Category Archives: Employees

Automation

Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (http://fortune.com/2016/11/08/china-automation-jobs/)

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/24/technology/robots-jobs-us-workers-uk/index.html)

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500. http://clark.com/shopping-retail/major-retailers-closing-2017/.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.

Self Help

“I love those automated attendants, recorded voice answering machines and the endless opportunities I get to push my own buttons whenever I make a call looking for someone to help me.”

Said no one, ever.

It has been well documented for some time that customer satisfaction is adversely affected whenever a customer has to deal with or must navigate through one of those automated phone answering systems. Normally when they call, they have a question, or need help with an issue. They want to talk to someone. Otherwise they would have just sent a text. Or accessed the company web page and sent an email. But no, they had hit a threshold where this type of technological linking was not good enough. They wanted to ask another human being to help them. And yet despite their need for support and desire for human interaction, they are denied.

The problem is so rampant that there are now commercials by certain companies appearing on network television espousing the point that when you call them, you actually get to speak to “a real human being”. Some companies now feel that it is now a competitive differentiator that they will have a real live human being answer your call and that you actually get to talk to them when you call them. It is interesting how quickly times changed initially to the automated systems, and then just how quickly they are changing back. There can only be one reason for this service technology whiplash.

Money.

Companies originally saw these systems as opportunities to reduce the cost of support by in effect making the customer responsible for some of their own issue or support request. They would need fewer support people if they could make customers work a little bit in the identification of the type of issue they were calling about. Fewer people needed for support equated to reducing the cost of support. This is always thought of as a good idea for the bottom line.

What they learned was that for the most part customers didn’t really like this type of automated system. It may have saved the company money in their support costs, but it made their customers unhappy. And unhappy customers were not as likely to buy more equipment or products from the vendor that made them use an automated attendant system when they needed support. This is normally thought of as a bad thing for both the top and bottom lines.

Companies learned, or actually relearned the old adage:
“Penny wise and Dollar foolish”. (It is actually “Penny wise and Pound Foolish”, but, I live in Texas, USA, so I have taken a foreign exchange liberty here.)

They may have saved a few pennies with the automated systems which enabled them to reduce the number of people required to deliver customer support, but it ended up costing them many dollars in lost sales from their customers who were not particularly impressed or happy with the support that they got.

Now we have companies advertising that they are using people to answer their service calls, just like everyone used to do thirty plus years ago. Go figure.

While it is interesting to discuss the migratory aspects of the types of customer service and support, I think it might be time to discuss a group that may not have fared so well in the evolution of support: The Employee.

It is no secret that companies must spend significant amounts of money, time and effort supporting their own communications and networking needs. Every company has a corporate network. Every employee has a Personal Computer. The employee productivity gains that have been created are enormous and well documented.

It has also put an enormous strain on and demand for corporate Information Technologies (IT) teams for support by these employees. Security and the ability to keep hackers out has almost become an industry unto itself. Requests for networking, applications, upgrades and support continue to grow as the complexity of what is required by the corporate knowledge worker increases. In the age of Virtual Offices (VOs) the demand to deliver these services to locations outside the classic organization structure or office has boomed.

And what is the diametrically opposed force that companies must deal with in this time of burgeoning employee technology demands?

The desire to reduce, or at least limit the growth of Information Technology support costs.

Companies are facing explosive demand for new and innovative Information Technologies applications and services by their own people in order to continue to generate ever better productivity, but are having to temper responding to this demand due to a desire to keep their IT costs in check. There are many innovative ways that companies are dealing with this issue, and unfortunately there are also several ways that may not be considered quite so innovative.

When I was in college, I once had a physics professor who was preparing us for a rather extensive round of midterm exams. He informed us that once the test was passed out that there would be no talking. He also said that if we had any questions we would be encouraged to raise our hands. He noted that by raising our hands above our heads, blood would obey the laws of gravity and flow out of our arms. This would in turn increase blood flow to our brains. This in turn would cause an increase our brain activities in the firing of synapses and neuron transmission, which in turn should enable us to solve the problem on our own.

I am not sure, but I think the gist of his comments were that we were not to ask him questions, because it was a test.

I am concerned that many of the IT leadership of many businesses today seem to ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to staff support. If you don’t believe me, try and find the internal organizational phone number to call and actually talk to someone real time if you need IT help with you technology based connections. Emails and instant messaging are by far the preferred mode of communication if you need help. And if by some chance you do locate the telephone number for IT support, I think you have guessed it: You get to deal with the corporate IT automated attendant.

It seems that what was once done for you as a valued productivity asset of the company, when it comes to new applications and upgrades, are now being pushed down to you to try and do on your own. The new definition for employee service seems to include unlimited numbers of IT based emails with directions on how to update, upload and upscope the many new, mandatory or desirable IT capabilities.

Sort of a raise your hand and hope for increased blood flow to the brain when it comes to IT support.

I think part of the reason for this internal support shift is that the cost of IT and support is a very identifiable amount. There are direct numbers, budgets and staff associated with it. In budgeting and costing terms, it has become a very identifiable target. There is a defined amount being spent and as such becomes a prime candidate for cost reduction.

The issue that arises is that for every identified and quantified dollar that is saved from the IT budget, there is not a specific quantifiable amount of incremental time or lost productivity that can be identified or captured by the employees, as they are forced to pick up the slack. The measurable IT budget is reduced and a real dollar cost reduction is recognized. But it is far more difficult to measure how much is “spent” when all the additional hours that all the individual employees must now spend completing these IT tasks are totaled up.

An extra hour or two, here and there spent by each employee doing what was once an IT task gets lost in the count. The employee’s work load doesn’t decrease to accommodate this new additional effort. The deadlines aren’t extended because there is now more to do. It’s just another issue to deal with.

Just like happy customers are known to buy more products, happy employees are known to be more productive. However, employee productivity is something of a subjective measurement where IT budgets are very quantitative. This leaves the decision in the realm of reducing a measurable budget, known quantity at the risk of reducing an unmeasurable, unknown employee satisfaction and productivity quantity.

When the cost of cost reductions is reviewed in such a manner, it is best to expect continued pressure on corporate IT budgets for the foreseeable future.

