last week to a friend who is about to take a leadership training program sponsored by the government entity where he works part-time. This man had had leadership training in the military, but seemed overwhelmed by the thick manual he’d been given to study before the training program. The manual had a lengthy section on “situational leadership theory.”

Although I was a manager for many years and participated in—and even taught—management training programs, I am not educated in organizational and management theory. I’d never heard of “situational leadership theory.”

So I asked my friend what it was, for two reasons. First, I wanted to know. Second, I figured he would learn the material better if he had to describe it to me than if he muddled through the manual in a vacuum.

He started talking about four quadrants and “high relationship/low relationship” and “high task/low task” situations, and how a manager should behave differently.

But of course, I thought. The best way to manage good people is to get out of their way and let them run with what they want to do. That’s all being a “low task” manager means.

The trick is to know when someone is a strong enough employee to let them run, and when they need more guidance. And the only way to do that is to build a relationship with them (be “high relationship”) and test them on little things while giving them direction (be a “high task” manager).

My friend and I worked through several examples—new employees, trusted employees, good performers, and poor performers. In each case, I asked him whether it was better to spend more time or less time in getting to know the individual, and whether it was better to be more directive or less directive in giving instructions.

He could answer the questions using just common sense. The terminology didn’t matter. He knew what to do. And so did I, despite never having heard of “situational leadership theory.”

situational_leadership3

My preferred style is S3 – Supporting

My own bias is to work on relationships in almost every situation. Most employees want their manager (and also their coworkers, peers, and even subordinate) to know them better. It takes time, but usually bears fruit.

My bias is also to be less directive with all but the newest employees. But that doesn’t always work well. I have been burned on occasion when I’ve found out that an employee took a project in a direction that I didn’t think was going to fly in the organization.

Still, I’d rather err on the side of letting employees make their own mistakes and helping them recover afterward. We’ll both learn more than if I had told them what to do every step of the way.

Management is an art, not a science. It’s judgment, not four quadrants in a grid. It’s knowing your people, not knowing what’s in some manual.

When have you found that management theories or other aspects of interpersonal relationships were really just based on common sense?

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The Future of Unions: Back to Guilds and/or Forward to Work Councils?


Union membership at private employers has declined over the last few decades, standing at less than 7% of the U.S. workforce today. Part of the reason for the decline in membership has been the success of unions over the years. Unions have worked to improve working conditions in individual plants and factories. They have also lobbied for passage of labor laws that affect all employees, unionized or not.

Image from Forbes

Image from Forbes

Consultants helping companies to develop positive employee relations tell their clients’ managers that “employers deserve the unions they get.” They imply that most workplaces are unionized only when management does a poor job of managing—when managers do not follow labor laws and regulations, and when managers do not treat workers with respect.

Not all managers take this advice to heart, but most managers do try to do the right thing, thus reducing the value of union representation to rank-and-file employees.

So, in the absence of evil-hearted managers, what is the future of unions? How can unions develop new programs and goals to address the needs of workers today?

Here are two proposals:

  1. Work on skills and job placement, like the guilds of old

Trade unions grew out of the guilds of skilled workers who practiced particular crafts. The guilds controlled the flow of work to their members, and provided the members with education, tools, and a sense of community. Tradesmen worked together to advance their common interests, but each craftsman was essentially self-employed.

The guilds failed when they hindered innovation and fought among themselves for members and territory. While they provided some efficiencies in the development of the crafts they supported, ultimately their protectionist tendencies increased costs for society as a whole. Does this sound like our unions of today?

Nevertheless, as our economy moves away from life-long careers at a particular employer and more toward self-employed knowledge workers, there may be an emerging need for organizations like the old guilds. Small employers and workers wanting more control and flexibility in their work could benefit from such guilds. The guilds could provide trained workers for short- or long-term projects and positions.

Moreover, as employer-sponsored health and retirement benefit plans change, unions/guilds could substitute their own plans to suit their members’ needs.

Many professions essentially have guilds today. Bar associations for lawyers are one example—they control who is licensed, they provide educational opportunities and discipline their members, they advocate for the interests of lawyers and the judicial system in which lawyers ply their trade.

Unions could take on these responsibilities in a number of occupations, from skilled crafts to freelancers and consultants in many industries.

The downside for unions? They would have to collect their dues directly from members, rather than through payroll deductions from large employers. In other words, they would have to become more accountable to their members. Not a bad result, in my opinion.

  1. Foster the development of work councils

VW logo_newRecently, the United Auto Workers attempted to organize Volkswagen’s plant in Tennessee. Volkswagen took a position of neutrality on the union campaign, but the UAW still lost the vote. One reason Volkswagen did not protest the unionization attempt was that Volkswagen supports works councils in its plants, and wanted to develop a work council in its Tennessee plant, like its German plants.

Works councils are organizations within a particular workplace that govern the work within that location. They help to reduce workplace conflict by providing strong channels of communication between workers and managers. Many times, the councils include union members, nonunion workers, and management.

Works councils are strong in many European nations. They are rare in the U.S., because works councils of nonunionized employees are considered to be prohibited “company unions,” because of the support they receive from management.  See Electromation, Inc. v. NLRB (7th Cir. 1994). In the absence of a union, works councils in the U.S. have very limited topics they can discuss, and they cannot negotiate on working conditions.

conflictNevertheless, if U.S. employers and employees see the benefits of works councils in improving the flow of work through their facilities, there might be a renewed interest in unions. To make this happen, unions will have to recognize that “unions get the management they deserve.” If unions are confrontational, management will continue to resist. If unions facilitate the profitability of the plant, management will be more receptive.

In summary, unions need to change to respond to the disinterest of employees today in joining a union. Perhaps a return to the advantages of guilds or a greater use of cooperative tools like work councils will give more workers a desire to join unions.

What do you think—should unions be receptive to developing either guilds or work councils? If they move in this direction, are employers likely to respond positively?

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