Archive | November, 2014

How Can We Avoid “Cart before the Horse” HR?

30 Nov

When I am asked about something I have done in HR this year that I am particularly proud of, I think first of all of my writing. It was very difficult to maintain at times with many unusual pressures, but on most subjects, I was very happy how the topics I had tackled over the past six years in my blogs and in online HR discussion, had evolved, in successive posts, into what I generally think of as reality HR. This year I was also very happy to put a number of the evolved holistic approaches into practice working with client organizations.

This year I worked with a number of smaller organizations, which was very interesting as it allowed a broader business perspective and crossover in addressing issues. I had to find ways to help them implement some key HR principles, but with very limited resources and, in most cases, with no fully dedicated HR function.   Although my blog posts are dominantly based on large organization experience, the principles are similar in any size organization. I focus on “Reality HR” but it could also be called “Prerequisites First HR” or avoiding “Putting the Cart before the Horse” HR. Two topics that most employers are very interested in and may not always approach in logical sequence are:

  • PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT (efficient work practices come first)
  • EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT (management competence/commitment comes first)

Performance Management

It seems logical that it is more important to plan and review the way work may best be performed by employees than to place all the focus on reviewing, after the fact, the performance of employees who are just following whatever is in place. Focus of the manager is often on output rather than on input and may reflect work practices that the manager is not even aware of.

Effective work distribution and effective interactivity of functions is clearly more important than simply implementing a formal performance management program assuming (often incorrectly) that managers are competent and work is correctly assigned and appropriate training has been given to employees. HR people may be tempted to focus only on performance management as it is an “HR responsibility” and somewhat ignore the way work is performed as that is a departmental responsibility. Diligently tracking performance, the HR way, in an inefficient operation is paying attention after the fact rather than ensuring that effective processes are in place. In an efficient operation where time has been invested up front, performance tracking can be a very efficient ongoing conversation between the supervisor and employee. The “meeting of the minds” must revolve around the work itself and relevant expectations (mutual) and performance management will then be quite a routing tracking process.

Employee Engagement

Most employers like the concept of employee engagement and many see it as a reasonable expectation. Senior management may express dismay that employees seem so ungrateful and unresponsive, as though having a job should be enough. HR people may devise initiatives and programs to promote engagement, but, in my experience, the prerequisites to any hope of engagement are fairly clear. The prerequisites should apply across the organization, but in the right circumstances (with the right managers) outposts of engagement may still occur. Some examples of prerequisites to employee engagement are:

  • Corporate values that are taken seriously and are consistent with employee engagement
  • Competent management who are appropriately trained, committed to employee engagement and know how to achieve it
  • Supportive executive management including actions between them and employees and preferably between them and their direct reports

Another subject I have frequently addressed is HIRING FOR ATTITUDE RATHER THAN JOB REQUIREMENTS.   In that case the premise may be questionable, but the prerequisites are even more difficult to meet including recruiters capable of accurately assessing attitude, organizations with a culture that “good attitude” people would enjoy working for, confidence that the attitude detected at an interview would transfer intact into a less than perfect work environment. What do you think?

These are just some thoughts. Do you believe that there are many business prerequisites that we need to address before tackling traditional HR subjects? How thoroughly do we usually address such requirements or do we feel obliged to proceed nevertheless with the specific aspects that HR is traditionally empowered with?  Performance management programs and engagement initiatives have had a low record of success for many years. Could we (those who are not already) be more successful by taking a holistic HR/business approach?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.




How Important is MANAGER Engagement to Business Success?

26 Nov

Employee engagement is that elusive state of mind that inspires employees to really care about their work and be motivated to contribute at the highest level. Employees can be inspired because they are truly interested in the work and have genuine professional commitment. The more consistent path to employee engagement, however, is inspired by great managers and leaders who care and show, by their example, the way to genuine engagement. They inspire others to care and want to be part of their work environment and share the excitement and success.

We talk a lot about employee engagement. We talk a lot about what managers need to do to promote the engagement of others, but the personal engagement of managers is not frequently discussed. Managers are employees too and can equally be engaged or disengaged. How important, how necessary, is genuine MANAGER engagement to achieving the engagement of regular employees?

