You can’t always win on pure talent

One of the things in my personal life that I am very passionate about is the coaching of my daughter’s basketball team. I truly enjoy working with her and the rest of the team as they enhance their fundamental basketball skills and come together as a team. One of the things that we, as coaches, did very well at the start of the season was set the expectations as it pertained to the type of team culture we wanted to have. We were very clear with the girls (and their parents) that we expected them to show up for practices and games on time, be prepared to give 100% at practice/games, listen to what the coaches were trying to teach them and to treat each other and their opponents with respect.  We indicated to them back in October that if they bought into these expectations we would establish a supportive culture of performance that would lead to success (not quite in those “HR” words but you get my drift!)

People concept imageAs the season commenced, we lost more games than we won; however, the girls bought into what we were teaching, they gave 100%, they treated each other with respect and supported their teammates for the betterment of the team.  At the last game of the regular season, we ended up playing the top team in our division (who hadn’t lost a game all year) and we defeated them. Two weeks after that, we played that same team in the league final and beat them again. So what are the lessons learned here as it pertains to HR and business?

Let me be clear, on talent alone, the other team was/is superior to our girls. Generally speaking, their girls are more athletic and are better overall ball handlers and shooters. So on talent alone, they are superior. So what is/was the difference? It was the sum of the parts playing as a team. Our girls came together as a team and played a better team game. They bought into the culture, the expectations and were all very coachable. They bought into the team concept and how equal ball distribution translated into more points for everyone. They understood that it wasn’t about individual success but team success and at the end of the day, they enjoyed winning more than being the person on a losing team with more points.

So what does this all have to do with HR and business? Well, based on my experience, I think the same can be said about our organizations. Often in the war for talent (I still despise that expression) companies (i.e. Talent Acquisition folks) get so caught up in hiring the best talent that they can assemble (skill and experience-wise) that they lose sight of the fact that they should be building teams not collecting talent. With organizations, much like a basketball team, if you have too much “top talent”, there aren’t enough balls to go around to make everyone happy. If you simply have a collection of talented individuals working for you, but there are no expectations set for them, no culture established and no reason to come together as a team, then you will have talented people working in the best interests of themselves and not your company.

Much like the previously mentioned team we defeated, a collection of talented individuals is not going to be a competitive advantage if you can’t harness the power of the group to focus on the team outcomes. One of my favourite bloggers, Tim Sackett, wrote a post last year on his blog – “It’s Not a Talent Contest” that I think really hammers things home. Tim writes, “It’s not a ‘talent’ contest. It’s a ‘winning’ contest!” He further brings home his point by indicating that:

“…it doesn’t matter how talented the other team is, it all comes down to winning the game. Great, you have the best talent, but if you’re losing the game your high level of talent means nothing! …….in reality, the best talent might not help your organization ‘win’….business isn’t a talent game. It’s a winning and losing game…you don’t always need the most talented individuals to win. What you need is people who are willing to give that little bit of extra effort, over those who won’t. This discretionary effort gets you the win, over talented individuals who aren’t willing to give such effort. You need individuals that put the goal, the vision, first. They believe in what you are doing as an organization, and do what it takes to make those goals reality. You need individuals who want to see those around them succeed and are willing to sacrifice themselves, from time to time, to see their peers and coworkers succeed. This sacrifice has nothing to do with talent…’s about hiring the talent that will make our organizations successful.”

My apologies to Tim if he feels I edited this incorrectly (I can only hope that he is reading my blog!); however, I feel he is 100% bang on with this assessment. Your team has to have people that put the organization’s/teams goals first. We need to focus on hiring and retaining the right mix of talent that will make our organizations successful. As HR Pros, let’s agree that we should be advising and acting based on that principle. Let’s stop focusing on collecting talent as if we were trying to assemble a complete set of baseball cards. A collection of (top) talent is nothing if collectively they can’t make your organization better/successful. Much like the complete collection of baseball cards, once you assemble them, they typically stay in a box on a shelf collecting dust – they are of no use to you. We need to bring together that optimal mix of individuals that buys into your team concept – they are the ones that will help you to win…whether in business, or basketball. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Don’t make the group pay for individual sins

One of the biggest short comings of ineffective managers is taking performance or conduct issues that they have with one or two individuals and making them a group or team issue. You know what I am talking about – a manager has a team of 10, of which 1 or 2 seem to have a problem coming to work on time. The next thing you know, there are memos and emails being issued about the need to arrive to work on time and it then becomes an agenda item in team meetings. Everyone is regularly lectured and threatened about the need for punctuality. The end result is that for the eight people that this doesn’t apply to, they become frustrated, resentful and angry about hearing this message (when everyone knows who it applies to) and the for the two people it does apply to – well, it goes right over their head.

