Is Taking a Pulse Too Invasive?

Corporate culture is a tricky thing. It develops over time, but we want to change it quickly when it suits us. The business media is replete with examples of great (100 best places to work!) and toxic (see Uber, supposedly) places to work. If your job is to influence those cultures, where do you start?

I am very big on measurement in the workplace. Whether it is testing for job candidates, evaluating job performance, or surveying employee engagement. So, I was interested to read about startup software tools that provide for spot surveys and compliance measures. The appeal of these is clear. Real time data can lead to real time solutions. But, are these really ways to improve culture or just faster methods of applying band-aids?

Culture evolves whether you want it to or not. Companies that actively manage employee engagement can use it as a strategic and recruiting advantage. The constant use of software to measure culture strikes me as a reactive approach. It can lead companies to chase small problems (“Why has turnover ticked up in Pat’s area?”) instead of focusing on larger ones (“What are we doing to ensure that all of our best employees want to stay?”). Also by constantly measuring engagement we are affecting it, but probably not in the way we want to be (“Why are we constantly being asked for our opinion? Doesn’t management know what’s happening here?”).

I would suggest a thoughtful approach where you ask what you want your culture to be. You can take a baseline measure and then take steps to close any gaps (hint—be sure that senior executives are modeling and talking about the culture you are trying to achieve). Then see if closing any of those gaps affects measures of engagement (turnover, absenteeism, productivity, etc). Keep focusing on what has impact and put aside what doesn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat. This replaces a “whack-a-mole” approach with a more strategic one that does not require constant surveying.

Senior executives should have a “pulse” on the organization, but they should not have to be constantly asking “are we there yet?” like an 8 year old in the back of a car. If you approach employee engagement strategically, you can manage better and not be so invasive.

When Convenience Gets Under Your Skin

Whether it is Amazon planning on stores without cash registers, or being able to buy drinks in a club without your wallet, to tracking the movement of just about any goods you can think of, RFID (Radio-frequency identification) is part of lives. But, what if your CEO or CTO came to you and said, “What if our employees had an RFID chip implanted in them?”

As with a lot of tech, the argument in favor of it is about convenience. Employees could access buildings, rooms, computers, vending machines, etc just by walking past an RFID reader. No more reaching for or losing key cards.

So, a company in Wisconsin is trying it out. The non-squeamish volunteers will get the chip (about the size of a grain of rice) put into their hand between the thumb and forefinger.

I will avoid making ominous comparisons to 1984. But, I am curious as to what are the real productivity or engagement benefits of doing this. How much time is being wasted fumbling for security cards? Does this help prevent any security breaches? I am just not seeing the ROI, so I doubt that many companies will adopt this.

I am not anti-technology or else this blog would show up on a piece of paper. Nor do I expect that every tech idea to be a good or bad one. However, business decisions that affect employees should be made on something beyond, “This would be cool!” Someone at the companies adopting this technology did just that (probably after an amazing sales pitch). Does it establish them as having a forward thinking tech-enable culture? Sure. Does it also show them as favoring style over substance? I think again, the answer is, “Yes.”

We can help companies establish a culture of good decision making by facilitating data-driven discussions. Questions like, “What are our goals?” and “How do we determine if this innovation is successful?” is a good way to separate a fad from effective organizational initiatives.

Just Give Job Seekers the Information They Need

I’ve written in the past about ensuring that job postings are free from potential discrimination. But, summer is also the time when we think about internships and attracting early career talent. No, this is not going to be a screed about millennials and their work ethic. Rather, I will ask you to consider whether your job postings are appealing to them.

This article encourages employers to be direct, rather than using jargon in their postings. More importantly, and in contrast with the stereotype that younger workers are looking for things that are flashy, the more effective ads had basic information. Apparently, listing things like salary ranges, location, and the company’s mission is important. Who knew?

What is effective in marketing, which is what job postings really are, changes regularly. So, what works now may not work in 12 months. Fortunately, this is a data-rich environment, so there are things you can do to measure the success of your postings:

1) Experiment with language and see which versions attract more interest.

