The Armchair HR Manager

Advice and Commentary from an "HR Fan" – whether asked for or not!

But why are your employees REALLY leaving?

A friend of mine from my university days, who is now running his own tech company, recently reached out to me. He was really struggling with turnover in his organization and wanted some advice on how to “get to the bottom of things.” (No, he doesn’t have an HR department – but that is a separate discussion). This issue of escalating turnover was all new to him because during the growth phase and into the stability phase of the company everyone was excited and engaged and now that the company is more established (going on 10+ years now) he is seeing his voluntary turnover rate rise. Before, he used to pride himself on knowing his employees and what was going on with each and every one of them, much like many hands on entrepreneurs do. However, now that his company is north of 200 people, he can’t quite keep tabs on everyone in the manner in which he was accustomed to.

ExitI asked him if he had any idea as to why they were leaving his company. Mike* (not his real name) told me that he was “pretty sure” it was all about the compensation. Because he is still a smaller development shop (relatively speaking), his larger competitors are able to throw bigger dollars at his people. He felt everyone was happy with the company but it is hard to say no to big pay increases. When I asked Mike what data he had to substantiate his theory, he indicated that he didn’t really have any, other than that is what the employees are telling him (and their managers) when they give their notice. Mike, like many other organizational leads, made the classic mistake of falling for the softest attrition reason that departing employees give you.

When your employees tell you they are leaving, try as you might, managers and leaders take it personally. Employees know that they don’t want to burn any bridges, so the most palatable reason given for leaving is “compensation.” Compensation is tangible and easy to understand. When a manager hears that as the reason for separation, than it is easy to understand and wrap their heads around. It makes sense. There is no emotion attached to it. It is just more money, so who could fault them for that?

Here is the thing, based on my completely unscientific research, nine times out of ten, the primary reason for departure is NOT compensation. This typically only happens when someone is so grossly underpaid – based on internal AND external comparators – that they jump for more money because they feel disrespected.

Typically though, you need to dig deeper. There are several ways to find out why people have left or might be leaving:

1) Exit interviews – conducted by HR, or some other confidential service, can often give you some more tangible data as to the “why’s.” You might need to put on the detective hat and read between the lines a bit, but if done right, there is usually some good information in exit interviews that will give you some insight as the reasons for employee departures. The only problem is that the proverbial horse has left the barn (i.e. your employee is already gone) when you get this information.

2) Stay interviews – similar to the approach with exit interviews, except they are done with employees who are still with your company. Find out why they stay with you or better yet, what might cause them to leave. Ask employees what is working now and what isn’t working. Look for the trends and themes across offices and departments.

3) Employee Pulse Surveys – not so much the surveys themselves, but the focus groups you have afterwards to help comb through the data. Listen to what your staff is telling you. Read between the lines and look for the trends.

4) Coaching sessions and performance reviews – train your managers to truly listen to their staff. Regular coaching sessions are a great opportunity to engage in candid dialogue about how things are going. If, all of a sudden, your coaching sessions take on a more negative tone (coming from the employee) something is amiss. Ask questions and don’t settle for face value responses like, ‘everything is fine.’

5) Talking to people – yes, just casual everyday conversation can quickly give you a feel for the pulse of the company. This is the classic management by wandering around approach. Talk to people in the lunch room or out on the shop floor/operational area. I once had an employee relations manager who used to work for me who always had the latest gossip, news and insight at to what was going on with employees. Her secret – she was a smoker! No, I am not promoting smoking; however, if you have a smoker on your HR team, make sure you are getting the scoop from them because odds are, they are in the know on things!

These are few quick hit ways to get some more insight into the “pulse” of your organization and drivers of dissatisfaction. Regardless of what managers and organizational leaders might think, the REAL top reasons why your people leave are typically things like: (please note – completely unscientific survey alert again):

1) Their Manager – who is either a tyrant, doesn’t support them, is unreasonable to work for, is inflexible, doesn’t provide feedback or is completely apathetic.

2) Poor Communication – from their manager and/or the head of your organization. Perhaps it is a lack of visibility, lack of a clear organizational vision for the future or just plain lack of communication in general about company business. Either way, poor communication leads employees to feel insecure about their jobs and causes them to look elsewhere.

3) No growth and development opportunities – employees who are stifled in their roles and don’t have any opportunity to grow and develop will leave. Companies must be careful not to keep well performing employees in the same role year after year after year just because it works for the company. Employees want to grow, develop and learn. You either provide them the opportunity to do so, or another company will. This also ties in with a lack of feedback from their manager. If managers aren’t providing regular performance feedback to their staff, they will feel like they aren’t being developed as well. In turn, they too will leave because of this.

4) No recognition or rewards – aside from their salary, employees want to feel recognized and rewarded for their work. If organizations fail to recognize good performance (beyond salary increases) and provide effective rewards for exceptional performance, employees will leave. Bottom line, employees want to feel that their company is invested in them and that their performance and discretionary effort is recognized AND rewarded.