SinThis is a common issue in many workplaces and with many managers. If individuals aren’t meeting their performance targets or goals, you have to have this coaching conversation with them 1:1. Making individual problems into group issues causes resentment, creates division and results in alienation of staff members. For the manager, it will cause them to lose the respect of their team, erodes trust and breaks down communication. Ultimately, people don’t feel appreciated and then they start to look at all the other areas in the workplace that irritate them and find ways to voice/express their displeasure. People who previously weren’t unhappy at work now become dissatisfied. This basically results in the proverbial Pandora’s Box being opened.

Case in point, a personal friend of mine recently relayed a story to me that supports this (information). She has been with her company for over 3 years now and for the most part is pretty happy, motivated and generally engaged in her job (which is a sales job). However, over the past two quarters, her local office has been under tremendous organizational pressure to meet sales targets for which they have been falling short. Primarily this has been due to turnover and the new(er) staff is just not experienced enough to make up the sales shortfall (and in some cases, are already disengaged themselves). Regardless, the problem exists and the Sales Manager (my friend’s boss) is feeling the heat. So, what does he do? As part of his regular staff meetings, he openly throws down to the group about how they are not meeting their targets, how they need to do more and for each week they are not meeting targets, everyone needs to come in on weekends to try and sell more so that the targets can be met. Pretty bad huh?

Of course my friend, along with over half the team who are meeting/exceeding their targets, is pretty P.O.’d about this message and treatment. She felt she was treated with disrespect and is now being “punished” along with everyone else, regardless of what her performance has been like. The second mistake the manager made was to have the top performer in the group get up and basically lecture the rest of the team on how she meets her targets and how if they did what she did, they would meet them too. This employee went on, without the manager stopping her, to lecture about how as a team there was no reason they couldn’t meet their targets and they all need to step up, blah blah blah. The manager concluded the meeting by basically telling the team, “You all need to copy/model what ‘Janie’ does so that you can all deliver higher sales volume.

Just when you think this story couldn’t get any worse it does and I will now show you the danger of making the group pay for individual sins. Unbeknownst to the manager, this “top” performer was actually manipulating the sales recording system to make herself look better. Yes, she is a great salesperson, but she found a way to record/bundle sales activity to make her hours sold look better than everyone else’s. Her peer group all knew it because she wasn’t very discreet about it and, up until this point, no one wanted to “rat out” a member of the team. The problem now is that because everyone was scolded and embarrassed and held up to false comparison, people came out swinging. The resulting fall out hasn’t been pretty. “Janie’s” methods have now been brought to the manager’s attention who now needs to figure out:

  1. How he is going to deal with this issue before it gets escalated above his position
  2. How he can repair the damage done to the team’s morale and his own credibility after he basically told the team they needed to model the behaviour of a cheater!

So you can now see the danger, as a manager, in making the entire team pay for the individual’s sins. Performance and conduct issues should be dealt with in private, 1:1, between manager and employee. You go to the group to solicit their help in solving a problem that is affecting everyone. Ask the group for solutions, input or support in something…don’t scold or lecture the group. If you do, the end result will never be what you are looking for. If in doubt, read this post again about what can happen if you take the wrong approach to the group! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of April/

My Advice to new HR Pros

I recently had an exchange of emails with one of the readers of The Armchair HR Manager who also happens to be a LinkedIn connection of mine. She wrote to me about a recent post on my blog that had triggered some serious career introspection on her part. She is a young, up and coming, HR professional who is still in her first HR job since graduating from school. She was experiencing a lot of different emotions about her career, specifically about what she was doing (in her job/career) and who she was doing it for. I was fortunate enough to be able to provide her with a bit of advice about expectations and evaluating current and future positions, which I think set her in the right frame of mind as she began to consider her next career move.