I think it is probably safe to assume that there will be a point where there is a recognition of the value of supporting employee satisfaction and productivity via increased, direct tool and technology support. My guess is that corporations are probably getting close to that tipping point.

When bellwether companies such as Yahoo! and IBM have already decided that there is in fact greater value to the company when employees interact with each other in the office as opposed to the convenience of working via Virtual Offices, it probably isn’t too far a leap to think that they will also recognize that the small, but highly visible investment in the IT resources to support them is also probably money very well spent.

The Five Stages of Change…..and Grief

A friend of mine asked me to look over a document that he was going to issue to his most prized customers. He wanted to prepare them on how he saw things were going to change in the coming (if not already here) digital world. I was flattered. Normally the only people who ask for my opinion are some of my myopic golf buddies when they are having trouble reading a putt. My friend wanted to make sure that his message was not viewed as just another document to be scanned and thrown on the pile of other documents his customers read. As usual, this got me to thinking about how we can relate to and react to the now inevitably changing processes, as they continue to barrel down the tracks at us.

As is also usual I first went out and looked around to see if there was anything written on the five stages of change. I wanted to know if I was capturing some original thought or possibly just rehashing something that someone else had already said. It was with only a modicum of surprise that I did indeed fine information on the five stages of change. According to the article I found, the five stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. I correctly assumed that anything that includes both precontemplation and contemplation in its description is somehow academic in nature and not fully business oriented. You too can see this at: http://www.cpe.vt.edu/gttc/presentations/8eStagesofChange.pdf

I have never really encountered “precontemplation” in a business environment, but I will now be on the lookout for it. Most of the time I am both surprised and thrilled if I run across anything that even resembles contemplation, let alone precontemplation. For those of you wondering what precontemplation is, it is the point in time when people are not even considering (contemplating) change.

I had to look it up because I didn’t know either.

The five stages of change that I want to deal with are a little more basic and deal more with the human factor associated with change. They are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some of you may recognize these five stages of change also as the five stages of Grief. Since there is very little in business these days that causes more grief than change, I think that they are most appropriate.

I have had the opportunity to be a change agent in several different roles for several different organizations. I have found that the two primary reasons that businesses need to change are: The business is doing well and it is anticipated that the market will require the change, or, the business is not doing well and the change is required by the market if the performance is to improve.

Pretty simple, huh?

In either instance, you are almost guaranteed that the universal initial response by those who must change will be denial. They are already doing everything in accordance with both their objectives and the existing process. It will be others who must change, not them. And they are usually at least partially correct. However, I have found that the proper response to such a denial is that others will also change, not just them.

Denial can be one of the longest lasting stages of the change process. Too many times change is seen as an invalidation of what the business has been doing. This not and should not be the case. All business environments are dynamic. Change is an inevitable requirement.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid platitudes of that type. I guess I will continue to try and promise myself that after that last statement.

The next stage in the change process is anger. If denial is not the longest stage of the process, then anger is. When people are made to do something that they don’t particularly want to do, they do tend to get emotional and this usually translates to a little angry. They can also perhaps be a little angry that they were not the ones that recognized the necessity of the change, or that they were not the ones that proposed the change, or even perhaps that the change occurred on a Tuesday as opposed to a Monday or Wednesday.

The idea here is that the response to change can be emotional. And the first rule of dealing with an emotional response is to not get emotional in return. Understand why the response is present, but don’t slow down or alter course.

So now everyone is denying that a change is necessary, and they are now also angry that you are not paying attention to their denials. What’s next?

Bargaining is next. This is an interesting stage in the change-grief process. It denotes the understanding that some change is going to occur. It is also the beginning of the internalization process for that change. It is the methodology by which people begin to take ownership of the change.

It is always good to engage in the change-bargaining process because no one has a corner on the market for good ideas. You never know where the next one will be coming from. Listening to the team that is preparing to change is always beneficial. There is one thing to remember though:

It is not a negotiation.

There may be pieces and parts of proposals that can and should be incorporated into the change process, and there may be those that may best be ignored. Most organizations will not change of their own volition. It takes someone to change them. And it will take will power to overcome the inherent resistance to the desired change.

Once the bargaining is done, along with all the associated renting of clothing, gnashing of teeth and general keening, there is usually a quiet period. This is where the depressing truth of the pending change sets in. It’s going to happen. People will have to change the way they do things. There may even be pending changes to the people themselves.

It will be up to the change leadership to do two primary activities during this period. The first is to make sure that the period between the acknowledgement of the pending change and the actual implementation of it is minimized. It is up to the leader to keep this stage of the change process as short as possible. They need to minimize the length of this negative effect.

The second is to continuously communicate with the changing team during this time and process. Over communicate. Be visible. The change leader must assume the responsibility for moving the team, not just the process, forward at this time.

Finally, if everything has gone right, and the implementation of the change has begun, there should be the final stage of the change-grief process: acceptance. And as with almost every other stage in this process, there will be varying levels of acceptance. Some will embrace the change and move forward with it, and some will begrudgingly go along with it. The only way to make sure that all are on the same page is to take one more additional step.

Review.

What was the reason for the change? Why was everyone put through the grief inducing process? What was the outcome of the system before the change as opposed to the now current outcomes?

In short, show the team what the benefit of the change was. Look at the business performance before and after. Document what is was before, what the implemented change was and what the performance is after.

The idea is to close off the change-grief process with a review that (hopefully) shows that all the effort was in fact worth it to the business. Having a final review of what was the situation and performance before the change and what the new baseline is after the change closes the loop with the team that has gone through the change.

There is no doubt that change induces grief into an organization. Even the prospect of change can and will generate grief. I think that organizations might have a little better response to change if they focused more on dealing with it as grief instead of just change. While the idea of change has its own connotations, it does not engender the appropriate management response. Change is almost an intellectual concept.

Dealing with the organizational upset generated by change from a grief point of view enables management to understand more of the human response and emotion that is created. After all we like to think of change on organizational levels, but it is really on the human level within the organization that the meaningful changes actually take place.

Where are the Future Leaders Going to Come From?