So, the next time you start digging into why you are experiencing turnover, you need to ask yourselves, “Why are they REALLY leaving?” Use the above mentioned methods to validate your hypothesis as to the “why.” You may be surprised at the results. Better yet, use the above methods to poke holes in your theory and see if it still applies. That is how you REALLY know why your employees are leaving. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Naypong/

HR as the Great Enabler

Have you ever had one of those days at work where you truly felt you added value? What about one of those days when after it was over, and you reflected on it, you could say to yourself, “Now that is why I got into my chosen profession!” For me I recently had one of those days and it caused me to really be proud of my chosen profession (HR) and the value it can add to an organization, but more about that in a minute.

First things first, I find as HR Pros we often don’t do enough self-reflection. That is, we don’t take the time to look back on what we have done at our organizations and give our own selves a bit of a pat on the back. We are often so busy fighting fires, making sure our organizations are compliant with recent legislative changes, and scrambling to fill position vacancies that we don’t recognize the VALUE we are actually bringing to our companies. I think if we are ever going to obtain that universal respect level we are seeking for ourselves as HR Pros, we have to start by giving that respect and recognition to ourselves and each other for the work that we do and what our profession brings to each and every organization that we work for and represent.

Human Resources EnablerOk, back to our regularly scheduled programming. So what caused me to reflect on my day and feel so good about being in HR? It was because I feel I helped enable our leadership team to accomplish a very important goal/objective. Specifically, at one of our companies, they wanted to put together an action plan to address areas of opportunity that came up in a recent employee survey. The challenge, at the time, was that this team had never done this before and needed guidance on how to come together, build trust, come to consensus on outcomes, dissect the information at hand, analyze it and formulate action plans. Enter HR to help play the role of the Great Enabler and help guide the team to the way ahead!

At the end of the day, the role I played was in helping engage the team in dialogue and providing context to their thinking. Essentially, it was to facilitate dialogue so that each member of the leadership team could express their opinion and analyses on the survey results and have an opportunity to offer solutions for improvement. I felt really good about playing the role as a communication facilitator and kept the team on track by following a step by step framework to guide their thinking towards achieving their outcomes. At the end of the day, it was a highly successful session as the team was able to come up with their own action plan that was real, achievable and that they OWNED!
So why/how did this all work and why did I get so tingly about this as an HR Pro?

1. Leadership – no, not mine, but that of the company leadership. They were invested in the process – emotionally and mentally. They wanted this to work and they were looking for an outcome that they could feel good about being a part of developing and that they could actually own and deliver on.

2. It wasn’t an HR thing – too often as HR Pros we make things into “HR things.” Whether it is a new performance management system or employee surveys themselves. In this case, I didn’t want this to be an HR thing. I wanted it to be an Operations thing. The response/action plan and communication was developed and owned by Operational leadership.

3. HR played a non-traditional HR role – I almost wrote that HR played a non-HR role, but then thought, “Who gets to say what an HR role is?” The roles of facilitator, communication enabler and change agent are all roles that HR can and SHOULD play in any organization. By being that guiding and supporting force that ENABLES operations to accomplish their goals and objectives, HR is, in effect, accomplishing its own goals and objectives. We are playing the role that HR truly needs to play in its organizations.

4. Something got DONE – at the end of all this, all the time and energy that the leadership team invested in the process meant something. They accomplished their first goal, (the development of an action plan), as a team. They identified the root causes, they developed the solutions and they are holding each other accountable for completing the action plan.

So, the takeaways here for HR Pros are this:

1. Do some more self-reflection. Look for how you added value in your role today, yesterday, last week, etc. You will be amazed at the areas where you have made a difference; then, capitalize on those moments!

2. Look for ways to be “non-traditional” in your role. Lead a group session or facilitate an operational meeting. Step up to help an operational department lead a change management activity.

3. Take on the role of enabler. Don’t make it all about HR. Work your magic in the background. Enable your operations clients to be successful in their roles – your success will follow!

What about you? Can you think of other ways that HR can be the great enabler in your organizations? What is holding you (or HR) back from doing it? Is it simply a mindset? If you are stuck, hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn, I would be happy to help share my experience(s) if it helps enable you to achieve HR success! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Job Seekers: Answer that Question with a Question!

Last week I wrote a blog post called “The Number One Rule for Job Seekers.” The thrust of the post was to impress upon job seekers that they should never, ever, lie on their resume. The post focused on not lying or embellishing on your academic credentials or work experience. I received a great follow up question from another blogger, Mike Lehr, whose opinion and input on these matters I respect very much. (Quick plug, you REALLY need to check Mike out on his leadership blog:

Mike posed the question, “….I am more curious about…your advice to candidates on selling themselves to the max without lying? As context, I find many candidates disqualify themselves for a job or help the interviewer disqualify themselves.” Mike went on to give the example of when someone is asked during an interview if they know how to use Excel. His point was that there’s a big difference between being just able to open up an existing spreadsheet and populate it with data vs. creating a new spreadsheet, developing multiple formulas and creating pivot tables in the spreadsheet. Mike, along with other readers that follow me, wanted to know what my advice was in handling this type of generic, catch-all question. Mike and others wanted to know if people should just answer the question as posed to them and say, “Yes,” and leave it to the interviewer to dig deeper or should they qualify the answer up front themselves?