The entire exchange, I thought, was fantastic as:

  1. I always enjoy conversing with my readership, LinkedIn connections and any HR Professionals.
  2. It provided me inspiration for this post as I really got to thinking about what it was like when I was first starting out in my HR career and you get to that point when you begin to wonder about making a move.
  3. It inspired me to think of what advice I could give new HR pros and what I would have wanted to know when I first started out.

AdviceSo I got to thinking, in the spirit of helping out the new(er), up and coming HR Pros, what advice could I give them that I would have wanted 17 years ago? First of all, I think it is reasonable to expect that after a year or so in your first HR role, it is normal to start to feel the need to move on or want a change – this could either be from the company you work for, although that may not always be the case, or the actual role you are in.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need/should move on, but the feeling is normal and it is cause for some professional and personal evaluation. Remember, it never hurts to dip a toe in the water to see what is out there. As well, just because you interview for another position, doesn’t mean you have to or are going to take it.

A lot of recent HR grads usually get their first role in some sort of HR Coordinator type role, or they cut their teeth in recruiting. For those in coordinator roles, they often quickly outgrow the administrative nature of these roles. If you are an HR Coordinator in a larger HR department, this type of role probably allowed you to get oriented on how HR is done in the ‘real’ world vs. what you learned in school/case studies. In your first HR role, you learned about corporate culture, bad managers and transactional HR work. It is now normal to want to spread your wings and try something new as your confidence has increased a lot over a year and you are probably feeling underutilized in your current position – these are all normal feelings at this stage in your career.

For those in recruiting roles, it is pretty normal to want to make a shift into an HR Generalist type of role early on in your career. HR grads that start out in recruiting learn pretty quickly if they want to make a career out of being in the talent acquisition world or if they want to broaden into more of a generalist role dealing with talent management, payroll/benefits, employee relations, etc. There is nothing wrong with staying in one area or the other, it is just pretty normal to want to move from recruiting into HR within the first year or so of it being in your first job after school.

It is also normal after a year or two out of school, and in your first HR role, to want to move on from your current organization. Often, after graduating, you are so happy just to have a job, things like the company you work for and/or the person you work for are irrelevant to you. You need a job and want experience, so where and who you work for fall down the list of importance.

After 18 months or so on the job, you can get a good feel for those elements and start to incorporate them into your next move. You are now able to better define what you want in your next move in terms of role, company, culture, etc. Keep in mind, it is hard to replace getting some solid HR experience on your resume, so you have to strike the balance in this area (of role vs. company). Remember, most organizations out there aren’t Google’s or Microsoft’s in terms of what they offer!

Working in ‘difficult’ organizations and/or dealing with difficult situations early on in your career is a great resume builder. Having had exposure to things like terminations, layoffs and re-structuring, policy development and performance management in the early stages of your career are great foundational experiences. You can port them from job to job and industry to industry. In the early, formative years of your HR career, it is all about building up your HR toolkit and gaining exposure to as many areas of HR as you can. Once the toolkit has built up, you can be more selective about who hires you to utilize this toolkit!

The last piece of advice I would give new(er) HR Pros, and that I wish I could have given myself 17 years ago, was to make sure you are always working on your professional brand and building your network(s). Your professional brand requires a lot of work and it is of the utmost value to you. How you network, develop yourself and interact with your HR colleagues and operations clients is all part of your professional brand. Now with the substantial role and influence that social media has in our lives, your online presence makes up a huge part of your professional brand.

For the up and coming HR pros, you have an incredible opportunity to build your brand through tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Keep in mind, everything you do (personal and professional) formulates part of your brand. There is no division any more between the two – personal IS professional and vice versa. Always be mindful of how you represent yourself – your brand is your most valuable commodity. It is my hope that some of this resonates with the new(er) HR Pros out there and that it serves as some high level guidance for you. I welcome and other questions you may have and as always I welcome any of your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Sometimes, you just have to say “Goodbye”

One of the darker, but necessary parts, of our jobs as HR Pros is when we have to provide council to our operations partners on the potential termination of an employee. I am not talking about layoffs here (which are the most unpleasant of all) or gross misconduct (i.e. lying, cheating, stealing, and violence) but more the terminations we are involved with that are in fact conduct related, but are an accumulation of things. I am referring to the situations where you have employees that are habitually late, have pattern absenteeism, unauthorized absences from work, can’t meet work deadlines or are a general performance issue.