It used to be that leaders in business emerged from the organization and moved to the forefront by having a better idea. Or having a compelling vision. Or solving a significant problem. Or dealing with a difficult situation. Or a combination of several of these traits. They moved to the front and led by changing things for the better. But that does not seem to be the case anymore. In these days of process driven organizations, it appears that leaders are selected according to their ability to follow or implement the existing process. It appears that the leaders of the future are not being recognized as the one who can do things the best or most innovative way, but rather the ones that are the best at doing things the current way.

In the past most leaders did not always follow a preset process. Sometimes it’s hard to follow a process when you are out front leading. Leaders would have a flash of insight, or belief in a new idea and risk doing something that was outside the then status quo to achieve it. They would recognize that whatever was currently being done was not going to generate a new result or get the organization to new ground. They were looking for a solution and didn’t mind defining a new way to get there. If they deemed it necessary, they would take a new path.

It was then up to those that would follow them, to try to emulate that success. Followers would then try to create a process to follow that would enable them to hopefully achieve the same result. They would follow in the leader’s footsteps, and hopefully codify each step so that everyone else would be able to understand and follow. They would try to minimize any of the potential risks that the leader had taken in order to succeed.

As the new process evolved, each step was assigned to a specific individual or team to complete. No one ended up owning the entire process, or even the final result. They owned steps. There would be hand-offs at each step. In time the process would become an ingrained smooth running feature of the organization.

This would be good, until such time as something changed. It could be anything, a customer preference, a competitor’s strategy or product, the market or economic environment, but the ripple effect within the process would be significant. Because now the process must change, and based on its codification, structure, and stakeholders, it is now being asked to change itself.

Under a process driven structure, only the current leader can have the end to end insight to change the process. Since each specific piece of the process is usually owned by a specific individual or group, any other type of change would require all the pieces of the process to come together to implement any change. And since the process was originally created to remove variation and risk from the organization, there will usually be a fair amount of self-induced risk avoiding resistance to change. Something that was put in place to reduce unwanted change must now somehow become a catalyst for its own change, and must continue to do so into the future.

Performance now is based on how well each individual or group performs their individual step in the process. This might not be the most conducive environment to developing leadership.

I think this might be what Henry Ford had in mind when he created the first automotive production line that was capable of producing Model T’s in any color…as long as it was black.

He was a leader in this area. It was great as long as he could dictate what the market wanted or would get. When others caught on and started to provide customers with options and variety, he too had to change and follow.

The point here is that those that were part of the production line process were not asked to get together and change the process. There was an acknowledged leader and owner, and he made the call. Now he got to do that because he owned the company and it was his name on the car, but I think you get my point.

Leaders see a big picture and have final responsibility. Today’s process driven organizational structures drive dis-aggregated pictures and responsibility for only specific steps in the acknowledged process that is supposed to generate the final result.

In essence, today’s organizations are not asking leaders, or future leaders to be focused on the overall car that is metaphorically being produced, but rather just the few pieces, screws and bolts that they are responsible for in the production process. They are responsible only to perform their specific work product.

It is possible that this organizational structure has also given rise to the requirement for a Quality group. There have been too many instances everyone was performing their assigned task in the process, and yet a low-quality car was being produced. Defects and recalls soon became almost the norm for the process.

A great deal has already been written about the millennial generation. Some of it even by me. There is no doubt that they have already joined the workforce in large numbers. It has been well documented that they are the products of the current social and political environments. Their effects in these realms are already being felt to significant levels.

While there is obviously variation across individuals within any group, “Mainstream media has drawn a picture of Millennials as lazy, narcissistic and entitled selfie-lovers.” (http://luckyattitude.co.uk/millennial-characteristics/# ). And while this may be interesting from a media point of view, there are a few other characteristics of millennials that this article provides which could open a few eyes and possibly answer a few leadership questions.

Millennials are also categorized here as “Impatient, Entrepreneurial, and technologically the most savvy generation to come along”. They are viewed as the children of the entrepreneurial generation and to date have been credited with creating twice as many new businesses worldwide as the baby boomers did.

So, what does that mean for the future of business leadership?

For me it means that businesses are going to have to walk a fine line, as well as possibly have to draw a new line when it comes to process and business leadership. The new generation may in fact feel entitled, but they are also well educated and impatient. If they cannot lead, or at least quickly change the process that has evolved there is a very good chance that they will leave and look for other opportunities, possibly their own start-up where they can utilize their own ideas.

Process oriented business structures have evolved to reduce business risks and variation. In doing this they also slow down the response time and ability of an organization to change and react to new conditions and markets. As the business organization continues to evolve, these somewhat change resistant process environments will be populated by more and more impatient millennials that will feel entitled to change things for the better as they see fit, and will be increasingly more frustrated with the systems built in resistance.

This change resistant, process oriented organizational structure, when coupled with impatience, risk receptivity and the willingness to go their own way for fulfillment of the millennials could in fact be the perfect storm for future leadership within business organizations. It is usually the best and the brightest that get frustrated first.

They want to believe in and be involved in a merit based system, not a seniority based one. They will want to change and move as opposed to evolve. They will not be as patient as previous generations because of their feeling of entitlement. In short they will be up against a business system that currently represents just about everything that they don’t want.

Both will have to change. Millennials will have to experience first hand how organizations work and change. As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Just because they will feel entitled does mean the will be entitled. This could be an unpleasant lesson.

Organizations will have to change in that as the millennials become an ever greater proportion of their work-forces, they will have to take steps to retain their frustrated best and brightest. If they don’t they risk having to compete with those organizations that have solved the millennial-organizational conundrum, or even the millennial-led entrepreneurial start-up. Competition for the best resources will drive them this way.

Either way, it does not seem that the organizational structures and processes that have so successfully moved business forward to this point, will be sufficient to continue to move business forward from this point. It will be interesting to see not only where, but how the next generation of leaders comes about.

Recognition

I saw an article in a local newspaper today, and as usual it got me to thinking. The article was about a high school that would not allow its National Honor Society members to wear their honor society sashes during their graduation commencement ceremonies. The school district decided that it did not want those graduating students who were not part of the honor society to feel excluded or lessened for not having been an honor society member.

Think about that for a moment.

