But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

Does Kindergarten Really Have a Culture of Success?

You may be familiar with the marshmallow challenge. It is an intriguing and engaging team building exercise that demonstrates the importance of failure in group interactions.

It is all fun and everyone gets a laugh regarding how, according to an accompanying Ted Talk I show, kindergartners do better at it than those who went to business school. By the way, I’d like to see that replicated because it makes a great story but I doubt that it is really true. But the most important lesson for leaders from it is not that failure eventually grows success. Rather, it is the call to action to create a culture where taking the risk should be rewarded and not only when the risk leads to immediate success.

What leaders should learn from the challenge is that it takes place in an environment that encourages risk taking. There is no one to say, “Let me tell you how we’ve done this before” or “If this doesn’t work out well we are in big trouble.” From this culture, most teams are able to accomplish something that at first seems unlikely in about 18 minutes. This should lead to a candid conversation about the barriers that exist to useful failure and what actions can be taken to change those aspects of the culture.

The nature of kindergarten is to reward process more than results. Incentives in business cannot be quite follow that model and lead to success. However, we can use learning to find the unnecessary hurdles creativity and problem solving.

Flexibility, Bench Strength, and Leadership

An attribute associated with leadership is determination. The idea that once a goal has been established and a plan laid out, effective leadership involves sticking to it and absorbing the inevitable bumps that come along the way. This may involve coaching or training, but requires confidence in the team.

But, what if things get really bad? Should the leader have faith in the plan and work harder on execution? Or, does effectiveness require that things get “blown up” and change on the fly?

There was an interesting example of this in the college football national championship game earlier this week. The University of Alabama (Bama) was playing the University of Georgia (UGA). Bama’s coach had won 5 national championships (6 was the most) going into the matchup, so he knows something about winning big games. While renowned for his success, he is also thought of as being a bit humorless and someone who has extraordinary attention to detail, the latter being a trait shared with other successful coaches, regardless of the sport. This is a person who meticulously plans practices and expects nearly flawless execution.

So, in the championship game, UGA took a large lead into halftime. Bama’s coach was faced with a choice: Conclude that his team was executing poorly and stick with the plan (with some adjustments) or decide that the plan was not working and implement a different one. The coach chose the second option, including replacing many of his star performers, and they won the game in dramatic fashion. What can we learn from this?

1) A plan is not destiny. If leaders view them as the ONLY path, then they will be blind to other opportunities to succeed.

2) Changing approaches requires bench strength (which is literally true in this case). When Bama changed their game plan they also replaced some key players. This was only possible because they had a reservoir of talent with a variety of skills. If they had recruited (the college athletics equivalent of employee selection) players with the same skills, they would only be able to execute one type of plan. Since they had more variety, it gave the coach more flexibility. Think about that when someone says, “We need to hire more people like so-and-so.

3) Effective leaders establish criteria for success and failure. We often here about measuring when we have achieved goals. Less frequently talked about is when it is time to rethink our approach. While perhaps not explicit before the game, Bama’s coach knew when it was time to change to Plan B and made the decision.

Do effective leaders need determination? Of course they do. No plan is ever going to be executed perfectly and without adjustments. But, they also need the humility to know when their plans are failing and the talent available to them to change directions.

Inviting Introverts to Lead

Whenever I teach about leadership the participants and I talk about the value of charisma. Not surprisingly, most of those in the workshop feel that the most effective leaders are these larger-than-life figures. That is, until we start talking about ones that are not (and often one of them is the CEO of their company). So, what gives?

This article delves into the issue. Note that the author sometimes confuses behavior (which can be changed) with personality (which is VERY stable, despite her claim and her link that is not associated with any research). The real issue is what can introverts do to be effective leaders?

For many, what it comes down to is the expectations of the situation. If I think any task is going to be painful, of course I am going to avoid it. This is how introverts feel about an assignment that involves a lot of group interaction.

This study looked at potential barriers to introverts being effective leaders. What they found was that negative thinking about assuming the role inhibited performance (as measured by emergent leadership). However, and this is important, positive thinking did not lead to more emergent leadership. So, in working with high potential introverts, this data (and it is only one study) suggests that removing undesirable thoughts about the role (e.g., your fears are not accurate, you will not be a failure, etc.) will lead to more leadership behaviors than selling the role (e.g., you will be fabulous, there is no doubt that you will be successful, etc.).

This is important because it shows that those who lack the extroversion trait associated with charisma may still be effective leaders. This increases your pool of leadership potential in your company. It also provides a road map for encouraging introverts, who are otherwise qualified, to take on leadership assignments in way that allows them to be successful.

From a selection perspective, understanding this nuance would be valuable to determining who you choose to be leaders. Rather than assessing introversion/extroversion, you can look at a person’s attitudes towards leading groups as potentially a more valued predictor.

How Committed Are You to Developing a Skilled Workforce?

The economy is in a unique position right now. Unemployment is at the lowest rate this century as is the net migration rate. This leaves employers of a skilled workforce in the position of a smaller pool of candidates in general and likely one that contains fewer people with the talents they are looking for.