ByeIt has been my experience, more often than not, that when HR becomes involved with, or aware of these scenarios, the situation is often typically past its breaking point. The interesting thing is that contrary to what many (HR) people believe, that managers are quick to want to fire, my experience is that managers are often unwilling to make that final decision to terminate in cases as I described above. Often the manager has spent a lot of time and effort in counselling the employee, coaching and ultimately warning the employee that their behaviour/results need to improve. They have put in yeoman’s work to try and improve the situation but at the end of the day, it is the employee who is unwilling or unable to change. More often than not, the manager has gone the extra mile.

Often the manager is reluctant to go to the final step of termination because the employee is “nice,” or gets along well with everyone else, or “tries hard when they actually are at work, or perhaps the manager even knows of some personal circumstances that make them unwilling to terminate. Let’s be clear, I am not referring to something that is a short term issue here, these are cases where there has been sustained issues for 6 months or more with no improvement shown. It is in those cases that you aren’t doing yourself, your team, the organization or the underperforming employee any favours by keeping them around.   Sometimes, you just have to say “goodbye.”

Here is the thing; there is also a hidden cost to keeping someone like this (chronic tardiness, absenteeism, underperforming, etc.) around. You do irreparable damage to your team, as they are the ones picking up the slack AND you also damage your reputation/credibility as a manager. You can’t be taken seriously if you are willing to accept poor performance for 6 months, a year or more!

So my advice in these cases is simple. It starts with the hand on the heart test. That is, (assuming your documentation is in order) if you can put your hand on your heart, look in the mirror and state, “I have absolutely done everything possible to help this employee improve and set them up for success,” than you need to say goodbye to them. No one is saying it is easy and no one is ever going to say it is no big deal, but you just have to do it. Do it for your team and do it for the employee in question. More often than not, they just need the nudge out the door (it will probably come as a relief to them) to start a new chapter in their lives. Do it with respect and allow the person to maintain their dignity when leaving and then everyone can start fresh, because sometime, you just have to say “Goodbye.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

It’s all about the money – or is it?

Fundamentally, one of the biggest challenges any company can be faced with is employee turnover. Whether you subscribe to the theory that losing someone costs 1.5X their salary, or whether it is double that or half of that amount, or whatever; the bottom line is that it costs you money. So it would be in your best interest, as organizational leaders, to make sure you understand WHY you may be experiencing turnover so that you can address the root cause of it.

MoneyIn far too many companies, the senior leadership group simply does not want to hear about, or understand, the reasons for turnover in their organization. For many of them, anything beyond someone leaving for more money, they take as a personal affront and don’t want to address the issue. It is much easier for them to understand cash. It is clean, simple and transactional. That is, the employee was making $40K at your company, their new employer is paying them $60K; therefore, it is a simple economic decision. So, now we just have to replace them again with someone who will accept $40K.

Nine times out of ten this approach is wrong…well, maybe more like 99/100 times. All other things being equal, unless your compensation structure is severely out of whack, people aren’t going to leave you for $3-4K more in gross salary. The job search process takes time, effort and is very stressful. People get comfortable with where they work, the people they work with, the predictability of their routine, etc. Unless the place is a complete hellhole, a few bucks more isn’t worth it to go through the job search process and leave where they are at now and walk away from their friends, tenure and pension.

As most good HR Pros know, it is typically something within your organizational environment or culture that drives the decision for employees to want to move on. Perhaps they work for a manager who is a tyrant, can’t be trusted or doesn’t support them. Maybe there is nowhere for them to grow in the organization anymore.   Perhaps a lack of communication from sr. management is causing them to be insecure about the company’s future, or maybe their work assignments just aren’t challenging enough and they need to move on in order to grow. It could be any one or a combination of those factors that drive them to look elsewhere.