Kids that excelled were not allowed to be recognized for excelling because of the way it might make those that did not excel feel.

Now I am sure that there are many twists and turns in this story that we have not been a part too. It is my understanding that the National Honor Society is viewed in some schools as more of a “club” due to its non-school requirements and activities. Even so, if only part of this story is true, what would happen in business if business was forced to behave in such a manner with those who excel?

Now before I delve too deeply into this topic from a business point of view, there probably are a few things that we need to remember. I think it is best for us all to remember that each and every business only wants the best, the brightest, the most gifted on their team. They have all implemented interview and selection criteria to make sure that no average person darkens their halls. They spare no expense in their never ending hunt for only the best talent.

Once each business has assembled their own veritable “Avengers” (the first one, where they save the world, not the second one where I’m not sure what they actually did…) slate of employees, they then require that each manager force fit them into a bell shaped distribution curve for their individual performance so that individual ratings and raises can be allocated appropriately.

Wait a minute. In some strange way that actually does sound a little like the high school in question.

Let’s get back to the topic and talk about recognition in business for a little bit. It is, or at least should be an integral part of any employee compensation or retention program. The problem is: How do you recognize those that have excelled without potentially demoralizing or alienating those that may not have done as well. I think that this can be an interesting question on several levels.

The first level is to make sure it is an organizationally acceptable practice to publically recognize individuals. All cultures have a tendency to impose their view of things on the world. I think in the US we are somewhat competitive, understand and accept the concept of individual recognition in a team oriented organization. There are other countries with similar views of things, as well as some that tend to take a little more “team” view of things as opposed to individual performance. Many of us look at it as a reason to work and strive that much harder in order to reap those individual gains.

This is particularly prevalent in many of the sales organizations. Sales incentives, sales rewards, sales trips and recognition are all part of the package. Many sales people, in addition to the compensation, see the opportunity to be recognized for excelling in front of their peers as one of the primary driving incentives for their work.

For the most part, this is how sales recognition works. There is a focus on achievement and those that excelled. There is minimal concern about the feelings of those that did not. All sales people are at the sales meetings. They all know if they achieved or not. If they did not attain the required threshold they had no expectation of being recognized in front of their peers. Their expectations were set long before the recognition was provided.

The advantage of sales in this sort of situation is that it is a very quantitative objective. You get the numbers or you don’t. If you get them, wear a nice suit when you walk on stage in front of your peers. If you don’t, try to sit toward the back in audience and remember it is bad form to make snide comments about those on stage.

However, that may not be the case in other locations or business disciplines. How do you recognize the best accountant? I mean really, how do you recognize them? Do they add their numbers that much better? This is where the recognition ideal starts to run into trouble. Just like the Russian judge in the ice skating competition that seems to have preordained the winners regardless of their performance, when you introduce a human factor or “judgment” into the recognition algorithm you open it up for perceived issues and abuse.

When a recognition program moves away from a quantitative approach to valuation, it begins to move away from rewarding for what is actually getting done and starts to enter the realm of rewarding for how things are getting done. How things are said becomes more important than the content that is contained in the communication.

There is in essence now a question of who gets to go up on stage in front of their peers. Some accountants may feel slighted because they actually added more numbers correctly than the accountant that was selected to be recognized. Others may feel slighted because they were associated with subtraction functions and everybody knows that only the addition guys get all the recognition.

It is in an instance such as this that a recognition program can in fact become a disincentive to those that are not recognized. If there is something other than a pure performance based criteria there will always be the suspicion that the Russian judge had preselected the winner.

Another issue associated with recognition can be culture. In some cultures individuals like to be recognized for the contribution, but they may not want to be recognized publically in front of their peers for their contributions. Some cultures prefer a more individual based one-on-one recognition. A direct word from the leader or a personalized congratulatory note on a job well done can be preferred to taking a bow in front of one’s peers.

This again is a good way to avoid the perceived snub or demoralizing effect associated with those not receiving the recognition. A simple acknowledgement or a small token of appreciation from the business leadership without all the pomp and circumstance (that’s a high school graduation reference in case you missed it) can readily serve as way to recognize those that have excelled.

It’s no secret that recognition is an important aspect of business and team morale and satisfaction. If there are going to be public recognition programs they need to be as quantitative in nature as possible. If all participants are aware of the recognition criteria thresholds, then there usually cannot be any issues generated by those that are not recognized.

Regardless of how unbiased or expert management may feel it is, when any sort of “judgment” is injected into the recognition process there will be a segment of the business or team that will feel someone else may have been unfairly selected. This can result in a set of responses and behaviors that are contrary to the desired culture of inciting achievement.

In looking at recognition based rewards for those disciplines where it is possible to implement quantitative thresholds, a public recognition programs as part of the rewards function could be preferable. Everybody knows how they have done with respect to their objectives and there should be no hard feelings for those that know they did not perform as well as others.

For those disciplines where it may be difficult to solely gage performance quantitatively, it may be preferable to look at more individual based methods of recognition. Those that are selected for recognition can receive it directly and those that are not will not feel excluded or lessened for not receiving similar recognition.

Very much like the high school students at the graduation ceremony who won’t be feeling bad because there will not be the public differentiation between them and the National Honor Society graduates who were not allowed to wear their honor society sashes with their cap and gowns at the graduation ceremony.

Walls

Believe it or not walls can be an interesting topic. I think I have probably written about them before. They are often taken for granted, but where would your roof be without them? On the floor, that’s where. Walls are always being metaphorically built up or broken down. Sometimes it’s not even metaphorical. Mr. Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down” his wall. One of our current presidential candidates promises to build a new wall as his solution to illegal immigration. Pink Floyd told us that “all in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” Even this country’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner mentions walls.

In case you are wondering, “ramparts” is a fancy word for the walls of a fortress, which in this case was Fort McHenry, the bombardment of which by the British was Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for his poem which eventually became the lyrics for the national anthem.

Needless to say walls are an important aspect of our everyday lives. It is possible that nowhere else are they more important than in the office environment. Many of us have become dependent on the walls in the business world for any number of multiple reasons, some of which many of us are not even consciously aware of. With all of this focus and dependency on walls for the maintenance of the very fabric of the business world, I for one would like to know why it is now all the vogue for businesses to try and do away with them in our office environments.