2) Get input from recent hires on the content of the ads. This will help keep you current as to what job seekers in a specific demographic are looking for.

3) Your ATS probably does keyword searches on resumes and your social media likely relies on keywords, perhaps those same ones, to show up in better places on the web. Measure whether those keywords are attracting the people you want to reach.

The message here is really not to get overly cute or overthink job postings for entry level positions or internships. If you are direct and provide the job seeker what s/he is looking for, you are likely to attract more interest.

Accountability, Fear, and Changing a Culture

Uber finds itself in the news for lots of reasons, not all of them good.  The most recent story concerns the firing of 20 employees for a variety of bad behaviors to show that they were being held accountable for their actions.  I am not so concerned with whether this was a good move as much as if it will lead to change.

Certainly, the publicness of the firings meant that they were done as a message to Uber employees and the investment community.  It says, “Yes, we hear you about our culture and we are doing something about it.”  What it doesn’t say is, “You have been rewarding our CEO who does the same things, but we are not so sure what to do about that.”

Firing a bunch of people does not improve a company’s culture, even if it was the right decision.  Rather, it instills fear.  And while it may convey a message of what will not be tolerated, the action does not reinforce any positive behaviors that senior management would like to see.  It is almost like sentencing people to hang by the neck until they cheer up.

Uber has grown their business by the asking for forgiveness rather than permission.  That type of a model, by definition, rewards people for bending the rules to the extreme.  Their challenge is how to continue with a culture based on disrupting the status quo but respects the people who support it.  That will require threading a pretty small needle.

Changing a culture requires time and consistency.  Management needs to look at every aspect of its people processes (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, compensation, performance management, and succession planning) and ask, “Have we put in the right incentives and are we modeling the correct behaviors for a sustainable culture?”  Cultures do not happen overnight and they do not change after a few heads roll.

Another Step Towards Engaging Millennials

When writing previously about employee engagement, I discussed how companies can encourage employees to be engaged by taking steps to connect them with the organization.  We also know that, as a group, millennials tend to look for ways to connect with their employers and co-workers in ways that go beyond whatever product or service they are delivering at work.

This article describes a start-up that provides experiences for groups of employees to help encourage engagement in a way that is enticing to millennials.  This includes unique experiences they can together and being involved in community service.

Of course, this type of thing is not brand new.  Companies have been involved with stalwart social service organizations like United Way and Red Cross for many years.  But, I think it is fair to say that millennials are looking for something a bit more active than fundraising and giving blood (both worthy endeavors, by the way).

Companies do not need to outsource their engagement activities and management can brainstorm things that would appeal to their employees and fit with their culture.  But, this does show how companies are trying to get younger workers more engaged by experiencing intrinsic rewards (feelings of accomplishment) rather than extrinsic ones (here is a thing for doing well).  It also underlines how it is important to proactively create engagement you want to improve teamwork and reduce turnover.

Higher Minimum Wages and Success in the Hospitality Industry

The state of California and several of its cities have been on the forefront of raising the minimum wage.  The arguments for (people cannot live on the current minimum wage) and against (it will cost jobs because business will need to lay people off) it are familiar.  But now there is some data that makes a very interesting link between quality and the impact of raising wages.

This study looks at the impact of raises in the minimum wage and restaurant employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Don’t be fooled by the academic nature of the paper—the authors do a good job of explaining things in English before digging into the math (though you can get another explanation here with an eye towards the political).  The main takeaway from the article is that well run restaurants (in this case, defined by high Yelp ratings) are not impacted by minimum wage hikes.  Crappy restaurants (based on quality, not menu price) saw their already higher closure rate go up with the increases.  So, what does this mean for HR?