When more the jobs in the country were in the industrial sector (and there was a higher participation in private sector unions), management and labor worked out apprentice programs. This allowed lower skill workers to obtain the knowledge and skills for jobs over time. It also required the companies to really think about how they wanted the work done and train people accordingly.

The knowledge and service economy (along with companies’ willingness to expand/contact their head counts and greater employee mobility) has ground the apprentice approach to a near halt. People are more willing to skip from job to job to gain skills and employers are less leery of candidates who have multiple firms on their resumes. This gives hiring companies less control of the skills of the people they are hiring. I was considering these ideas when I read this article about Kaiser Permanente breaking ground its own medical school.

Kaiser’s jump into medical education can be taken in several ways, but the one that interests me the most is that a very large player in a big industry (health care) has gone to another big industry (medical schools) and said, “You all are behind the times in providing us workers and we think we can do it better.” It would be like a software company offering degrees in computer science (I think I just gave Amazon an idea!). This is potentially a disruption of a 300 year old model of providing workers.

The investment Kaiser is making is large, but they obviously see the benefit is even bigger in the quality of their doctor labor pool. I would think that if this foray is successful that they would open schools for other professions where they hire a lot of people (e.g., nursing).

The question for other business sectors is this: If your pool of available skilled talent is getting smaller, what are you doing to do to ensure you have access to it in the future? Are you going to poach from competitors or are you planning on creating your own talent pipeline?

I get that the investment in training is high and has its risks (I don’t want to spend a lot of money investing in people just to see them leave). However, it provides you the opportunity to develop the right skills and create the culture you want. It seems like money well spent.

Eliminating Subtle Age Bias

Since age bias is something that could affect nearly all HR professionals, I am surprised that it does not get more attention. But, with the average age of employees in the U.S. going up (see here) and companies likely to recruit more older workers due to the unemployment rate being near recent lows, we are likely to see more attention paid to it, particularly in the technology field.

As with most bias, it can be introduced in a subtle way. For example, the term “digital native” describes those born roughly after 1990 that have had current technology (internet, smart phones, etc) pretty much their whole lives. A quick Indeed.com search shows many jobs where “digital native” is part of the description. Put another way, those older than 35ish should think twice before applying. Similarly, there is a whole literature (this article is an example) on how gender loaded terms in job postings affect who will respond to them.

Now, I get that you are advertising for tech jobs you are looking for employees who are completely comfortable in a digital environment and communicating with others who are. But, those are behaviors that can be assessed for with valid pre-employment tests without having to make assumptions about a person’s age.

And that is really the point about implicit bias—we make assumptions about groups without understanding people as individuals. We face a challenge in employee selection of creating processes that treat everyone fairly, but at the same time learn about them as individuals. It is a challenging needle to thread, but one that our businesses depend on us to do well. Using a combination of unbiased language and valid pre-employment tools can help us get there.

Or, if you would rather beat them than join them, you can open an art gallery that only focuses on artists ages 60 and older.

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.

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.

While I am Likely to be Wrong, Allow me to Continue

Interviews are worse predictors of job success than you think.  And I do not care if you don’t think very highly of them as you read this, it’s still lower.  Yet, there is an insistence that they are better than they are and no company I know of is willing to give them up.  Why is this?

Of course, it’s because doing them is ingrained in our corporate cultures.  Thomas Edison (supposedly) conducted the first one.  However, note in the example that it was a test and not an interview, which ensured that it could not be less valid, even with the ridiculous questions cited.  Obviously, if a guy as smart as Thomas Edison was doing it, it must be right.  Then again, he was not trained in understanding human behavior.

The problem with interviews (besides just these) is that they are fraught with noise.  As I’ve written about before, interviewers (which are all of us) are loaded with biases which skew a good deal of information that we get from the person being interviewed.  Of course, the person being interviewed is likely to have prepared for the questions.  In fact some millennial job seekers I know informed me about how they are rarely asked a question they haven’t seen online and when they do get one they post it immediately.  From all of this pre-work, the interviewer is getting canned answers that may not reflect the person.  Of course, this may be a fine attribute if hiring someone who is not supposed to give his/her opinion on anything.  However, it does hurt the validity of even the best structured interviews.  As an aside, if you MUST interview, please make it highly structured and use it as a lever to find out about the person’s job related skills.

So, what is a company to do?  Go on a blind date with candidates?

I would suggest making your hiring decision BEFORE you interview.  Let the interview be the last bit of data that might break ties.  For instance, be sure that someone you are hiring for a customer facing position can actually make eye contact and put a few sentences together.  Or, use it to double-check the person’s availability for your work hours, give them a tour/realistic job preview, etc.  This allows HR or the hiring manager the last look without adding unpredictive noise to the process.  And think about how much time you will save!

It is not your fault that interviews do not predict performance.  The question is what are you going to do to prevent them from messing up your hiring process?

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.

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