ID-10091332The funny thing about this question is that if someone experiences being asked it, it is typically because of an inexperienced interviewer. That is, if someone truly knows the job that they interviewing you for, they would be able to qualify that question appropriately because it would link back, at the very least, to a proper job description. However, the reality is that thousands of job seekers each day are faced with answering generic questions like this. Therefore, there is a real danger, like Mike pointed out, in candidates potentially disqualifying themselves from jobs based on how they answer it.

So, my advice on your next job interview when you are asked, “Do you know to use X?” or “Do you have experiencing in doing Y?” is to answer that question with a question of your own. Keep in mind, the number rule for job seekers still applies (and always will) in this case. That is, if the interviewer asks you, “Do you have experience with using Excel?”, if you literally have never used Excel, you need to respond honestly and indicate that. However, if you have used another type of spreadsheet before, quickly follow up with that information.

Now, assuming you have used Excel before, what I was getting at before was that you need to take control of the interview at this point by asking a question of your own. This takes poise and confidence but it is so critical to your future success in the interview that you do this. So, what you, as the candidate, should do is indicate that yes, you have experience in Excel, but then ask, “What specifically does this job require me to do in Excel, that way I can give you a more informed answer.” By responding with a question of your own, you have taken control of the interview and have also shown the interviewer that you are confident and capable of a well thought out answer. You demonstrated that you are serious about the job (because you want to give a proper answer) and want to help them get the right information out of the interview.

I have also found that by asking a question of your own, so as to qualify your response, it also puts the onus on (poor or uninformed interviewers) to actually know the job and provide you with more information to go on. This way, you as the interviewee aren’t arbitrarily disqualifying yourself from the process by being too vague, or perhaps inadvertently misrepresenting yourself. At the end of day, there are going to be times when you have an interviewer who doesn’t/can’t provide you with any more context to the question. In cases like these, you just need to take a breath and simply expand on what you know you can do and have done in that particular area (Excel) and hope that it hits the mark. I don’t recommend that you ever respond with Yes or No answers to these types of questions. More often than not, you will find that those responses will disqualify you from the job process or worse yet, move you ahead into another round of interviews for a job that you are not even remotely qualified for! Remember, you need to always be managing your personal brand so take the time to ask the qualifying questions!

The bottom line for job seekers is that there is nothing wrong with you asking questions during the interview. You need to get a better feel for the job so that you can provide more specific and targeted responses to the interviewer. So, next time you are asked one of these vague types of questions, take control of the interview and start asking your own questions – don’t answer YES/NO.

What about you? Do you think you can make this approach work for you? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of pakorn/

The number one rule for job seekers

If you want to look for it, you can find all kinds of good (and bad) advice for how to go about a job search. Go ahead and Google “job search advice.” The last time I did, I got 293,000,000 hits. That’s right, 293 MILLION hits. Truth be told, if you really want advice on your job search, all you really need to do is follow a couple of amazing bloggers who will tell you all you need to know in this area. So to help you out, I would advise that you follow Sabrina Baker at Acacia HR Solutions and Chris Fields at The Resume Crusade. You will find their advice invaluable for your job search.

LyingIn Sabrina and Chris’s blog posts they will arm you with all kinds of great information on how to conduct your job search, how to prepare, what to put in (and leave off) your resume etc. Here is the thing, none of that will matter if you don’t follow the number one rule when you are searching for a new job. The amazing thing is that during my 20 years of working in recruiting and HR, I have seen this rule broken on far too many occasions, by all levels of job seekers. The rule is a simple one – Never, EVER, lie on your resume. You would think that this would be obvious, but based on what I see and hear it is still far too common an occurrence. As mentioned above, I have seen the lies come from entry level candidates applying for minimum wage jobs, all the way up to executives of large Fortune 100 companies. Heck, former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was fired after 4 months on the job for lying about having a double major in his degree.

So you see, it is very simple, never lie about what is on your resume. This applies to each and every element you represent about yourself on your resume. When it comes to your years of work experience you put down, never pad them from any company you worked for. Always be truthful and specific. If you have a lot of years of (overall) work experience, you might not want to break each job down by month, so it is ok to list year(s) you were at a company, but if/when asked during an interview about specific months, you need to tell the truth.

When it comes to your education, make sure you are accurate and truthful about when you graduated with your certificate, diploma, degree, etc. If in doubt about the exact date/year, go look at the actual document. Whatever date is on it, is the date you use on your resume. Secondly, and this may be obvious to some, is that you should never misrepresent the educational experience that you have. Per the Scott Thompson example above, if your major was in finance, put that down. Don’t put finance AND accounting if that isn’t in fact accurate and truthful. As well, and you would think this goes without saying, never put a credential down that you don’t have. If you don’t have an accounting designation, don’t put down that you are a CGA. If you don’t have an MBA, don’t put down that you do. If you have started a degree or diploma but aren’t quite finished, or perhaps you are a credit short or there is some glitch with the academic institution in terms of accepting a transfer credit which makes you one credit short and it is under appeal, put down that it is “in progress.” If you get an interview, speak to the specifics in terms of what is happening.

