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Hi, my name is Scott and I work in HR

If I used this line at a dinner party, networking event or at any other social event, the eye rolling would start and I am almost certain that I would be met with a series of passive, “oh, hi’s.” Bottom line, no one would be all that interested in meeting and speaking with me if that was how I approached them. Funny thing, in our everyday jobs in HR, we as HR Pros do this all the time. Perhaps not quite as blatant and awkward as this, but we still use this approach when trying to work with our internal clients. Quite often we are the awkward kid at school who is trying to integrate into social circles.   Instead of identifying ways we can add value to the business, we like to remind our clients what our function is – like it is some sort of security blanket for us. We do this as if HR is some sort of oversight function through which operations must obtain approval before making business decisions…as if. Which begs the question, “Why do we do this?”


I got inspired to write more about this topic based on the thought provoking blog post that my colleague, Sabrina Baker, wrote last week related to her speaking engagement at the California HR conference. Sabrina wrote about Moving from HR Leader to Business Leader.” You can read her post here and as is her custom, she also supplied her slide deck here. You should check them out and give her a follow. The point(s) of hers that really stuck out to me though were the following where she wrote:

“It isn’t enough these days to be an HR leader, we need to be business leaders. We need to understand the business as well as every other leader. We need to know finance, marketing and sales as well as the individuals running those teams. We need to be able to speak and understand the lingo. We need to know how decisions impact the business and how to create people strategies that help achieve the business strategies.

And we need to do it all without asking for permission.”

As HR Pros, we should all read that last line again. “…we need to do it all without asking for permission.” So here is the thought that I want to piggyback on to Sabrina’s writing. Let’s stop introducing ourselves as the girl or guy who works in HR. No one cares. No one is impressed by that statement. Why don’t we start introducing ourselves as a problem solver? We need to stop thinking of ourselves as an internal department and think of ourselves as internal consultants. If we were consultants, we would HAVE to add value and solve problems; otherwise, we wouldn’t be in business. As a department, we tend to get a bit lazy and assume that because we are a department, people HAVE to use us…wrong!

So, as consultants and problem solvers, let’s start introducing ourselves as such. To Sabrina’s point, we have to stop asking for permission to do this and just go ahead and DO IT. How do you think your role will be received at work the next time you try one of these lines: (exaggeration and simplicity done for dramatic impact purposes)

“Hi, my name is Jane/John and I can help solve your resource issues by_____”

“I would like to propose a solution to your succession challenge”

“I have an idea on how to reduce your labour costs by introducing a contingent workforce plan”

“I have identified a low cost solution on how we can easily implement a mentoring program in your department to help with your skills shortage.”

Any one of these is a great opening line at a work party, I mean, as a work conversation. Your internal clients will be much more receptive if they see you as a solutions provider and not some bureaucratic department. Here is the beauty of all this, you don’t need to ask for permission to do this! (Thanks Sabrina!) Be a leader, go forward and just do it! You won’t get in trouble. Really…you won’t. It’s ok. Take the first step. Try introducing yourself differently. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Maialisa/Pixabay.com


The Top Talent Test (T3)

Organizations have many ways of identifying who their best people are or who their “top talent” is. It runs the gamut from companies conducting panel interviews, large scale calibration sessions and conducting predictive testing on who they think is “the best.” Now, I am not here to disparage any type of program or process that focuses on identifying, developing and retaining key employees. In fact, if you work for an organization that has ANY type of talent management practice in this area, you are already way ahead of the curve.

However, I am here to caution that often in our zeal to be ahead of the curve and rollout the next generation talent management practice(s), we often fail to hit the mark a bit and overly complicate the issue. To be perfectly blunt, if as a manager and leader I am doing my job properly, I know who my best people are (in terms of exceeding goals and delivering additional value) because I talk to them on a regular basis. We set goals, we set metrics and we have coaching sessions. Yes, there are many intangibles as well that need to be identified – the ability to innovate, demonstrated continual learning, coachability and desire to “be more”; however at the end of the day it comes down to the manager knowing their people because they TALK to them.

Talent management

I personally have a very clear line of demarcation that puts an employee on one side of the “top talent” line or the other. Quite simply, it has been my experience that the very best performers and “top talent” are those that want and crave accountability. Let me explain a bit further by looking at this through a different lens.