In the past you could walk into almost any office environment and get an idea of the relative rank and importance of just about anyone in it. You would just look at the height of the walls surrounding each individual’s work area. Low walls meant low status, higher walls meant higher status and walls all the way to the ceiling meant an office instead of a cube. Everybody wanted an office. With a real door.

But not anymore.

In these days of cost cutting and the desire for hyper efficient utilization of every precious corporate resource, some smart guy (or girl) must have stood at the edge of one of the corporate cube farms and had an epiphany:

What do we need all these walls for? They really don’t serve any purpose other than to delineate the supposed working areas for the cube farm denizens. Since they only provide the illusion of privacy due to the fact that they don’t reach all the way to the ceiling and everyone can hear everything each other is saying anyway, why don’t we just remove the illusion of privacy all together and get rid of the walls.

Think about how much additional space will be freed up that was just being taken up by these essentially non-functional walls. Where there were once walls, there will now be more people. And since there will no longer be any walls to delineate a work area, we can give everyone even less space to work in and they probably won’t even notice. Our efficiency and space utilization numbers will go through the roof. We can call it the “open office” concept, and claim that it is the latest and best thing. We will save money by cramming more people into the same space.

Senior management will be pleased.

Gone will be the days of speakerphone utilization as no one will want everyone within a twenty foot radius to be included in on their call.

Gone will be the ability to utilize the computer or surf the web for any purpose other than company business as everyone will be able to see what is on the screen.

Gone will be the messy and expensive to maintain desk phones since no one will be able to guarantee that they will be sitting in the same spot each day that they are in the office so each phone can no longer have a consistent phone number. People will need to become versed in the usage of soft-phones and especially headsets if they want at least half of their phone conversations to remain relatively private.

The incremental indirect benefits just go on and on. The brave new world is here, and it is even more efficient in the utilization of office space.

Wow. Well, maybe not.

While the open office concept will allow companies to pack their employees ever more tightly into a given space (think traveling in economy coach instead of regular coach or coach plus on your favorite airline – except without the complimentary peanuts or soft drinks) at least some of your business communications (especially with customers) will require some privacy. Hence there will be an increased demand and a respondent increased supply of conference rooms.

These new open office conference rooms will now also be new and improved as well as designed for people to take and make private calls in. They will not be designed to meet in for any length of time as they too will be smaller. They will no longer be designated as conference rooms but will now become “huddle rooms” or “call rooms”. They will be great. Just don’t try to have a meeting of more than two people in them as it might be a little close.

Also don’t mind the queue outside of them as people wait for their turn to make a call.

There have been rumors that companies may in fact try to double the number of conference rooms associated with the open environment concept. This means that instead of the obligatory two standard sized conference rooms per floor, capable of allowing as many as ten or twelve people to hold a meeting, there could now be as many as four huddle rooms possibly capable of allowing as many as two people to meet.

This will now create a competition to see who can get into the office the earliest. Those that get there first will obviously claim ownership of a huddle room for that day. It will become their de-facto office for the day. However, those that pursue this course of action would be advised to bring their lunches and not make any trips to the bathroom as any perceived vacancy would probably result in the removal of their belongings from the room and someone else staking a claim to it.

Ownership of a huddle room will be viewed as the proverbial nine tenths of the law, especially when it comes to any amount of privacy in an open office environment.

I’m not really sure what the question is that the open office environment is the answer to. I suspect that it is what I have already postulated, namely if a company can remove all of the office and cube walls that are just taking up space in their expensive office environments, they can get more people in the same space and achieve a higher efficiency, at least on paper. I have not had the opportunity to work in one yet so I couldn’t truly say that it will be better or worse.

I have however had the opportunity to visit other offices and customer environments where it has been implemented. It is definitely different. I can see its allure for business. To be honest I can also see that by putting people in such close proximity to each other that it could almost force people to work together and collaborate.

I have long been a proponent of having people work together in the workplace as opposed to the virtual office idea. I don’t know what the reaction will be when people are pushed so closely together in the coming open office concept environments. I guess that as this change proliferates in business we will probably all eventually get the opportunity to see.

Micromanagement

Before I dive head first into the metaphorically shallow waters associated with this topic, I guess it would be best to find an acceptable definition of exactly what micromanagement is. We are all pretty comfortable with what a microprocessor is. I am particularly well versed in what a microbrewery is and the delicious products that they produce. I am even familiar with the show “Tiny House Nation” on the FYI channel. (I couldn’t think of another micro-something, so I had to settle for a tiny-something. It’s the same thing really.) But I think everyone has a different view or definition of micromanagement.

Webster’s dictionary defines micromanagement as:
verb (used with object), micromanaged, micromanaging.
1. to manage or control with excessive attention to minor details.

That’s a pretty good start, but I don’t feel that it entirely captures the full annoyance factor that can be associated with this management practice. I have found that attention to detail is sometimes a necessity and not a particularly negative connotation item the way micromanagement is. I think we can all reminisce back to past assignments, lives and times in our respective business careers when we each may have been members of teams that were led by individuals that might possibly have been defined as micromanagers.

A cold chill just ran down my spine. I think I will go and get one of those previously mentioned microbrews to try and soften that specific micromanager memory.

The definition of a micromanager that I will start with is someone who not only tells you what to do (which is the role of just about any standard run of the mill manager) but also tells you how to do it.

Remember, a leader is someone who tells you what has to get done and then supports you when you work out the part that you need to do, and how you plan to go about doing it. Leaders inspire and groom future leaders by challenging them to perform the radical business process commonly known as thinking.

Micromanagers seem to believe that they should do all the thinking. If something needs to get done, they will tell you what you need to do, how you need to do it and when you need to do it. Your responsibility will simply be to follow the instructions. That is unless you have been told to do the wrong thing. Then it will most likely be your fault for not recognizing it was the wrong thing that you were told to do, and instead doing the right thing.

I have heard of many micromanagers being described as “control freaks”. Again I think this description has a little bit too much of a negative connotation that I don’t wish to be fully associated with. I think I would prefer to refer to them as “control enthusiasts”. Some of them can be so enthusiastic about it that at times they can become difficult to tolerate.