There are other areas you should never lie about on your resume like anything pertaining to volunteer experience, organizations you are a part of, etc. However, work experience and education are the two big ones. Here is the thing, any company that does even a bit of due diligence during the interview and assessment process will uncover these lies. Proper reference checks will uncover lies in work experience. Formal education checks will find out about lies and discrepancies with educational credentials. Checking with licensing institutions will quickly uncover deceit as it pertains to professional credentials. So, do yourself a favour – get the interview and the job on your own merit. Maintain your personal credibility and represent yourself honestly and factually. Never break the number one rule for seekers – you will either NOT get the job, or will be terminated shortly after getting it.

image courtesy of jesadaphorn/

Why did YOU come to work today?

Having been working in HR for many years now (ok, not THAT many but enough) I have seen, heard, read and experienced a multitude of reasons for why organizations are experiencing record high levels of turnover and lack of employee engagement/motivation/commitment. There is a ton of research and articles out there about why we are experiencing these problems (most start and end with leadership). These same articles also carry forward in the same theme that the problem is a top down one. While I fundamentally don’t disagree with that, I feel that if we all continue to look skyward for a solution to come down from above, we will all be disappointed to not receive that manna from heaven. (Sorry to go all biblical there).

How does YOUR job measure up?

How does YOUR job measure up?

After having had many discussions over the years with managers, employees, colleagues, friends and family about why they are unhappy in their own jobs, I have struggled at times to help coach them through their personal situation(s) when they are feeling this way. Just because I work in HR doesn’t mean I am perfect! (That was a little HR humour). Here is the thing, I have come to realize that if you spend every minute of every day pining away for a better job, a better life and/or a better company to work for, you will just end up being even more miserable each and every day in your current job. There are, after all, only a handful of Google and Zappos-like companies to work for. Also, for most people, they can’t afford to simply quit their job and walk away to search for the next great employment opportunity; if they could, they wouldn’t have stayed working for a lousy company/manager in the first place!

So what to do? As I alluded to above, instead of being miserable, resentful or feeling trapped, you need to ask yourself this question – “Why did I come to work today?” There could be a hundred responses to this question, none of which are wrong. The key thing is to come to terms with your own personal “why” and make peace with it. Focus on this “why” and what your end game is instead of focusing on what is working against you, what sucks about your job and why you are unhappy.

For a lot of people, the answer to this question is “a pay cheque.” The thing is, that is fine answer! You work and your company pays you for it. This allows you to pay your rent/mortgage, put food on the table and pay for your kids’ braces. That is fine. Focus on that. That is your own “why” and it is important – keep your eyes on that prize. Keep the focus on what is important to you – and this way, you will also do well at work. Remember, the better you do at work, in theory, the more secure you will become in your role. This could translate into you obtaining another/better role where you are now or make you more marketable elsewhere. Either way – you win!

Perhaps your “why” is that your job allows you to balance your work and personal life really well. Maybe you have a special needs child or perhaps you are the sole caregiver for an elderly parent? Either way, your current job, with all its warts, allows you to maintain that balance. Keep your eyes on that prize because it is important to you and that is why you come to work each day – to be there for those important people in your life when they absolutely need you to be there.

Maybe it is because you work with great people? Sure I get it, your job is boring, you aren’t challenged, maybe your boss is a bit of a nincompoop; but at the end of the day, you work with great people. You support each other, you have some laughs and for the most part, you genuinely enjoy seeing them each day – good thing as you spend at least 1/3 of your time with these folks. You can’t put a price tag on that. Remember that next time you get the job “blahs.” You might not get that if change companies.

My point, and I do have one, is that sometimes you need to look at the big picture. Perhaps those drivers of perceived dissatisfaction in your current job are really just minor annoyances? Everyone gets P.O.’d, frustrated, etc. at/with their job at some point. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to move on. Get yourself a bit of perspective on things and ask yourself, “why DID I come to work today?” The answer might surprise you. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn/

Know your Recruiting ABP-C’s

No, that isn’t a typo – I didn’t mean to put ABC’s! Indulge me for a minute and I will tell you why. Back in January 2013, I blogged about what the key attributes are that exceptional recruiters possess. One of those attributes was the ability to effectively downstream candidates through the proverbial recruiting funnel. What I mean when I refer to “downstreaming” is the recruiters’ ability to pre-qualify a candidate by removing potential obstacles/barriers that would prevent the recruiter from actually closing the candidate with their client. The logic here is that by asking the right questions and removing obstacles (to closing), the recruiter then knows what they are up against from a timeline perspective and can also properly educate their clients if they are dragging their feet during the decision-making and offer process.

ABC BlockFor purposes of this post, I wanted to take this concept of downstreaming a bit further and hone in on one aspect of it that I feel is of utmost importance. Most of us are familiar with the (somewhat) famous scene from Glengarry Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin tries to “motivate” a sales team by getting them to focus on the concept of ABC – Always Be Closing (Warning – language alert if you choose to play this clip). The same applies to recruiters as well; however, I wanted to add one more letter to that acronym – a P. In this case, the “P” stands for “pre”, as in Always Be Pre- Closing. In the recruiting downstream funnel, it is of utmost importance that recruiters are always pre closing their candidates. In other words, recruiters need to be pre-closing during the downstream process vs. the actual offer process. The act of extending the offer should be merely a formality as it simply recaps all the previous discussions in a written and formal format. An effectively pre-closed candidate receives an offer with a response akin to “this is as we discussed, where do I sign?”