  • Well run businesses can absorb higher wages when their competitors cannot. This may mean higher prices (in some instances people will pay for quality) or that these businesses can survive on lower profit margins.  HR can contribute to this through good hiring (brining in people who can deliver high levels of customer service) and training (developing a learning culture) practices.
  • Use data to improve quality. The study shows that online feedback (in this case, Yelp reviews) is strongly correlated with business success.  This customer input should be used to improve service and quality.
  • If we presume that the vast majority of the workers at the restaurants are at minimum wage (as the paper does), this research tells us that paying more is not an indicator of quality or success. If restaurant A is getting a rating of 5 and restaurant B is getting a rating of 3, it is not due to wage differentials.  Rather, it is likely based on the quality of the product and the level of service.  HR may not have much impact on the former, but it certainly does on the latter.

What the paper really tells is that that business can succeed without necessarily being the one that pays the highest wages.  When wages are held constant, hiring the best people from the available labor pool may lead to higher service delivery.  This, in addition to a good product, can keep a business successful, even if wages are forced to go up.

When Even Tech Job Training Lags Behind Need

In any employment market there are going to be jobs in high demand and those that go unfilled.  In our tech driven economy, the jobs that are hard to recruit for range from utility lineman (long hours, hard work, and fabulous pay) and, strangely enough, cyber security.  With all of the hype and news around hacking, I was surprised to learn that these $80k/year jobs are readily available.  But why?

From a selection standpoint, good cyber security engineers need an odd combination of skills.  Of course they need to be great programmers with high levels of critical thinking.  However, they often need to have a criminal’s mindset (“How would I get into this system without someone knowing?”), which makes them a risky hire given their access to sensitive data.  And makes them attractive on the black market.

The incentives for prevention jobs are also difficult.  After all, they are performing well when nothing goes wrong.  But, when someone breaks into the system…

This is an opportunity for industry and universities to work together.  College students want tech jobs (sorry to those of you who recruit linemen), but they tend to want to work in the sexier product/app development area. Tech companies can show higher education how to make the field more “fun,” perhaps through gamification and appealing to the cat-and-mouse aspect of the work.

My sense is that they pay for these jobs will also need to rise to fill them.  If it is true that good cyber security engineers have good hacking skills, there needs to be a sense of doing the right thing pays at least almost as well as breaking into systems.

What we see is that even tech companies need to be thinking about how to get future workers trained and recruited for jobs that are not that appealing.  As our economy constantly evolves, companies will still need “legacy” employees (yes, some day, app development will be boring compared to what is hot then).  And it is possible that the cycle of job obsolescence will become shorter.  This makes the challenge for schools to provide the skills to future employees even greater.  Industry and education will both benefit if they work together in that venture.  I just hope in the meantime no one has hacked my blog.

He Knows When You Are Working, He Knows When Are Logged Out

As long as there have been workers, management has looked for ways to manage performance.  In the case of piece work, it was mostly used to provide incentives for productivity.  As the economy became more service oriented, performance was also measured so that throughput could be forecasted more accurately (think about a telephone center predicting the number of call to be handled on a certain day).

The use of this data has traditionally been used to “gamify” work as well.  That is, make reaching certain performance level an incentive in and of itself.  Sales competitions are a great example of this.  The logic being that if something is like playing a game it will be more fun (read: motivating) than something that seems like work.

Big data gives companies more ammunition to gamify work.  It also provides opportunities for the application of it to go beyond making or selling widgets.  As this article points out, Uber is at the forefront of this (though, make no mistake, they are not the only ones doing it).

Uber really has a love/hate relationship with its drivers.  Right now it needs them, but they foresee a day where they will need fewer people behind the wheel due to the automation of cars.  Uber needs a lot of drivers to provide high levels of service, but a glut of them leads to fewer occurrences of surge pricing (Uber’s version of raising prices and being more profitable when demand is high compared to the supply of drivers), which leads to fewer people being available since they will not make as much money.

Forecasting labor availability is key for the company in order to maintain service levels.  But, since Uber insists that the drivers are independent contractors who can work whenever they want, they cannot schedule the appropriate number of drivers to match anticipated demand.  So, to keep drivers logged in the app and behind the wheel, they have employed the same techniques that video game designers use to keep people playing.