In many companies you will find top talent chameleons. These are the employees that have the ability to set themselves up to perform in areas they know they are strong in and avoid areas that they aren’t as good at. They know their shortcomings, but they are skilled at avoiding situations that they think will expose them. So, they pass on assignments that will stretch them, while continuing to excel in their current comfort zone. They are adept at focusing on what they want when they want to. Here is the key; you expose them by making them accountable. If you have identified someone as top talent but they avoid being accountable for anything…then I hate to tell you, but they are not top talent.

I have seen in many organizations the types that know how to get noticed and how to talk the talk and walk the walk; however, they are able to skate along because there is no accountability established. The manager has failed to set any solid goals and objectives, there are no measurements of success and no lessons learned due to failure. When approached about establishing goals and committing to delivering on something, you are met with nebulous explanations about resource issues, non-commitments from others and vague references to organizational shortcomings impacting their ability to deliver. You see, they are happy with the status quo. They love being able to act their way through things and let you “see” them as being a rising star, excelling at whatever it is they do.

Don’t accept this. As a leader, use the accountability test. Your very best people will thank you for it. Once they have been given accountability to deliver on something, the very best will go at their assignment with vim and vigor! They want the challenge and they are prepared to speak to their successes as well as their short comings. They are not afraid to fail as they see stretching and potentially failing all part of growing. Your best talent knows how to learn from failure and apply it against future situations.

So, the next time you think you have identified someone as “top talent” use the accountability test. You need to make sure you aren’t operating under false perceptions but in reality. Sit down with them; put their development plan and stretch objectives on paper. Tell them how their success will be measured. Tell them they are accountable…then wait for their response. Then, and only then, will you really know if that person is, in fact, top talent. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pay for Skill – Danger Alert!

There are many different organizational philosophies around compensation and how employees should be paid and/or rewarded. I am not necessarily convinced that any one pay philosophy or pay practice is universally better than another; however, I do believe you need to strive to find an approach that will work for your organization. I firmly believe that if you have invested in conducting proper job evaluations and market pay studies, you will have, at the very least, established a solid foundation on which to build. That is, you will have a pretty good handle on how you will bring new hires into your company based on what the market is paying for their knowledge, skills and abilities. People that bring the desired level of KSA’s should be paid around the midpoint (market) of your pay band, less experienced are paid closer to the minimum and those with more experience and expertise perhaps come in closer to the maximum of your band.

DangerBut what about once they have been with your organization for some time? What criteria do you use to determine if they receive a pay increase or not? Do you provide pay increases every year based on changes in cost of living? While that might seem “fair” to you and your employees at first, you aren’t exactly incentivizing for better performance and rewarding accordingly! Another approach, which I am a bigger believer in, is merit pay or pay for performance. The basic tenant of this approach is that those employees that perform better (i.e. make you more money) get the highest pay increases and rewards. Now, in order for this to work, you need to have established a pretty decent performance management system or culture whereby goals are set and measured objectively and people are held accountable for their results. That can be a big “IF” for a lot of companies.

Another approach I have seen in companies, especially those in the professional services industries, is to pay or reward for skills. Typically, in most professional services companies, they invest quite heavily in the training and development of their people. The more you know about C# programming or Oracle databases, in theory, the more valuable you are to the company. The company can then “sell” your knowledge and capabilities to its clients and thus increase its own revenues. So, what happens in these situations is that employees receive pay bumps or “market” increases based on their enhanced skills portfolio. Warning – this can be a slippery slope!

This approach, a pay for skills model, can wreak havoc on your companies’ compensation scheme. What I have seen happen is that employees’ go on training courses, obtain certificates, certifications, etc. and then expect an immediate raise. They often come back from writing the certification exam with all kinds of salary surveys that show how employees that get a certification in XYZ earn 1/3 more than their peers who don’t have the certification. What they don’t tell you is that if you dig into the numbers, these surveys are pretty much manipulated by the vendor to justify the cost of the certification…but I digress.

This then becomes a perpetual cycle of being held hostage every time your employees go on training. By paying for “skill,” you end up NOT paying for the value derived from the skill. Meaning, just because Joe is now a Certified Widget Designer (CWD), it doesn’t necessarily mean that Joe is a GOOD widget designer. Sure he has demonstrated some level of knowledge required in order to obtain the certification; but that doesn’t mean Joe is applying it on the job or creating new/more value in his current role. You need to recognize and reward him for that based on his performance.