There are many types of managers and first line supervisors and their style and commitment can be expressed in many ways. Assuming the managers have excellent functional work management skills, some examples of leadership skills are:

Professional managers

  • Well trained in leadership skills and understanding the “tricks of the trade” and the needs of employees, they are in the best position, by doing the right things, to inspire employee engagement.  
  • Can a professional manager who is not personally engaged (possibly not detectable by others) still inspire the engagement of others?   They should be able to, I believe, but would the level of achieved engagement be affected?
  • If a manager has excellent skills, but is not the type of person people generally warm to (seems distant, superficial, not so friendly) can he/she still hope to achieve a high level of employee engagement?

Enthusiastic managers

  • A truly committed and engaged manager, who cares about employees and would like to see employees sharing the same level of enthusiasm and commitment. A manager who will do his/her best for the employees, including encouragement, communication and recognition.
  • The enthusiastic manager may have high potential to achieve employee engagement, but if he/she has not received significant management/leadership training, to what extent would that affect the effectiveness of employee engagement? Is there a risk that engagement achieved may be more personal (team solidarity) than focused on progressive work practices and continuous improvement?

Follow the boss manager

  • A manager who is not seen as an empowered manager or someone ready   to take a stand for employees or encouraging original thinking. He/she may frequently refer to what the “big boss” wants and if rules change would usually attribute the changes to what the boss (or HR) says has to be done.
  • If the “follower” manager has good skills and a reasonable level of personal engagement, is it likely that he/she can inspire the engagement of staff reporting to him/her?   Because engagement of the manager is primarily to the boss, would the follower manager, similarly have to sell engagement of employees to the big boss rather than to himself/herself?
  • Although employee engagement will be influenced by the practices of an organization and other external aspects, to what extent can an individual manager sell engagement based on the organization and its senior management rather than based on his/her own management style or likeability? What do you think?

Employee engagement is not essential but desirable for the effective operation of an organization. Based on surveys worldwide, the level of employee engagement seems generally quite low. How achievable is it? Are there certain requirements an organization should meet before making additional investment in employee engagement? Should the first requirement be that managers are properly trained in leadership skills and basic employee relations? How important is it for managers to be engaged before requiring the engagement of others? What do you consider most important?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.







Is Fair Treatment of Employees Essential for Engagement?

16 Nov

It is critical to engagement that an employee feels that he/she belongs to an organization that treats people fairly.  Employees need to know that if there is a problem it will be looked into promptly and a decision reached without delay to correct the problem and allow people to get back to their normal work life.   The issues may be serious, but the way the organization (usually the supervisor or HR) responds may be more damaging to the relationship, particularly if the response is perceived as offhand and promises are made (to check into something) and are not followed through.

Unfortunately, many organizations are notoriously bad at dealing with issues, sometimes lacking the expertise and sometimes deliberately ignoring or minimizing a problem, hoping it will go away.  It can also be corporate arrogance and dislike of complainers, even when they may have a valid complaint. Such corporate indifference to employee complaints (and general unfairness) is a common reason why employees may seek union representation and negotiate, for example, a grievance procedure that ensures more consistent handling of issues.

Many employee  issues relate to perceived favoritism, particularly wide variances in pay for people performing similar work, and perceived favoritism in who gets the overtime, who is selected for training and who the boss seems to like spending time with while being too busy for the rest.  There are also serious issues with discipline, employees who are allowed to get away with things and others who seem to be picked on for whatever reason. The organization may have sincere programs and initiatives to promote engagement, but without fair processes for handling employee issues, success is likely to be limited.

The supervisor may be frustrated that he/she is unable to achieve employee engagement, but if employees perceive the supervisor to be treating employee issues unfairly that is not surprising. The supervisor may become increasingly negative about the disengaged, poor attitude employees, while the employees feel increasingly helpless and victims of an unfair environment.  They do not feel they are listened to, even when they express their concerns in a respectful, professional way and in many cases, such unresolved issues, if sufficiently serious and widespread, may lead more towards unionization rather than engagement.