So now that we have hopefully adequately defined what a micromanager is, the question that is engendered is: Why do people become micromanagers?

The simple answer to this one is: I have no idea.

If I were going to guess, I would guess that during their formative years in business they were once given an assignment and for whatever reason they created and implemented an ultra-detailed plan, and it worked. This possibly reinforced what here to fore might have been a latent behavior and voila, and a future micromanager was born. Perhaps during the same formative period the future micromanager reported to a current micromanager and the micromanagement DNA was passed down to the future management generation through some sort of micromanagement osmosis.

It might be as simple as a personality defect.

Whatever the cause micromanagement is in and of itself a self limiting management style. As a manager matriculates up the management structure they take on more responsibilities. This means that there are more and more items for the micromanager to try and keep track of and manage. There are only so many hours in a day. Sooner or later the micromanager is going to run out of time to micromanage all that they have on their plate.

One of two things will then happen. The pace of the business will either slow down to accommodate the micromanager’s business technique, or the micromanager will learn to let go of some of the control that they are so enthusiastic about in order to keep pace with the demands of the business. If the business is slowed by the management process, it will fall behind the market, which will not slow down in order to accommodate the micromanager’s technique and it will soon find itself in a recovery mode.

Either way the level of micromanagement will have reached its limit.

During a discussion some time ago I was asked if there was ever a time where micromanagement was called for.

I had to sit quietly and think about that one for a moment. With the entire myriad of business structures and environments there probably was at least one that called for this approach. After careful consideration I had my settled on my response.

I said “no”.

I have mentioned many times that people and teams want a leader not a manager, and certainly not a micromanager. A leader does not tell all members of the team what they are to do. Team members have their respective responsibilities. It is up to the leader to define and communicate the goal and then enable the team to achieve it.

If a team truly requires micromanagement attention in order for them to achieve their goals again one of two things has happened. They have either been so conditioned that their individual input is not appreciated or utilized and have adapted their behavior to that desired by the micromanager, or they truly cannot or do not know what to do.

In the first instance, a management or management style change may be able to return that micromanagement conditioned employee to a business condition where they can contribute more fully to the success of the business. Instead of being an “order follower” they can become a solution creator in their own right.

In the second instance the team either needs to be better trained or replaced. If the team is incapable of performing except under constant management supervision they may be trying to do work that they are not qualified or capable of completing. If the team members are in fact capable and qualified to do the work, yet still require micromanagement in order for them to achieve their goals then they may be candidates for roles in other organizations where micromanagement is the preferred form of management.

Offhand, I can’t think of many of those types of organizations.

Micromanagement is a centralized decision making management structure. One person, the micromanager tries to make the decisions for everyone else in the organization. As organizations become more culturally diverse and geographically dispersed this structure rapidly becomes a limiting factor instead of a performance enabler. The speed and flexibility of response that an organization needs to be successful in today’s business environment is lost when micromanagement is in play.

People will respond to the guidance provided by leaders by making good business decisions and will be fully vested and committed to the outcome. The only response people will have to micromanagement direction will be to make no decision, only to comply rather than commit to the desired outcome, and just follow orders.

As leaders we need to focus on what needs to get done, and rely on the talents of our team members to help us come up with the best ways to get it done. By definition they are closer to the issues than we are. It only goes that they should have some good ideas on what needs to be done and how they can best do it. It is up to the leader to best utilize all the ideas that are available, not just their own.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Unlike the shows on television, business does not come with its own laugh track. You have to make your own. That doesn’t mean that business isn’t funny. It is. I mean both funny (ha ha) as well as funny (strange). There usually isn’t an audience around to tell you when you are supposed to laugh. You need to be able to figure that out on your own.

Perhaps I am a product of my time and generation in that I grew up watching many of the best observational comedians around. Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld and the late great Robin Williams all looked at various aspects and idiosyncrasies in the world and brought out the humor and sometimes the absurdity involved therein.

I wish I had their eye for the detail and comedy that they found and related associated with everyday life. I don’t. Fortunately, I have found throughout my business career that I usually didn’t need their incisive eye for finding humor in the subtleties of business. The humor associated with business is usually never that subtle.

We all have the tendency to immerse ourselves in our problems and issues of the day. This is both a good thing in that it enables us to focus and concentrate on solving the problem, but it is a bad thing in that it has a tendency to enable us to take ourselves and our “issues” almost too seriously. When we do that we not only miss out on the humor associated with the work, we also tend to miss out on the enjoyment of the job as well.

I think the key here is that we all need to reserve a little piece of ourselves to be our own audience. We need to be able to be able to metaphorically stand off to the side and watch our own interactions. As we have seen on the afore mentioned television shows, it is the audience that will provide us with the laugh track and tell us when we are supposed to laugh at something funny, including ourselves.

Let me provide an example of how humor can raise its head at the most unsuspected of times.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away it now seems) I worked in a business unit where there was a significant amount of employee dissatisfaction. The business unit manager was a little bit of an autocrat (…okay, a lot of an autocrat, being of an even older business school than me at the time), but it had seemed to be a style that he had had success with. After all, he had risen to the top post of the business unit. Even so he understood that he needed to address the employee satisfaction issue, so he took an employee survey. He wanted to know why the employees were dissatisfied.

There is an old proverb: “If you truly want honesty, don’t ask questions you don’t really want the answer to.”

There would then to be held an all hands meeting where the results of the survey were going to be reviewed and the dissatisfaction issue solved. At the meeting it was revealed that the number one issue associated with the employee dissatisfaction was “Management did not listen to employee input on issues.” It seems that everyone wanted to be involved in contributing to the solutions associated with the business directions and issues.

There was a general murmur of agreement from the crowd accompanied by many nodding heads. The crux of the issue had been identified. The group was now awaiting the response and resolution. We were about to get somewhere.

The unit manager then said: “I don’t think that management does not listen to the input of the team. I think we should move on to the next topic while we review this one off-line”

I think this is where I had my first audience laugh track moment.

I looked around to see what everyone else’s reaction would be to what we had just heard. To tell you the truth it seemed as though there was a mixed set of reactions. Some were nodding, some were scowling and some were just blinking as if they were still trying to process what they had just heard.

