What we should really be watching - HR

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer January 21, 2016
HR in 2016 needs something of a reboot and repositioning across multiple dimensions says Brian Sommer

class HR
Back to class for HR?

Forget all the new product announcements, user conference highlights and rehashed press releases, there are a lot of other big stories going on in the human resources space that just aren’t getting quite the right amount of attention from industry watchers. Here are some of those stories from our own steampunk critic, Brian Sommer.

“How are you feeling today?” – There has been a lot of innovation lately in the engagement space. Some of this focus has been to collect mood data from employees. The theory is that happy workers are more engaged workers and more engaged workers are more profitable to the company. As result, some software developers have created all sorts of tools that check in with employees one or more times a day to find out how they’re feeling.

The single biggest issue with this invasive practice is that it deals with an after-the-fact data point. Instead of addressing the problem of why an employee feels so disengaged, bored or depressed, these products simply measure day-to-day changes in a person’s attitude. The real root cause of the disengagement may very well be the person’s supervisor/boss, their work location, their coworkers, or some other factor. But is all this invasive and irksome polling helping employers determine the real root cause of the engagement problem? It doesn’t look that way.

“How much data does a company really need about its workers?” – Soon, an employee somewhere is going to sue an employer for overreaching when it comes to the amount of data the employer is collecting about the employee. Beyond the mood data above, companies are trying to collect data about employees from: FitBits, their social networks, the strength of those internal and external networks, access to employee smart phones, etc. For companies that are collecting this information without solid business rationale for the same, a cautionary note is warranted. Just because you can technically collect such information doesn’t necessarily mean that the company should.

“My kingdom for a bot!” – Bots, process automation and machine assisted work technologies are all the rage today. Experts have formed no sense of agreement as to whether bots will eliminate all, some or none of our jobs. The story that isn’t getting enough traction is that the speed of change that’s impacting businesses and jobs is accelerating and permanent. We shouldn’t be arguing about bots but rather how long-lived any job, company or business model will be. Once we understand that, we can then determine what skills will be in demand in the new, evolved businesses of tomorrow. In essence, we are arguing the wrong problem. We need to be focused on the structural changes impacting business and industries today first before we can get clarity it around the job situation.

“Would you like some productivity tools to go with that position?” – Recently, a very disturbing report showed that for the fifth year in a row, there has been no growth in capital expenditures per worker. Businesses are not making investments in productivity tools and technologies to help employees. All kinds of excuses may be offered as to why this is so. Companies can argue that they haven’t fully bounced back from the recession of 2008 or that they are now seeing material softness in their markets or verticals in 2016.

But how can you expect employees to do more and more work without empowering them with better productivity tools to do so? One seldom discussed method is for companies to take the cheap route by making employees: buy their own laptops; work from home offices that they set up and acquire themselves; and, become self-sufficient 1099 contractor workers. Productivity tools, even things as simple as the dictation software, are not being provided to workers. At some point this stinginess begins to affect engagement, morale, retention and corporate productivity. Governments should strive to encourage firms to improve their workers’ productivity. To an economist, productivity is measured by a growing ratio of company revenue per worker. Productivity gains generally require tuning of processes and/or new capital expenditures. Businesses aren’t investing in people and slow-to-no growth GDP is a reflection of that.

The new divining rods for recruiting – Old school recruiting methods and technologies are starting to go the way of the horse and buggy. Yes, for some nostalgic HR leaders, these old-school approaches to acquiring talent may still have some usefulness. But, leaders and companies that must grow quickly and acquire the best and brightest talent are looking for true love elsewhere.

New sources for qualified recruiting prospects or leads are becoming critical feedstocks for priming the recruiting process. Data sources like Entelo will only continue to increase in value and market relevance. Tools like SmashFly will permanently change the way many recruiters look at their process. While the idea that recruiting should function like a marketing organization is not new, it may be time to see this transition take off in earnest at the majority of companies today.

“Let’s let the algorithm decide between these two candidates” – My faith in humanity reached a new low the other day when I read that many managers and supervisors are terrible judges of which candidate is the one most likely to become a high performer employee. Apparently, managers often over rely on irrelevant, unsubstantiated or non-correlated information found on employment forms and resumes to choose between two or more prospective hires. The old mutual fund adage that “past performance is no guarantee of future market success” may apply to resumes and managers as well.

One proposed solution to this problem is to let algorithms or bots make the final hiring decision for a company. That idea is scary on a couple of levels but the one concern that worries me the most is that we have so many managers and executives who are so bad at interviewing, reading or understanding jobseekers. One key shortcoming in these hiring managers may be a real lack of empathy. I’ve yet to see any proven method to help people develop this capability. Until then, HR needs tools to identify which managers are poor judges of current and future talent. Turning over the decision process entirely to bots or algorithms is definitely not a suitable substitute if only because of the substantial bias within the datasets feeding these algorithms today.

“What if I don’t agree with the performance review my bot just gave me?” - Today, many workers get their job assignments from automated bots. Bots also contact customers and others to collect performance review information about the worker. I’ve even seen some software automatically extract information about workers from social and collaboration technology to embed in a skeletal performance review document. We have moved to a world where bots tell people what work to do, when to do it and even keep track of how well a person did or did not achieve their objectives. Will the bot write a performance review?