  • A policy (or equivalent) setting out  the company’s commitment to fairness and outlining steps to be followed in handling complaints, with emphasis on deadlines
  • A similar policy for investigating employee infractions, including the opportunity for the employee affected to tell his/her side of the story i.e. no pre-judgement
  • A proactive approach by the supervisor in dealing with perceived issues before they become formal complaints
  • No abdication on matters the supervisor may have no control over (e.g. job classification/evaluation or pay related) and ensuring and taking responsibility for follow up with the appropriate person e.g. in HR
  • To the extent possible, the supervisor should interact directly with employees in handling their concerns while, as necessary, getting advice and support from HR.  The communication should be as positive as possible, in the circumstances, and focus on building relationships and trust rather than appearing distant and hostile
  • If within the same organization, some sections are unionized, be aware of collective agreement provisions (e.g. grievance procedure and discipline) and ensure that company practices for non-union employees are similar in principle – certainly not inferior

It is critical that basic processes and relationships are established and working well before seeking greater engagement.  If the contrast between engagement initiatives and reality is too wide, engagement talk may be perceived as hypocrisy and more likely to result in employee backlash.  Engagement can be steadily achieved, step-by-step, but if attempted before basic commitments to employees have been met, it is unlikely to succeed.  What do you think? How important do you consider the contribution of effective dispute resolution processes to employee engagement?

Thank you for your interest.  I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.


HR and the Danger of the New Broom!

10 Nov

We are all probably familiar with “new brooms”. A new CEO or functional executive hired to shake up the organization, or hired because we believe he/she will bring a new vitality and resolve to make things better, while not being inhibited by unwritten “taboos” and allegiance to the status quo – people or entrenched ways of doing things.

I have worked with many new brooms and often HR plays a critical role in supporting the new executive and at the same time revitalizing HR in line with the new organization direction. This can result in dramatic transformation of the organization and increased business success, but if not handled well, the result can be negative and actually reduce business capability and competitiveness.

I am not against new brooms. Sometimes it is necessary to shake things up a bit. The danger, from my experience, is the new executive who cares more about consolidating his/her own power base than what is best for the organization. The type of new broom executive who gets rid of talent he/she does not see as loyal to the cause or to him/her personally. The type of person who gives no credit to anything that came before his/her regime.  This can include dismantling excellent programs and very often destroying a culture that may have been key to past success, but not his/her success. Excellent and highly productive employees may be terminated because they do not (opinion of the “new broom”) fit with the new team.

I have probably seen the most damaging examples of organizational cleansing in a sales environment.  The new sales executive arrives with great excitement and expectations. With earnest expression he/she lets everyone know that things will change (for the better) and no longer will such-and-such be tolerated. Usually with a grim expression and at lavish kick-off meetings, the new sales leader makes his/her pitch. The new era begins and heads start to roll and very often past colleagues of the “new broom” are hired to replace them.

Subtly (or not so subtly), the failings of the previous sales organization (and its executive) are broadcast and the scene set for any poor interim results to be blamed on the previous management.  The new leader focuses on cleansing the organization of its past sins even though the company record may be very credible. The more he/she focuses on past problems rather than forward vision, the more reason for concern.

The new broom is usually insistent on total control in setting up the new organization, and demanding total freedom to work “miracles”. The people he appoints as leaders within his team are usually smart, competent professionals.  They follow the party line, give the impression of being strong and independent, but, most of all, demonstrate that they are totally committed to the new leader. They are sales people; they are excellent role players and know the role they have to play!

The current sales force may have its misfits – mainly people strongly identified with the previous sales organization. Whether they are misfits based on their previous allegiance or their work style is another question. However, they usually include a number of very individualistic star players with strong egos developed over the years and integral to their success. They are not humble and generally not very respectful, but, nevertheless, they are stars and the company has benefited and can continue to benefit from and build on their excellence while, as necessary, diplomatically reining in some of their eccentricity.

You would think that the new sales executive would want to win over these high performers – flatter them, give them some kind of special status and take credit for their continuing success. Often the intent seems opposite and the new sales executive is prepared to sacrifice them as part of demanding absolute control and respect.  With all their imperfections, these feisty stars have a record of excellent sales, customer connections and relationships built up over years and the potential to continue to achieve.  They do not fit – they usually say – but in sales isn’t the most important fit the ability to achieve and sustain a superb sales record?

If the new broom is really so smart, don’t you think he/she should have the skills to manage and motivate all sales people – not just those in his/her own image – be able to integrate strengths from the previous regime into the new regime? If he/she is adamant about rejecting anything that came before, wouldn’t that be putting self-interest ahead of company results? Sadly, that often seems to be the case, and the new broom is ultimately terminated after he/she has dangerously affected the organization and before his/her vision has achieved anything meaningful. It is then time for another new broom to come in to rebuild and continuity and sustainability is again affected significantly by another round of change.