Now, if Joe leverages his new CWD certification and designs a new cutting edge widget, or mentors/trains others to become better widget designers, then that is a different story and that my friends, is an increase in performance! As well, if Joe goes on to be so good at making widgets he now has his eyes on leading a team and he gets promoted – well that is a promotional increase – all valid reasons for a pay bump!

So a word of caution if you are paying for skills right now – at some point in time you are going to be held hostage by this approach. Your staff will quickly figure out that the only way to get an increase is go on training and get some sort of certification. Are you willing to approve and pay for any and all training requests now so that all staff has an opportunity for pay increases? If not, why not? What message does that send? What are you telling your employees about the importance of their performance? Is that even important to you? I simply caution on the pay for skill approach and doling out buckets of cash for certifications. That is a short term “solution” that will only end up in longer term pain for you. You are basically encouraging a mercenary type of approach and not demonstrating the causal compensation link between your company and its employees. You want to recognize and reward employees for doing great work – there are better ways to do it then pay for skill. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Processes don’t fix people!

Recently, a former colleague of mine was lamenting about some of his current organizational challenges to me. He works for a mid-size organization, which grew from being a family owned business, and he holds a pseudo HR/Operations role. Bottom line, he deals with the “HR stuff’ at his company as well as managing an operational based group. He had been feeling his stress levels increase dramatically over the past 6-12 months and was also feeling very frustrated with his organization on a regular basis – mostly due to challenges they were having with product service and quality.

Process Fix“Steve” had mentioned to me that various organizational programs, initiatives, product offerings, etc. did not seem to be taking hold like they used to. His company was experiencing greater (worse) than normal quality issues and customer complaints. Steve also said that he was experiencing a lot of corporate “double-speak” from the CEO and VP of Production of the company. That is, they were prone to saying one thing and doing another and they weren’t providing clear direction to the management team about what the organizational goals were. He also felt like they were (indirectly) pitting departments against one another and they were reluctant to address a lot of the organizational ambiguity that was enveloping them all – in short, it felt like the company was out of alignment.

His solution was to propose that they adopt a series of concise processes that would govern the operational decision making, product control and quality assurance issues they were having. In short, he felt that the lack of clear processes and procedures were the reason the organization (and he) were in the stressful mess they were in. When Steve ran this by me, I simply asked him, “Do you think this will address the root cause issue?” Steve was confident that it would as processes would show who owned what “piece of the pie,” it would govern decision making and it would get all departments on the same page. It would also eliminate the ambiguous direction setting he was getting from the head of production.

My next question to Steve was what caused him to want to end our conversation. I simply asked him, “What do you think will happen when someone doesn’t follow the identified/agreed upon processes?” Steve hemmed and hawed and stammered and then finally and reluctantly admitted – “nothing.” He felt nothing would happen as the Sr. Leadership team would ultimately not hold anyone accountable. They were used to running the company as if it was still a small family owned business where they controlled everything and would make whatever decision they would want to make, albeit on the fly. Steve was almost broken as it killed him to admit that all the processes in the world weren’t going to fix his problem and Steve had a people problem.

You see, at the end of the day, all the processes in the world aren’t going to fix people. If your leadership team is unable and/or unwilling to hold people accountable for their results (or for following processes) then you won’t be able to change anything by simply developing fancy new processes. This will only serve to mask the underlying issues. Developing programs, initiatives and processes to address leadership issues is like putting a band aid on the wrong cut – it feels like you are doing something to fix a problem, but you are really only fooling yourself.

I am sure Steve wished it was simply a matter of developing processes as that would be a lot easier to do than what he is faced with. If Steve wants change at his company, he needs to change the people or have the people change. Regardless, it is a daunting task either way and if you have a Sr. Leadership group that is firmly ensconced in their roles (and unwilling to change how they do things) then you are facing an uphill battle. No amount of process or programs is going to fix a leadership/people issue.

So, you need to focus on these very people that are the problem. Are they coachable? Do they understand what they are doing? Do they comprehend the organizational damage and chaos they are causing? Do they see the collateral damage they cause by their behaviour? That is an area that HR can coach them on. If they don’t want to change, it may be time to discuss with your board of directors or ownership group – but that is a post for another day. Bottom line, processes don’t fix people, so don’t waste your time applying the wrong solution to a people problem. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Start, Stop, Continue

I recently spoke at a professional engineering conference on the topic of performance management. The gist of my presentation focused on providing technical managers with practical tips, tools and suggestions to help them better manage employee performance while aligning with organizational and departmental goals. The session ended being quite interactive and of course, the “best” questions came after I was done presenting when many folks wanted to ask specific questions that pertained to their role and their business.