There have been other similar moments that I recall:

There was the time the manager asked me why I had made a decision and taken action before consulting with them. I explained than the manager had specifically stated that he wanted his staff to show initiative and take actions and that had been the impetus for my behavior. He then explained that he wanted his staff to show initiative and take action AFTER they had consulted with him as to what initiative to show and action to take. These things had to be managed.

I also can remember a co-worker lamenting that she did not feel that management took her or her opinions seriously enough. This is a feeling that many new hires or less experienced employees are apt to feel. Of course she made this comment from her cube where every available flat surface was covered with crystals, cast pewter unicorns and her collection of beanie-babies.

Business punch lines are not delivered with the intent of eliciting laughter. They are usually uttered in response to some unexpected yet related stimulus. Asking for input when input is not actually desired. Taking initiative when initiative may not be really wanted.

Business and the work we do are important. I understand that it is how we all make our living and support ourselves and our families. We need to take what we do seriously. It is just that we need to be somewhat more self aware in that we should not take ourselves too seriously while we are doing it. We should not stop having fun just because we are in the office.

I don’t think that we should point out these foibles as they occur for the purpose of embarrassing others or ourselves when they are committed. I think it is better to look at ourselves and enjoy what we do. In general I expect to have a good time at work. And in general, and I think at least partially because of my expectation I do have a good time at work.

Enjoyment means smiling, laughing and sharing with those around you, both at home and in the office. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be focused when necessary. It does mean that there are times and places where the unintentional and unexpected humor of the situation should be recognized and enjoyed.

Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher said:

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

It is interesting in that it seems he had no discernable occupation other than to write proverbs, aphorisms and sayings. What’s not to love about that job? To me it sounds like a pretty good gig if you can get it. Of course he must have been pretty good at it as we are still quoting him all these centuries later.

It does make me wonder though, with all the good proverbs he wrote that have come down to us through the ages, how many bad ones did he write that we have never heard about? No one bats a thousand, and even the best baseball players only get a hit about a third of the time.

I am pretty sure to one extent or another we all enjoy our work. If we didn’t we would probably put in more time at trying to find something else to do. I wouldn’t say that I “love” my job as there certainly have been days where I have not only felt that I worked, but also felt that I have been worked over.

I do however realize that I have fun doing what I do. I believe the teams I work with have a tendency to recognize this and have fun as well. I think everyone understands that having fun does not mean not performing. It is always more fun to achieve goals than it is to miss them. As long we all understand that and continue to take the actions required to achieve our goals I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have some fun doing what we do.

Sometimes that means that we need to laugh with the others, at ourselves.

Low Maintenance Employees


I once heard a very senior executive asked what type of employee he appreciated most. I thought his response was most telling. He said: “A low maintenance one.” I didn’t quite understand at the time what he meant, but as I have gone though the various management ranks, I think I might have picked up on it some. I think what the executive meant was that it is not the management of the issues, problems and crises that are the greatest challenge to managers; it is the management of the people that takes the most time and effort.



Business is conducted between people. Whether it is providing services to the customer or responding to an executive request, it is individual people that do it. And when individual people interact there can and will be issues. It is my position that in general all employees want to do a good job. They want to succeed in their assignments. They want to advance in their careers. The want to be recognized for their contributions to the progress of the business. The issues start to arise when different employees start to utilize differing approaches to working on and attaining these objectives.




Any time you start discussing people, the behavior of people and the management of people you can be treading on very thin ice. I am sure there are claxons, sirens and all manner of warning lights flashing in all sorts of Human Resource departments across the web based on the fact someone outside of HR would have the nerve to address this type of topic. Fortunately I am speaking only for myself and from my own experiences so there really isn’t anyone for them to call. If there are truly any issues, I will look forward to the comments.




I have come to interpret the executive’s low maintenance employee response to mean that he prized an employee that did not require, or seek an inordinate amount of his time to manage. It is a key point to understand the two aspects of this issue.




There are employees that due to any number of issues require extra management intervention in order for them to be able to do their jobs. They may be new and untrained and hence need the incremental leadership. They may be “personality challenged” when it comes to working with others and may require incremental intervention and direction. The point is that there are inevitably employees that require more time and attention from leaders than others in order for them to achieve their goals.




On the other side of the management attention coin, there are those employees that actively seek incremental management attention during the normal course of conducting their job functions. They are the employees that always ask questions during any open forum information session. They will continually come in and seek intermediate approval for each incremental step in the solution process to each of their assignments. In short, they like to spend a lot of time in their manager’s office. It may be due to a true sense of insecurity regarding what they have been asked to do, or it may be from a desire to be perceived as more visible in the execution of their duties. Either way it takes up management time.



There may be some business managers that like and or seek this kind of business activity. Managing the people or managing the process can sometimes be confused with managing the business just as in many instances it can be made to appear that activity can be confused with actually making progress. Most business leaders do not like or seek this type of management situation.




Business leaders are looking for employees whom they can trust to perform their assignments to the same high level that they themselves would perform it. They are looking for employees that are self motivated and understand that there is a distinct value in their being able to perform their roles without incremental management attention, either required or desired on their part, and without other interpersonal difficulties.




That doesn’t mean that good employees must be prepared to work in isolation of their management. I was once in an assignment where I literally had not had any significant time or interface with my reporting executive in several weeks. We had been extremely busy and successful in the market and had several different projects in various stages of development and completion. Still I had not had any time with him. I scheduled a half hour with him through his administrative assistant for the following week.




The meeting came around and I went into his office. He thanked me for setting up an appointment, as he said most people seemed to just barge in on him when they wanted to talk with him, and he then asked me what my issue was.




I told him that I really didn’t have any issue that I needed to escalate to him, but that it had been several weeks since we had had any communications and that I was just closing the loop. I asked him if there was anything else I needed to be doing on his behalf or for the business. He just looked at me for a few moments.



He then said that he had not realized that it had indeed been so long since we had communicated, but he had in fact been focusing on the people and issues that required his attention and since I nor the business I was responsible for needed his attention he had not been in contact with me. He went on to say that this was a good thing in that it freed up valuable time for him to focus on other issues that did require his attention.