What do you think is the best position HR can take in such volatile environments?  It depends, of course, on how much trust we have in the new broom (after we get to know him/her). Whether we trust the person or not, we have to work closely with him/her to support when possible and to try to steer away from particularly questionable moves when we believe organizational interests are threatened. In some cases, the new broom may not want to work with HR, see HR as negative and obstructive, but we have to persist and maintain our HR credibility and integrity in all our dealings. The HR role comes with great responsibility and we must maintain our commitment to the organization, even though conflict with an executive (e.g. new broom) may be very unpleasant and our employment may be at risk at various points.

In some cases, we must share the guilt if we were directly involved in recruiting the new broom. We do what we can to make it work, for the new executive and for HR, but in many cases, it becomes a sad blip in the history of the organization that we are more likely to survive if we remain true to our HR principles. We will then become part of the recovery with some risk that the cycle may be repeated. What do you think? Should we be able to minimize such risks?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.


How Can HR Best Support the CEO and Managers?

3 Nov

There are many business leaders (particularly CEOs) who are superb at visualizing the interplay of “hard” business factors and making critical decisions, but not so good at leading people beyond those in the immediate functional business team.   The CEO may not want to be. Isn’t that why HR is there? The CEO does not want to get too involved in day-to-day distractions and counts on HR to look after a number of things, mostly to do with the people.

HR may not agree. HR may want to be seen primarily as a business strategist, equally aloof to day-to-day distractions, more at ease at the “table” than on the shop floor, but that may be a mistake. The VP HR may be sensitive to the frequent criticism that Human Resources people do not understand the business well enough and overreact to distance himself/herself from the HR “touchy feely” stereotype. It is essential that HR fully understands the business, but it is what HR does with that knowledge that is most important and people management may indeed be a priority.


From my experience (the HR perspective), there are a number of basic people related things the CEO looks for from HR, for example:

  • When the HR person is escorting the CEO around the business premises, he/she knows the names of employees and can “tip off” the CEO in time for the CEO to dazzle people by appearing to know who everyone is
  • HR is a supreme problem solver and particularly efficient in handling issues with the CEO’s staff, or complaints etc. that have been submitted directly to the CEO, including petitions
  • HR is able to quickly recruit great people to fill critical vacancies to ensure continuity and avoid complaints to the CEO from people who think HR could do better.   This is probably the biggest challenge to HR as internal client expectations are often unrealistic. Or are they?
  • Meeting legal and compliance requirements with the least disruption or the need for the CEO to get directly involved, particularly if there are complaints e.g. human rights or occupational health and safety

If HR is able to meet the types of people issues described above, then the VP HR is more likely to be trusted and respected by the CEO to equally contribute on business matters. Does that make sense?


  • Line managers/supervisors want HR to be helpful and deal with their problems as quickly as possible, particularly problem employees when the supervisor may be anxious to discipline or terminate. Managers want HR to tell them how they can do it, not why they cannot do it!
  • Line managers/supervisors may NEED (not necessarily want) thorough training to meet their responsibilities as effectively as possible, and minimize the number of crises or avoidable conflicts, particularly on people related issues
  • Managers want HR to communicate helpfully in the language of their operation rather than complicated HR jargon that too often seems focused on telling them why they can’t do what they want to do. They are more likely to respond positively to HR advice if it is shared in an atmosphere of mutual respect rather than delivered in lecture style

HR helping by ensuring that appropriate management training is provided, can give the manager/supervisor greater confidence. The manager can use the acquired knowledge to anticipate and avoid problems and instead focus more on proactively promoting opportunities. By developing greater people expertise, the relationship between HR and the manager is likely to be mutually supportive rather than unbalanced when adequate training and support has not been received by the manager and philosophies can be very different.

Humility and recognizing reality (by all parties) is necessary to develop a winning formula. The CEO, for example, must recognize what he/she is good at and acknowledge necessary support he/she must count on from the executive team or others within the organization. In the same way the CEO may need PR support in developing skills to handle the media and publicly presenting the interests of the organization, the CEO may need HR support to set the scene in the way employee and workplace issues are handled on a day to day basis.

The smart CEO may learn how to respond and say the right things in presenting to and socializing with employees, but will count on HR to ensure that the workplace, from an employee relations perspective, is as effective as possible and the policies and programs in place are best designed to meet specific business needs. This winning formula may earn HR a place at the table, but not just as a talker, but a doer in the most practical and necessary way! What do you think? Do you believe that the people support we give to the CEO and to managers is essential to our HR success?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.



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