Start StopHere is what I learned or at least what was reconfirmed for me after speaking with the attendees – almost everyone struggles with managing employee performance in some capacity or another. For some, it is the struggle to have the difficult conversations and/or to deal with the performance feedback they receive from their employees. For others, it is dealing with a lack of organizational support when it comes to communicating goals and holding staff accountable.

Here is the real interesting part, while I provided the audience with several tools and tips to manage performance while focusing a lot of goal alignment (organization – departmental – individual) there was still something missing. What I found out, while interacting with the audience, is that there is still a very real struggle to simply talk to employees about basic elements of performance – whether or not you have goal alignment, performance management tools or feedback training. The bottom line is that for many of these managers, it is a constant struggle just to initially engage in a conversation with staff to talk about performance, all of which is exacerbated if there is a lack of organizational commitment to performance management and goal alignment.

So, in order to make sure that my audience left the presentation still feeling good about their ability to tackle managing performance, I had to dig down real deep in the old HR tool box to give them something tangible they could walk away with and apply on the job. One of the best conversation starters/trust building activities I learned in my career is the Start, Stop, Continue discussion. Not sure where I learned this from so my apologies to the creator of it; however, it is a fantastic way to start discussions with employees.

You see, effective employee conversations are all predicated on trust. Employees need to trust in the feedback that you are giving, trust that you will keep your word and trust that you will support them in helping them to grow and develop. Hence, the Start, Stop, Continue meeting (SSC for short), is a great way to get the ball rolling in this area. Essentially, you have to start by having regular dialogue with your staff. This way, having 1:1 discussions with employees is just a regular part of how you do business and it doesn’t just occur when someone has screwed up! Assuming this has taken place, and in order to transition into a SSC discussion, your dialogue should go something like this:

“Sue, my goal is to make this department (more) effective – one in which employees want to contribute and are rewarded for their performance. In order to do this, I need input from you and all the other employees. So here is my question to you: in order to help you be more effective in your role and contribute to the team success, what is one thing that we, as a department, need to START doing immediately, what is one thing we need to STOP doing immediately and what is one thing we need to make sure we CONTINUE doing?”

Regardless of where you are as a team or organization in the performance management maturity model, you can always have these types of discussions with your employees. They open up lines of communication, build trust and enhance your credibility as a leader. Now, there is one important caveat to all of this – you have to follow through on the fixes. If the START or STOP items are things you can control or do, then you have to follow through. Otherwise, there will be no trust established and future conversations with you will be seen as a waste of time. Focus on the controllables, (not large organizational things that are beyond your scope) smaller, more tactical items that are geared towards making employees’ jobs, lives and expected performance easier to deliver on. By doing this, you will be able to better transition into more effective performance dialogue with your employees. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

7 Simple Rules for Employee Survey Success

Employee surveys – love them or hate them, are a part of corporate life, whether you are in operations or HR. If managed properly, they can be an effective tool in helping to retain your employees. Done improperly, they are an administrative exercise that leads to frustration for all involved and resentment from your employees. In order to make this all work, your organizational leadership has to believe in the value of the feedback they received AND have a desire to change. So, your Survey Feedbackcritical equation you need to remember is Belief + Feedback + Desire to change = Survey Value. Therefore, my advice to organizations is that you need to decide if or why you want to do a survey, before you first launch into one. It you want to conduct a survey, there many important elements to consider. If, after evaluating the criteria, you decide you don’t or shouldn’t conduct a survey, than that is ok too.