On the rare occasion it is about money, you need to make a decision. Does it appear as though all of your voluntary attrits are leaving to make 15% or more wherever they are going? Than it is possible that you have a compensation issue and you need to do a serious market evaluation to ensure you aren’t completely out of whack with the industry you are in. If you need help, drop my colleague Sabrina Baker a line at Acacia HR solutions and I am sure she would be happy to help you.

If it is just a case of a “one of,” than you need to decide if paying someone completely outside of your compensation structure is worth it. It has been my experience that if you have a solid compensation system, it never pays to make counter offers to bend to the whim of adjusting salaries when staff is looking to leave. The person receiving more money is simply a mercenary who will only be happy until they figure out how they can leverage you (or someone else) for more money elsewhere. I would simply wish them good luck in their new role and move on.

In most cases though, you usually don’t have a compensation issue you have a culture issue. As an organization, you need to peel the layers back and look into the underbelly of your organization. As leaders, you need to decide if you really want to “fix” the issue by getting to the heart of the matter or if simply want to gloss over the root cause and ignore what ails your company. This is the difference between putting duct tape on a leaky pipe vs. replacing the old pipe with a new one. It means a lot of organizational introspection. It means being open and honest with yourself, your managers and your employees. It means that you understand the importance of talent and the value they bring to your company. It means accepting that there isn’t a people tree to simply pluck your next hire from. It means that you “get it” in that you can’t simply just “plug and play” new people into your organization and their roles and expect no impact to productivity or morale. Ultimately, by (wanting to) deal(ing) with the root cause of your attrition, it means that you truly understand that your people really are your human “resources.” As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan/

Don’t lower the bar – this isn’t a limbo contest!

Regular readers of The Armchair HR Manager know that one of my favourite topics to write about is performance management. Having had responsibility for performance management, both as an operations manager and as an HR Manager, has given me a pretty good perspective on just how difficult an ongoing process it is. I get it, the challenges in dealing with lousy performance review forms, the time commitment, the struggle to set goals, etc. Most of those items, when operations and HR partner together, can be addressed and hopefully resolved.

80656219_2e6075a799_mA big part of the performance management philosophy that I preach to my clients is that the most important piece of ongoing performance management is being able to accurately measure the success of all of your employees – everything else about performance management is moot if you don’t/can’t do that.   This all starts by identifying what the performance outcomes (i.e. what “success looks like”) are for the individual in their role. You need to set goals/objectives and identify, up front, how the the employee will be measured – whether quantitatively or qualitatively. By the way, there is nothing wrong with qualitative measurement (i.e. the old manager observation or management by wandering around); however, as a manager, you need to execute and actually OBSERVE your employees and coach them.

Here is the thing, by having objective goals for your staff, based on the position and their knowledge and experience within the position; you can measure everyone on a level playing field. That way, when it comes time to dole out any type of pay increase, the top performers are getting the most money and the bottom performers aren’t getting as much if any – which is the way it should be in a performance based system.

Here’s the rub though, as I mentioned before, you HAVE to accurately set goals and measure success. If you make arbitrary allowances for how you measure and reward, your credibility evaporates. Remember, you aren’t doing an underperforming employee any favours by artificially inflating their performance rating. In the same vein, you are also hurting the employees who are meeting and/or exceeding your performance expectations by lumping in lower performers with them. Let’s be real, employees talk and they know how they are being rated. Now, can you spell “engagement issue?”

In case I wasn’t clear, here is the specific problem I am talking about: As a manager, you have an employee, let’s call him Joe. For the past several years, Joe has been an ok employee. He started out fine, but after five years on the job, Joe is still performing at the same level as he did when he first started. The problem is that his manager has always identified Joe as meeting performance expectations, when he should have been tagged as needing improvement. Now, this past year, Joe has actually raised his game a bit and worked at the level of an employee who has been in their role for 5 years. The manager now rates Joe as exceeding performance expectations. You see the problem there? The performance bar was lowered by not accurately assessing performance from the get go. Because Joe was told all along he was meeting expectations (the bar was lowered), when he actually performed better, there was nowhere to go but up or give him an exceeds rating.