So the real key to not experiencing offer rejection is the discussion during theLetter P downstream process. As a recruiter, you cannot wait until your client (whether you are an in-house or agency recruiter) comes up with a formal written offer before presenting the terms to your candidate. You need to be discussing these items during the downstream process so that when you advise/work with you client to prepare the actual offer, it is reflective of what the candidate has discussed with you (and your client). A big part of your role as the recruiter is working with your candidate and client on the back and forth of potential terms so that the final offer is realistic (for both parties) and all the major stumbling blocks have been covered. So the real question is, what sorts of items should the recruiter be “pre-closing” their candidate on? Here is a simple checklist to keep you on track:

  1. Salary and other compensation – always one of the most important items but best to deal with it up front. You need to get a feel from your candidate what they are looking for and understand what your client is able to pay.  You need to find out what your candidate’s current comp is and work upward from there, especially if the job you are presenting to them represents some upward career movement and/or added responsibilities.  If the position involves a bonus structure, this should be discussed and pre-closed on too – i.e. What is the ceiling amount? How is it earned? How is it paid out?   You should also pre-close your candidate on overtime compensation for the position. i.e. Is there any? When does it kick in? Last but not least, if there is relocation compensation as part of the offer, this too needs to be discussed and your candidate pre-closed on how this will look (terms) in the offer.
  2. Overall benefits package – this is important to look at in terms of how it relates to the salary as well. Are there disability plans (short term/long term) as part of the package? Who pays for them? Is there a pension plan? Is there a matching RRSP program? All of these items can represent value as part of the offer – you just need to understand what is important to your candidate (and what your client can offer) and the pre-close accordingly.
  3. Title – this sounds silly but can be a stumbling block. It should be clear as to what the position title is going to be and at what level, organizationally speaking, it slots in at. Is it a Manager level job? Director? Other? Understand what is being offered so that there is no surprise in the written offer. I have seen far too many cases of everything else lining up but the actual title in the offer is off and it throws the entire process off track.
  4. Vacation allowance – this is a key element to be aware of both in terms of knowing what the candidate currently has vs. what your client may offer. It is hard for any candidate to take less vacation than they currently have. So know what your candidate has now and know what your client can offer. Often companies can’t/won’t move on salary (budget) but can/do move on vacation allowance.
  5. Professional development – what is being covered here? What needs to be covered? This can be anything from professional dues, tuition, conference fees, etc. but often are items of great importance to the candidate.
  6. Start date – another obvious but critical element. You need to understand when your candidate is able to leave their current job (what notice period they have to/want to provide) and when they can start the position you will ultimately offer them. Do they have vacation time they are looking to take /do they have a previously booked trip? Ask the questions and make sure that the start date in the offer is a start date that the candidate is comfortable with. You don’t want to get into a back and forth with the candidate and your client on start date – this is one of those items that can go off the rails pretty quickly.
  7. Spouse – while this has nothing to do directly with the offer, it has everything to do with offer rejection! Good recruiters always pre-close candidates with their spouses. That is, they make sure the candidate has discussed things with their husband/wife/partner to make sure that they are onboard with a potential change. Often the spouse is the true decision maker (i.e. household budgeter) and they need to be comfortable with what the offer will include. This factor is 10x more important when any offer involves relocation. If need be, get on the phone with the candidate and their spouse and pre-close them both together.

By taking the time to effectively pre-close candidates on these seven areas, your actual offer review/acceptance process will become a mere formality. In fact, by pre-closing on these key areas, your overall offer acceptance rate should dramatically increase and there will very few of those “surprise” offer rejections you may be seeing now. What about you? What other areas do you feel you need to pre-close candidates on? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Block image courtesy of digitalart/

Letter P image courtesy of screations/


The Art of the Skip Level Meeting

One of the more effective tools that manager can employ is the use of a skip level meeting. Simply put, a skip level meeting is one where a manager’s manager meets with employees to discuss department concerns, obstacles, opportunities for improvement, etc. with a focus on maintaining and/or improving overall communication. For example, let’s say you have a Manager of Customer Service with 12 direct reports and this manager reports to a Director of Operations. A skip level would involve the Director of Operations meeting with the 12 direct reports of the Manager of Customer Service, without the Manager of Customer Service being present, in effect, “skipping” a level over them.

As mentioned previously, in their purest form, skip levels should be used to either maintain or improve overall communication and build more effective relationships with employees. Skip levels focus on opening and sustaining lines of communication, something which we all can agree is critical to organizational success. However, before going ahead with skip levels, it is important to distinguish what a skip level is (purpose) vs. what it isn’t, when to conduct them and what to discuss.

Skip LevelMost importantly, a skip level meeting is not an opportunity to get “dirt” on a manager. It is not to be used as an opportunity to solicit feedback to put on the manager’s performance review because you have been too lazy to manage them effectively. Treating a skip level this way defeats the whole purpose of the meeting and essentially renders the department level manager redundant and organizationally neutered. In order for skip levels to be effective, there needs to be an environment of trust established – both with the manager of the team and the employees themselves. If, as in the example above, you as the Director of Operations suddenly schedules a skip level meeting, without having spoken to the employees in the months prior, don’t expect them to open up to you! Likewise, don’t expect the manager of these employees to be receptive to the skip level idea either!