So, here are Scott’s rules for deciding on whether or not you should conduct an employee survey:

  • Rule #1:
    • As an organization, are you prepared to act on some of the feedback you receive? Notice I said “some.” You can’t necessarily act on everything, but you need to acknowledge the feedback and then tell your employees what you can and cannot do. If the answer to this question is “no” (and you need to be honest) than don’t do the survey.
  • Rule #2:
    • Communicate the results to your employees and then commit to an action plan. If you don’t want to do, or can’t do, both of these things, than don’t do a survey.
  • Rule #3:
    • Are your managers accountable for the results and action plans that are derived from the survey? Or is it an “HR thing.” If your managers and organizational leadership aren’t accountable, than don’t do a survey. No matter how you position it, if managers aren’t accountable, your staff will see this is a paper exercise with no value.
  • Rule #4:
    • You don’t have to have an action plan for everything because not all questions you ask are of equal importance to your employees. For example, they may score you low on a question pertaining to work/life balance; however, perhaps that isn’t that important to them at the moment because you are a start-up that is trying to secure venture capital financing and everyone is working like dogs to push your first product release out the door.
  • Rule #5:
    • Therefore, based on Rule #4, before you go creating action plans, ASK your employees what IS important to them. If you identify 6 areas of opportunity, get them to rank what is most important to them. Ask them, “If, as an organization, we could address/improve 3 things, what should they be?”
  • Rule #6:
    • Involve your employees in the creation of the specific action plans and communicate progress (frequently) on the action plan. Operational leaders need to own the execution of the strategies. Make sure you tell your staff what you can’t do/improve at the moment – could be due to budget, timing, etc. Your employees will appreciate your candor.
  • Rule #7:
    • No “check in the box’s” allowed. Meaning, you don’t just create a couple of action items, half-heartedly address a few symptoms and then move on with operational life. You have to get at the root cause issues, create a tangible plan and then continue to monitor it. Surveys and action plans need to be fluid and ongoing – not a singular moment in time.

These seven simple rules should help guide you, organizationally, through the survey process. The key is to make them part of your business plans with a strategic focus on retaining your talent. If your goal(s) is anything else, you are wasting your time and that of your employees. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Working around the problem

While I blog a lot about management and leadership, I certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am some sort of infallible person. A lot of my posts are based on personal experience – whether it be something I was directly or indirectly involved with or observed, or perhaps even based on mistakes and lessons learned by myself! A lot of what I share on The Armchair HR Manager is done with the hope that others can learn from the mistakes that either myself or others have made so that we can all become better managers and hopefully better leaders based on lessons learned.

Business ManAs I have already mentioned, I am by no means perfect; however, there are some basic tenants of management that I see “violated” on a regular basis that absolutely drive me crazy. A big “no no” in the management world is trying to work around a problem instead of going to the person (direct report) themselves and identifying the issue. I have seen and heard far too many instances of managers and so called “leaders” taking these indirect, back door paths to resolve issues. What ends up happening is that they end up involving far too many other people in the problem that shouldn’t be involved in the first place.

This type of approach (working around the problem) does several (negative) things:

  1. It erodes at the core of any performance system and culture you have in place. By constantly working around problems, no one is ever accountable for anything.
  2. It creates a culture fueled by rumours, gossip, innuendo and fear-mongering. People hear that their boss has an issue with them…but they hear about it 2nd and 3rd hand and start making plans for their “defense.”
  3. It puts peers in very awkward situations – they know about a problem with their peer before their peer does and they are now being asked to provide a solution (work around) to things. It could be perceived, once everything comes out, (and believe me it will) that they too were part of the problem in working around the other employee.
  4. It completely breaks down any type of trust in the manager/employee relationship. Here is the real problem with this one – people want to work for managers they can trust. It is THE most important part of the relationship. If they don’t trust their manager, they will eventually leave…simple as that.

So as a manager, if you want to be a real leader, stop working around the problem and the people. If there is performance or conduct issue, discuss it with your employee directly. You need to clearly identify the behaviours or performance outcomes that are the issue. Identify how they are negatively impacting performance (whether that of the employee or the company) and also show the impact on peers, organizational culture, etc. Link it all up and clearly communicate the desired change you are looking for.

These conversations aren’t comfortable and no one looks forward to having them; however, they are integral part of being a decent manager. You owe it to yourself, your team and your company to NOT work around problems and people. By not doing this, you are establishing a culture of performance and accountability. Truth be told, you may be surprised by your employee’s reaction when you actually communicate the issue to them directly. They may be far more receptive than you think. At the very least, other members of your team will respect you more and view as more of a leader than just their manager.

At its core, this is about managerial COURAGE. I am sorry if you don’t like conflict and don’t have the courage to talk to someone about these types of issues face to face. At the end of the day, you are getting paid to be a manager and this is a BIG part of being a manager so you need to suck it up and forge ahead. If you don’t have the courage (and that is okay) it is probably time to start to think about moving back to an individual contributor role. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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