I have seen this scenario occur far too often. When managers are confronted about why they are now giving the higher rating I have heard things like, “well, Joe probably coasted for the last 5 years, but this year he really stepped up so that’s why I am giving him an exceeds rating.” Huh? Really? So what you are really saying is, “because I lowered the bar so much when it comes to Joe, he actually was able to easily step over it this year so it exceeded my already low expectations of him.” Do you see how wrong that statement is? Do you see how important it is to NOT lower the bar? The job expectations are the job expectations. Do not accept mediocrity as meeting your performance expectations. If you do, the message to your staff is that you do expect their best and that coasting along is acceptable performance.

Things like lowering the bar on performance expectations rot at the core of any performance management system. Once one manager does it, others follow suit because it is easy. You never have to deliver a tough message. The problem being, any system that allow this to continue will lose its best and brightest people and all you will be left with at the end, at best, are mediocre employees…but you might not know that because in your system, they already exceed your expectations. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Max Sparber/

Recruiters: Can you answer THIS question?

As part of one of the ongoing themes of The Armchair HR Manager, I like to blog frequently about recruiting and all things talent acquisition. My writing, while often focused on Recruiters and HR Professionals, also tends to have messaging focused on job seekers as well. You see, I firmly believe that in order for the job seeker/recruiter relationship to work well, both parties need to be on a level playing field. That is, both parties are as transparent as possible with each other, as this helps promote candidate credibility and recruiter/organizational branding.

Recruiter QuestionIn order for recruiters to establish credibility as trust agents (credit to Chris Brogan for this term) of their organizations (whether they are in-house or third party recruiters) they need to first build trust with job candidates. A major step in doing this is to properly understand the position you are trying to fill. You don’t have to be a technical expert on the role but you do need to understand what it is you are recruiting for (so you can convey and evaluate) so you can explain to candidates what the expected performance outcomes are for the position, how success will be measured and how the role fits within the organizational structure. This knowledge will also help you to close, but more on that later.

Savvy job seekers will ask these types of questions in interviews (above), so recruiters, you better be prepared with the answers! With all of the focus on “passive” candidates these days (although I am not convinced that passives are the Holy Grail for recruiters) and the much improved job market, many recruiters are finding the scales tipping a bit in terms of the balance of power. That is, many job seekers are more informed, more patient and more selective than they ever have been. So recruiters really need to up their game to compete and land the best candidates.

For me, there is one very important question that recruiters must be able to answer in order to keep a top candidate engaged in their recruiting campaign. As mentioned before, the savvy job seeker will ask this key question EVERY time they interview and HOW the recruiter answers it will influence the candidate’s continued interest and involvement with the position for which they are being interviewed for.

The question is pretty straight forward: “Why should I come and work for your company/client? “ In essence, this where the recruiter demonstrates that they have been listening to the candidate so as to determine what is causing them to look for other employment, what their motivators are for making a change and what their job acceptance factors are. If they have truly been actively listening, the recruiter, vis-à-vis answering this question, can now sell/close the candidate on the job opportunity.

Let’s be clear, the “answer” to this question is not things like:

  • Free parking, free coffee, etc.
  • Great location
  • Great/fun co-workers
  • Vacation policy
  • Flexible Hours
  • Social events/social committee
  • “Good” pay and benefits

I think you get the point. Those are all “nice” things that can help define your culture, but for many candidates they are just perks. What the candidate wants to know, and what the recruiter needs to show, is that there is a potential match here for things like:

  • Ability to greater utilize their skills (which are perhaps very underutilized where they are now)
  • Opportunity to work on projects that provide them with a greater/different scope (i.e. as Project Manager)
  • Enhanced opportunities for professional development which may also include the opportunity to obtain a designation (PMP, P.Eng, CHRP, SPHR, CPA, etc.)
  • Opportunity to be mentored by a more senior professional
  • Greater alignment between their personal demands and work life
  • Greater career path for them – whether horizontally or vertically

There are many more “good” answers to this question, but you can clearly see the difference between rhyming off a bunch of work perks to a candidate vs. providing a deeper response(s) that align(s) with their professional goals. At the end of the day, that is what good recruiters can do – align the brand, culture and selling features of the organization with the candidates professional goals. So as recruiters, next job opening you are trying to fill, make sure you can answer that very important question. If you can’t, you have some homework to do. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Idea go/


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