If you are conducting a skip level meeting, sit down with the manager of the team first. Explain to them why you are looking to conduct the meeting, what you are going to ask and what you will do with the information you obtain. You need to get the manager’s buy-in; otherwise they will think this is a witch hunt. Ultimately, the goal should be for you provide better coaching to the manager of the department vis-à-vis some of the information you obtain from the skip level. The skip level will also help open up (or keep open) lines of communication with the staff, establish better relationships and allow for a different perspective to be presented and shared. The information you obtain from the skip level can be discussed and shared and through 1:1 coaching, it will allow you to help the department manager be a more effective manager themselves.

Here is a key point – if you, as the manager’s manager, have not had any type of regular contact or visibility with these employees for some time (or at all), you need to start doing that first before holding skip levels. So, get out and walk around, be seen, strike up casual conversations. Do this for several months before scheduling a skip level. Now, assuming that has taken place and you have established some sort of street cred with the staff, you should then make sure to provide an advance communication about the skip levels. Let them know the when/where/what/why in advance. This gives them time to prepare based on the goal(s) of the skip level. It is important you are upfront about the goals – i.e. open/maintain/improve lines of communication, etc.

The types of things you will want to discuss during a skip level meeting with the employees are things like:

  • What works well in the department right now? (i.e. systems, processes, technology, feedback, etc.)
  • What needs improvement and/or what obstacles are preventing them from being successful? (i.e. technology, top level support, more feedback, etc.)
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to START doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to STOP doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to make sure we CONTINUE to do in order to be successful?
  • Alternatively, you can ask what they need MORE/LESS of from their manager and yourself in order for them to be successful as a department and in their roles.

Remember, the focus of the skip level meetings always needs to be maintained and feedback kept as objective as possible with a focus on issues NOT people. As the manager’s manager, it is up to you to draw inferences and conclusions from what you obtain in the skip levels and ascertain whether you have people or process issues that need to be addressed. At the conclusion of the skip level, you need to make sure that you follow up with the department manager as soon as possible to discuss the group feedback, what the trends are what the next steps are you both need to take

Just as importantly, if you had takeaways from the skip level, you need to get back to the employees with responses as soon as possible and practicable. This helps cement the trust that has been established, it gives credibility to you and the concept of the skip level and it truly reinforces the intentions of the skip level – to improve communication and build relationships.

What about you? Have you used skip level meetings before? Were they effective? Why did they work or not work? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/

Do you want me to be candid or compliant!?

Allow me to paint a picture for you. There is a group of employees sitting around a table. Their manager is at the front of the room “leading” a SWOT analysis of their department as part of the inputs into the organizational annual planning process. The manager indicates to his staff that he is looking for their honest and candid feedback as inputs into the analysis. The employees then begin to provide their individual perspectives and opinions on what the department’s strengths (s), weaknesses (w), opportunities (o) and threats (t) are. The manager, upon hearing what the staff thinks and feels, then begins to override what everyone is telling him. He starts to rationalize and then outright dismiss the feedback from his staff so as to paint a rosier picture of the department SWOT analysis. This ultimately helps him complete the SWOT analysis faster and move on to something else he would rather be doing.

ComplianceDoes this scenario sound familiar? Whether the exercise at hand is a SWOT analysis, business planning session or employee focus group, the manager has attempted to disguise their ultimate communication goal (or end game in this case) from their staff. Whether it is due to the manager’s own insecurity, lack of preparedness or general sociopathic behaviour, they simply do want to hear what their employees’ have to say. Here is the thing, they know that they are ‘supposed ‘ to ask for input and solicit feedback, but they truly do not want to hear and accept the inputs that they receive. The manager is simply going through a check in the box exercise with their staff to show that they have done their job.

Here is the thing, as a manager and as a leader, you either want your employees to be candid with you or not. You can’t ask for them to be candid when your words and actions demonstrate that you are looking for them to be compliant. What managers need to understand is that employees know when their manager truly doesn’t want them to be candid, despite the fact that that is what the manager ‘says.’ Ultimately, this mixed messaging erodes the very fabric of the employee/manager relationship. It completely destroys all credibility and trust that the manager might have had with their employees. At the end of the day, you (as the manager) will be left with a disengaged employee base. Your staff will only do the minimum required to be compliant and keep you off their backs. Is this the type of ‘team’ that you are looking to have?

I have often found that managers exhibit this type of approach when they themselves are doing something that they don’t believe in. For example, say that the organization taps each department head to lead a focus group into improving operational processes. A particular department manager doesn’t believe that the processes need improving, that the processes are needed at all or worse yet, that their employees aren’t switched on enough to provide any value into improving the processes. Regardless, the manager conducts the focus group (because they have to). They dominate the conversation, dismiss the feedback and essentially present their own ideas as that representative of the group. The manager, through their positional influence, has forced the group to be compliant by pushing them into ‘accepting’ their way of thinking while operating under the guise of asking them to be candid. At best, this is a poor management practice that will obviously not build an environment of trust, at worse, it is complete sociopathic behaviour.  For more information on identifying sociopaths in the workplace, I encourage you to read this series my Mike Lehr on his blog.