In the article, the author clearly thinks that tapping into these motivations is “tricking” drivers into spending more time behind the wheel than they may want to.  But, is this really any different than traditional motivation techniques used by leaders such as providing intrinsic motivators like praise (“I appreciate the hard work you put into that presentation”) to reward and encourage future efforts?  Is it more coercive than, “You need to work at the store on Thanksgiving or your fired.”?

The answers really depend on whether the goals that Uber wants to achieve are aligned with those of the drivers.  If keeping more people in the app leads to more idle time (time spent without making any money), then I have a real problem with it.  If it helps manage the drivers’ time in a way that allows them to be more efficient and them and Uber to be more profitable, then I am good with it.

Worker performance has always been managed to help achieve organizational goals.  New technologies allow companies to look at these issues more closely than ever before.  HR should examine closely whether these efforts enhance engagement and, in the case of independent contractors, financial viability.

When the People in High Potential Programs Aren’t

At a recent professional conference I attended there was a lot of talk about high potentials.  Specifically, how to best measure potential versus actual performance (good luck getting managers to understand the difference).  The idea of identifying high potentials (HiPos) is critical for a couple of reasons:

  • If you are going to do good succession planning, you need to look at people based on their potential to be leaders at the next level (or for the first time) and not just how well they are doing in the current position.
  • Investing training dollars in HiPos will give you a much better return than the investment in lower performers. High performers got that way because they are continuous learners who welcome feedback.

But, do companies really do a good job of identifying HiPos?  This article suggests that they do not.  Using 360 feedback as a metric, the authors conclude that many of those selected into HiPo programs are not rated well on important leadership dimensions.  How does this happen?

  • Companies use the wrong data to identify HiPos. Our tendency is to use current performance to determine future performance.  And, if looking at a person’s potential in that job, this would be the best predictor.  But, it is not a good predictor if you’re trying to determine if a great individual contributor will be a good manager, or if a good manager will be a good executive.  The skill sets are too different.
  • I allude to it above, but companies place too much weight on factors that are not related to potential. I understand that it is hard to put blinders on and only focus on those attributes that would indicate success in another role (e.g., strategic thinking), but it is critical to do so in identifying HiPos.

The best way to combat this is to identify future success factors, such as strategic thinking and developing effective followers, in your organization.  If succession planners are presented with only this type of relevant data (as opposed to everything that might come out of a 360 or assessment center), it is more likely that those with the highest potential will be put into the HiPo pool.

Does Your Vacation Policy Work?

I’m always curious to hear of innovative (or, crazy, depending on one’s viewpoint) methods of increasing employee engagement and productivity.  I wrote about a year ago about a company in Seattle where the CEO increased the minimum wage to $70,000 (and they are still doing just fine).  And there are some companies that provide a time-and-a-half incentive to employees to take vacation.  One company upped the vacation incentive ante with paid for trips for up to one week.

What is with bribing people to go on vacation?  And, besides getting people to take some time off, do these ideas even work?
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There is some data that suggests that more vacation time makes executives more efficient.  Though, this might be because they have to get the same amount of work done in less time.  And there is plenty of studies that show that work breaks during the day help productivity.

My feeling (and I have zero data to back this up) is that another benefit of vacation time is that is allows us to come back with, if not a new perspective, at least a chance to look at a problem fresh, without only looking at previous solutions.  Think about how a crossword puzzle clue may have had you baffled at first, but then becomes easy after you spent time away from it.

Assuming that the above is at least partially true, it seems to me that having frequent time away may be as beneficial as long vacations.  Regardless, the key idea that in the long run we are more engaged and productive when we do not stare at the same problems.

Sure, at the end of January people are not spending that much time planning vacations (well, maybe skiers are).  But, this is when HR should be considering the impact of current paid time off policies, such as:

  • Does management support people taking time off by altering their workload pre-post vacation?
  • If you are in a work culture that does not support taking time off, do you understand why they are not?  Are you offering incentives for people to do so?
  • Are employees who are not taking their time off counseled so that they do so?

Yes, it seems odd to have to manage the vacation process.  But, like any other engagement and productivity tool, it does need to be monitored and cared for.

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