Bots and HR are on a collision course. If bots can truly perform many process steps then shouldn’t some entity within the firm be responsible for auditing the performance and correctness of these bots and their algorithms? Who within HR understands this technology well enough to know if bots are acting correctly or flat-out misbehaving? With so many processes being augmented with big data, algorithms, analytics and bot technology, does HR have the appropriate skills in data analytics, statistics, social sciences, etc.?

“That’s not what you promised me when I hired on!” – People never forget what was told to them when they hired on with your firm. If they were told they could work one day a week from home or could be promoted like clockwork every 12 to 18 months, these data points formed an implicit contract in their mind and represent the evaluation framework with which they constantly evaluate their continued employment with your company. This is a human quality and indicative of the long-lived memories each of us possess when it comes to a very personal matter to us like our employment decision.

Unfortunately, the nature of business is not constant. Businesses must change and adapt to frequent competitive and economic factors. It is all of this change, and increasing change at that, that creates a level of dissonance between these implicit contracts that workers have with their employers and the needs of the business itself. The dissonance gets wider and greater the longer an individual is with the company. As a result, one of the most difficult challenges for HR will be its ability to retain its best and brightest employees for long periods of time.

But HR is not equipped to do this today. Performance management technologies and practices only collect information about how someone acted or delivered in the current reporting period. These documents do not go back in time to reconstruct the explicit and implicit promises made to an individual when they were being wooed to the company. Had performance management tools ever considered this aspect of a worker’s relationship with the company, then performance management tools would have measured the degree of connection or disconnect between the implicit contract and what is actually being experienced by an employee today. This is a key issue in understanding engagement and one that is getting absolutely no thought today. This is why people don’t stay with companies for long: people’s memories are considerably longer than those of the company.

“Is this the end of the purpose-built worker?”  - For the last couple of decades, recruiters and hiring managers have been scouring the planet looking for prospective employees who perfectly fit a very detailed skills requirement for the position. These employers sought individuals who are purpose built for a specific task. The downside to this approach was that companies tended to hire people who may not be capable of promotion to more advanced or leadership roles in the future. Somehow, that didn’t matter much to employers of yore.

Today, companies sense the volatility of change in their competitive and business landscape. The amount of change is accelerating and therefore the relevance of any one individual in a particular job assignment becomes less and less over time. In other words, the half-life of a job or position has been shrinking. If companies wish to avoid trauma in their workforce, then they need to begin to hire a different kind of worker. They need individuals who possess certain core traits (e.g., adaptability) not just specific skills (e.g., can operate a specific make and model of CNC machine). What must become more common are for employers to hire individuals who possess specific characteristics or as one expert opined “Hire for character not the job”.  Chances are your CHRO is overdue in having this conversation with the executive team of your firm.

“Tommy can you see me?” – With apologies to The Who – Tommy was a deaf, blind, mute kid who was a whiz at playing pinball. Today, we see an entire generation of workers who can play video games all day long while simultaneously tweeting, checking in on Facebook and chatting on their smartphone. However ‘connected’ they appear to be, too many have not learned how to interact well with others in a real-world, business environment. These folks need an intervention of sorts.

Not long ago, I heard an HR executive tell of a new hire who showed up for work in less than ‘business casual’ attire. She reminded the worker of the company’s dress code standards and thought nothing more of it. Except that the very next day, the same worker showed up in khakis and flip flops. When questioned about his attire, the new hire pointed out that the khakis were ‘business’ and the flip flops were ‘casual’.

Is this a big deal? I’m not sure the dress code issues are a major deal (this is a trainable matter). But, the ability to correctly interact with others could be a material issue for some. If you spent a large part of your life communicating via electronic devices, then you would be at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to ‘read’ people in a conference room, sales situation or business meeting.  Practice and training may be key training needs for a large number of new workers today. Does HR have these tools to deploy?

“Fifty Shades of Recruiting” – Recruiting to some is a procedure or process. To others, it is more similar to marketing. But what recruiting must become is something closer to seduction. Seduction is a very personal approach to understand another person’s wants and desires maybe better than the person knows themselves.

A great seducer takes the time to understand the other party, learn their needs and wants, and then creates a memorable experience that completes the process of winning them over. Asking job seekers to complete ugly, lengthy and impersonal online job applications (and then not following up on same) is not seduction – it’s insulting.

The war for talent, especially the best and brightest talent, never really ends. What does change in this arms race for this talent are the means and methods that other employers use to attract these high-quality individuals to their firm.

The best recruiters create an exceptional recruiting environment that starts long before the individual is asked to complete a job application. Great recruiters take virtually all the friction out of the recruiting process. They make the recruitment process painless and effortless for the job seeker. Great recruiters make sure that jobseekers have an outstanding interview experience. These recruiters make every impression and touch point with the candidate a positive moment.

The seduction though continues after the person is hired. Great recruiters and HR departments ensure that everything from the lobby, the receptionist greeting the new worker, the new office space for the worker, etc. projects a warm, inviting, welcoming and professional image.

Why is this so important? The best and brightest employees decide within moments of seeing your recruiting website, the lobby of your firm, the office environs they will work in, etc. whether this is a place they will work at for one day or one year. If you want to attract AND retain the best and brightest, you have to think about the image you present to job seekers and job holders each and every day.

Endnote: I see that Infosys has published some interesting research around the youth of today, their expectations and the relative lack of interpersonal skills. It's a good gut check for some of the topics I am raising.

Image in story: via Wikipedia. Featured image: Steampunk biker drives through derelict surroundings at dusk under dirty industrial sky © heywoody - Fotolia.com 

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