I then understood. I thanked him for his time and told him I would not take up any more of it. I learned that I didn’t need to have, nor should I seek a lot of feedback or attention and that even if employees don’t need a great deal of supervision or attention it is still a good idea to periodically touch base with them and provide feedback. I think I only used about fifteen minutes of the half hour allotment.




Leaders recognize those employees that go quietly about doing their jobs, and who do the job to the same high standards that the leaders would do them. They appreciate those who do the work and don’t allow any people management issues to reach a point where they require management intervention or time.  Leaders know what their team members are doing. They don’t need to be reminded by each team member what that specific team member is doing. They also don’t want to have to solve specific issues for specific team members either.




In business a leader wants an employee that they can trust to execute their responsibilities so that they are where they should be in their job and on their assignments at each appropriate time. They don’t need to be doing things to garner individual incremental attention. They should not be doing things that require individual incremental intervention. If they can perform their roles and duties in a manner that requires only a modicum of management supervision or attention and achieve the assigned goals, they will be sought after, recognized and reward by business leaders.

Human Resources


Human Resources – the name of the organization that can strike fear in the heart of the business leader, individual contributor and job seeker alike. People only go talk to HR when they have a problem. People only get called by HR when they are in trouble. It is HR who identifies the talented individuals that would be beneficial employees through their talent acquisition responsibilities and it is HR who administers the lay-offs and exits those employees who are deemed to no longer be sufficiently beneficial to the company. It is quite possible that HR is the single most misunderstood organization in the company.  Now why would you suppose that would be? Their name should say it all – Human Resources. They are supposed to be a resource for us humans right? Not so fast.



On August 10, 1949 the Department of Defense came into being for the United States Government. Okay, so what, you might ask. Prior to that date the military enterprise for the United States was referred to as the Department of War. It was decided shortly after World War II that the government would try to avoid the word “war” pecause of its perceived negative connotation by the population, hence the change of the name to defense.



Personally I think this is some pretty spiffy marketing on behalf of the government. This group did not make “defense” on other countries or peoples. They made “war” on them. They continued to perform the same functions after the name change that they performed before it. Despite having defense in the name, there did not appear to be a lot of defending going on.



Which brings me back to Human Resources. Like the Department of Defense, and contrary to their name, Human Resources is not entirely about the humans that make up the organization. That would be only half the equation or less when it comes to describing their role. If you look at the roles that HR plays in the organization you would think that their name would more appropriately be Corporate Resources, or CR. Despite what people may think, or what their name might indicate, HR is there to look after the best interests of the corporation.



That doesn’t mean that HR cannot or will not help people. They will, as long as it does not conflict with the interests of the corporation. If it is in the best interest of the company HR will absolutely be the individual employee’s advocate. For example, if someone has been discriminated against, HR will help them. Why is that? Some would argue that it is their moral responsibility. That may be partially true, but that is not the total reason. The full reason is that if the corporation does not adequately respond to complaints and charges by its employees regarding improper conduct either by the company or other individual employees in the company, the corporation will actually be in deeper trouble from a legal standpoint than if they did respond and took action.



Rules have been put in place regarding how a corporation may conduct itself. This can include rules regarding both corporate and employee conduct, legal and safety responsibilities, fairness in hiring and firing practices, and a host of other topics regarding how employees may interact with each other while working at the company, as well as how they and the company as an entity may interact. It is HR’s primary responsibility to properly enforce these rules. If it is shown that HR did not fully or properly enforce these rules, the corporation can be at greater risk than if they were enforced. This puts HR in something of a precarious position. They must be an advocate for the employee with the issue, but they must continue to look out for the best interest of the company. If there ever is a question of which interest set is the most important, I would suggest you examine who is compensating HR to make sure of to whom their allegiance is.



As another example I’ll look at that most unpleasant of business activities, the lay-off. If the business leadership has done their job appropriately well, most lay-offs will be avoided. When the leadership has failed and a lay-off is called for in order to reduce the size of the company, who gets involved? Human resources. They will administer the lay-off on behalf of the corporation to make sure that it is handled as humanely and correctly as possible. They will make sure that no specific employee demographic associated with age or gender or race, or anything else has been discriminated against during this lay-off. Are they doing this for the benefit of the employees? To some extent yes. Are they doing it for the benefit of the corporation so that the company does not find itself the defendant in an improper dismissal law suit? Absolutely.



Even with all that in mind, that does not mean that HR will not help the individual. I have found HR to in general be populated with good people who do genuinely want to do a good job for both the people they work with as well as the company they work for. As I noted above they are charged with finding the most talented individuals to become employees of the company through their talent acquisition responsibilities. If you have an issue or a question they will want to listen and help you not only because they have to, but because they want to as well. In many instances HR finds itself trying to be the conscience of the corporate management in trying to translate quantitative corporate performance metrics and actions into qualitative human terms that can be accepted and implemented by the employees.



Understand that it takes a special sort of person to be responsible for listening to and responding to each individual’s issues and complaints in an organization. In today’s litigious world, it is almost to the point where if an individual feels they have been discriminated against, then they have. It is a time where it may be improper to repeat a joke that you have heard on the public airwaves of the radio in the office, as someone could potentially find it offensive in some way and complain about the environment that it has created. Remember, accepted societal norms for social behavior may not be acceptable to each individual in the office, and it is HR’s responsibility to sort them out.



Human resources takes both its corporate responsibilities as well as its employee advocacy seriously. Despite the fact that HR is paid by the corporation, and is responsible for looking after the corporation’s best interests, they will still do all they can for the individual employees. Just remember that they are doing it both because they want to for the employee and because they have to, for the company.



As Juliet told Romeo, “What’s in a name?” When it comes to the Department of War and the Department of Defense there is probably not a whole lot of difference with the possible exception of some good public relations work. It is a good idea to remember the same public relations spin may be at work when looking at the Human Resource department in your organization, and understanding their Corporate responsibilities. They are the acknowledged company advocate of the individual employee and they usually do take that responsibility very seriously, but they are there primarily to protect the company from both itself and the improper behaviors of its employees as well.