So, for managers, you need to decide what you want. If you want compliance, don’t waste your staff’s time by asking for their input on things. Just go ahead with whatever response you want to provide or whatever outcome you want. Let your staff focus on something else and don’t waste their time. Understand, however, that you will ultimately only be managing a compliant workforce. One that will have zero loyalty, provide the minimum level of effort required and one that will not offer any discretionary effort.

If you are truly looking to lead, and if you want your employees to be candid with you, than you need to understand that actions speak louder than words. It is your obligation to understand and communicate to them what the ultimate goal is you are looking to achieve. Clearly identify what you are looking for from them (in terms of their being candid) and how this will help the team “win.” Then, step back, allow them to be candid and most importantly, as the manager, you need to listen. Stop talking and just listen to what they are telling you. Facilitate the conversation, ask open ended questions and help guide the dialogue and/or “park” items when needed. I think we can all do a bit of navel gazing in this area to see if our words and actions are driving our employees to be candid or compliant. I hope, as good managers and leaders, you are truly looking for your employees to be candid with you. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Compliance image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Ditching the Annual Performance Review

Of all the hot HR topics in the last several years, getting rid of the dreaded annual performance review is one that is getting a lot of attention. Go ahead and Google, “get rid of annual performance review.” You will get over 4.9 million hits. That’s right, 4.9 MILLION (insert Dr. Evil laugh here.) So why is this such a hot topic? Well first off, everyone hates the annual review process – both managers and employees. It takes a lot of time, it is often too subjective, in a lot of cases neither party is prepared to have candid conversations, the forms themselves are too long and complex, no one understands the organizational competencies and how they relate to the job that they do, etc. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that in a VERY general sense, the annual review just doesn’t seem to work for the people preparing and delivering the reviews (managers) and the folks receiving them (employees).

Yes we canSo the questions remain – why do we continue with this practice? Why can’t we get rid of annual performance reviews? Is there not something better we can be doing? Here is my take on this subject having written and delivered hundreds of reviews in my career and having coached/counselled/calibrated thousands of reviews on others. Bold statement alert – I think that sometime in the near future we can get away from the annual performance review. (Gasp!). However, (HR people always like to make a bold statement and then follow up with a ‘however’) as HR Pros we have to guide and support our organizational leaders and managers to go in a different direction with their thinking and managerial practices.

You see, with the annual review process, we could always rely on the fact that once a year there was a formal sit down meeting between manager and employee. There was a guarantee of some sort of face to face dialogue, with some things written down on paper and perhaps a general or even vague understanding of how each party viewed the employee’s performance. There might even be some general discussion about career development plans and/or some broad thoughts on goals for the next year. With all the other challenges HR Pros are faced with, we can and do live with this process because at least something is documented (and HR Pros LOVE documentation) and perhaps employee performance is differentiated in some way.

We all know we are just fooling ourselves though if we think that this is working. For sure, in some cases and companies it is working, but for many, it is an exercise in paperwork and HR compliancy – a big check in the box under the category of, “Conduct Annual Performance Review” because HR said I had to. So, how can we ditch this? Well, the answer is simple, yet it isn’t. You see what I did there? Classic bait and switch! The simple part of it is that there really is nothing but our own organizational mindsets holding us back from stopping this madness. There is no law or labour standards act that says we HAVE to conduct annual reviews on our staff.

In order to start to move away from the annual review, we as leaders and managers need to start changing the way we think about having discussions with our employees and how we will measure their performance in a meaningful, open, objective manner. We need to wrap our heads around having ongoing dialogue with our staff about their performance, both good and bad. We also need to make things like career and retention discussions (i.e. stay interviews) part of what we do on a regular basis. Here is the thing, if we work together to make our organizational cultures ones where coaching, feedback and meaningful dialogue is part of the DNA, than we will ultimately not need the annual review. If managers are accountable for identifying goals and objectives with/for their staff and then measuring their success through quantifiable KPI’s (key performance indicators) than we won’t need the annual review.

The beautiful thing is that the establishment of these goals and objectives becomes the foundational element for regular coaching sessions. If we are able to change our organizational thinking towards how we view the main responsibilities of our managers, than we can ditch the annual performance review process. So, to move forward with ditching the annual performance review we need:

1. A fluid and dynamic goal setting process – one where goals and objectives are established, adjusted and readjusted on an ongoing basis. Metrics are established that clearly show where/when an employee has met, not met or exceeded expectations. Keep in mind, “manager observation” is a KPI, as long as the manager actual observes something.

2. Regular coaching touch points and communication – during these coaching sessions, progress towards goals/objectives is reviewed and identified outcomes are made clear to both parties. Additionally, both employee and manager have an understanding as to what success looks like and how it will be recognized/rewarded.

3. “Stay” discussions form part of the regular dialogue – managers need to focus on engaging in this type of dialogue with their staff on a regular basis. They need to be attuned to any drivers of disengagement and thus are able to have the appropriate dialogue as it pertains to these areas.

4. Career planning and support are shared by the manager and employee – managers need to work with their staff to provide them with the knowledge, skills and opportunity to excel in their current role, while also providing opportunities to learn new skills to prepare them for upward or lateral mobility within the organization. Simply put, this is called building bench strength and should be a KPI of all your managers.

5. Overall organizational accountability – organizationally speaking, we need to hold everyone accountable for establishing and supporting this type of culture and environment. Human Resources needs to function and lead as a true partner in enabling this to occur through training, development and support of its business leaders.

So, that is the utopian environment that needs to exist in order to ditch the performance review process. It is the stuff that HR Pros dream of! What about the operations managers out there? Is this do-able? Can we get there? I think we can. It will take time for sure, but it is a do-able do. Until then, I need to get back to getting ready for our annual performance review process…*sigh.*

Image courtesy of artur84/

What HR REALLY wants Managers to Know (and Do)

Last week I blogged about what your Managers really want HR to do. It was meant to serve as a bit of a reality check for us HR practitioners to ensure that what we think we should be doing is really truly serving the needs of our operations partners. The intent was to give HR Pros something to think about in terms of what we focus on and how we deliver our HR services. I have received a lot of feedback on the article in terms of its accuracy! The good news is that this feedback has come from both HR and operations folks – so that balance is nice to see! However, as many of you know, there is a dark side of HR that comes out from time to time. These are all the things that HR wants to say to operations but they really can’t or are reluctant to do so. So as a good HR Pro, I will present a balanced approach to this debate and give the list of things that HR really wants the managers at its organizations to start doing, do better, or stop doing! HR Pros, feel free to share this post with your managers afterwards. Managers – take note, here is what your HR folks are really thinking!

• Talk to your people – seems like a simple one doesn’t it? However, it is often seen as one of the biggest gaps in the employee/manager relationship. Far too often managers simply fail to communicate to/with their staff. If your employee is not performing properly, than you need to talk to them. Identify where the gap is and what needs to be done to close the gap. If the issue is more behavioural/conduct (i.e. tardy, poor customer service, etc.) than speak to them about it. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away but will really frustrate and annoy your good employees.

HR needs managers to know• Bring HR into the loop sooner – as a follow up to the point above, don’t wait until you have a full blown crisis or performance issue on your hands before you consult with your local HR person. Far too many times I hear the story of an operations manager coming to see HR and the conversation starts with, “I have this employee and something needs to be done,” or “I have an employee who can’t do their job and they need to go.” When you first get whiff of an issue and/or you are unsure of how to deal with it, come and talk to HR. We are more than happy to provide guidance and direction. If you are an inexperienced manager, we will give you the step by step playbook on how to address the issue and we will coach you through it. (And no, we aren’t going to terminate the employee, you are – they are your employee).

• Follow our advice – assuming you brought HR into the loop as soon as you could and your local HR person gave you some really awesome advice on how to deal with your underperforming employee or your misconduct situation, than you only need to do one more thing after that – FOLLOW THE ADVICE! You wouldn’t believe the inordinate amount of time HR spends coaching managers on how to deal with a situation only to have the manager turn around and either not talk to the employee (see point #1), ignore the advice, or put their own spin on the advice. Then when the problem doesn’t fix itself, the manager comes back to HR wondering why their “advice” didn’t work!

• Document, Document, Document – documentation is king. Assuming you follow points #1-3 above, when you have the conversations with your staff, document them. Keep a log of what was said, discussed, etc. If you need to issue something formal to the employee, do it in the form of a letter. If it isn’t documented in some form, it didn’t happen! (I know, I know, managers HATE that saying!) This advice also works well for non-disciplinary things such as performance reviews. Keep a record of your coaching conversations with employees. Document their good performance and moments where they received recognition. Then, when writing their performance review, you have a years’ supply of information to revert back to!

• People don’t grow on trees – yes, I know you know that metaphorically speaking; however you need to understand the cost of investing in employees and then losing them and what it takes to replace them. Your Java developer cannot be replaced tomorrow. No, unemployment is not 20% and there aren’t 50 aeronautical engineers lined up at our door looking to apply. No, classified ads don’t work and nor do Help Wanted signs and no, your brother in law who has an arts degree is not qualified fill that vacant engineering role. It is important to know that our reputation is our brand. People want to work at companies where they are respected, challenged and communicated with. You are far better off to invest in and coach up your current staff than to rely on a quick fix, external replacement because someone external isn’t automatically better or smarter than staff you have now. Finally, no, a new hire isn’t going to be as productive day 1 as the person who just quit. That is why we need to focus on retaining our people and not replacing them.

• We don’t like performance reviews either – but they are a necessary evil. Yes we know they are time consuming and take a lot of effort and we do realize you have other critical priorities too, but darn it, your people are important and this is the one time a year we know you will sit down and talk to them and really communicate because you HAVE to! We would rather your employee dialogue was ongoing and goals and objectives were fluid and supported in a coaching environment, so that we didn’t need performance reviews, but until we reach that promised land, we will rely on the trusty annual performance review.

So HR Pros, what do you think about these examples? Operations Managers, do these sound like things your HR folks would want you to know? Is there a middle ground here were we can all “just get along?” Now that HR knows what operations wants them to do and Operations knows what HR wants them to do, maybe we can move the dial on our working relationship? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

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