It’s time!

SHRM18! It’s time to pack my bags and head for the airport. As part of the SHRM Blogging team, I’m looking forward to sharing my insights through the SHRM blog. I’m excited about meeting my #HRTribe #Nextchat #SHRMBloggers in real life. There are brunches, happy hours and photo opportunities in the works. As an HR professional, I’ve been poring over the schedule, making my 1st, 2nd and even 3rd place choices for different session times. I have my ‘must see’ and ‘want to see’ sessions picked. I’ve noted vendors I want to look at for products and services that might benefit my organization. I’ll spend some time at the Smart Stage, something I neglected last year. I’m also looking forward to seeing a bit of Chicago and eating some deep-dish pizza.

But in another real way, I’m not looking forward to this trip. The timing isn’t meshing with my personal life. I hate to be away from my family at this moment in time. Work has been busy, too, and I feel less prepared to be out of the office than I typically do when I attend a conference.

Is that you, too? Maybe you’ve got young kids at home, and it’s hard to leave them behind. Are you worried about your child care plan? Maybe, like me, you have older relatives that are needing care and attention. Maybe your company just won a big contract and you are deep into ramping up staffing. Maybe someone recently brought a #MeToo allegation to your attention, and you need to manage an investigation.

These are all real-world situations that affect many of us on a regular basis. It can be hard to walk out the door, board that plane, and let it all go. You might be second guessing your decision to attend the conference. If that’s you, be encouraged. Life is messy, and there is never a perfect time to travel. Work will always have fires, and family will always need you. But you’ve made your plans and going away for a few days is a good reminder that the world will keep spinning while you are away.

Do your best to fully disconnect from work. Set up good processes and know who in your office is going to be responsible for each task while you are out. Trust your staff. Trust the processes you’ve created. At the SHRM conference, you will be refreshed. You’ll get to hang out with 15,000 of your closest HR friends, and get reenergized for the work you do each day. The SHRM Annual Conference is a great time and place to renew your passion for HR and deepen your skill set. Whatever your professional goals for this conference, you’ll have wonderful opportunities to expand your world. I can’t wait to see you there!

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Falling Down

When my son was little, anytime he came home with a scrape or bruise and we asked what happened, he’d look at it in surprise and say, ‘fell down.’ I’m not sure what the words ‘fell down’ meant to him, but he wasn’t describing the act of falling. He was busy playing with his friends, and the random bump or bruise didn’t slow him down.

I ‘fell down’ recently. I said something thoughtless to a business acquaintance, and I feel terrible, because I inadvertently insulted this acquaintance. It wasn’t that I said something untrue, but my phrasing was unkind. This person and I were passing acquaintances, so I can’t even go back and apologize. But they mentioned it to someone we know in common, and in the way of the world, they probably told two people, who told two people, and so it goes. I may be making too big a deal of this; perhaps I’m not that important to all these people, and no one is really talking about me. But what if they are?

We are known by our words and our deeds, not by our intentions. And the only real social capital we have is to be trustworthy. We need to be people that others can trust. According to dictionary.com, trust means reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.

This is true for everyone, but for those of us who are HR practitioners, there’s an added layer. The employees in our company must not only believe that we will do what we say, but they must trust our motives. They must be confident that we have their best interests in mind as we create strategy, set policy, and make recommendations to senior executives.

Our goal as HR professionals is to do good work. We want to improve the lives of the employees we serve and foster better business outcomes at the same time. We believe that the two are not only not incompatible, but that they are closely linked. And on our best days, we live this out in multiple ways, deepening our own sense of career satisfaction.

And yet, we all make mistakes. We get busy with the day-to-day urgency of our work, and we ‘fall down.’ Sometimes, like in my recent situation, we say something we wish we could take back. Sometimes we might get caught up in a new and shiny technology and ignore the impact it will have on some of our staff. What if we design a new policy but we don’t test it out well, or we don’t think it through enough, and it ends up hurting the very staff we hope to serve? What happens when the outcome of our decisions or actions brings about the very opposite of what we strive for everyday?

First, when this happens, and it will, forgive yourself. While we must own the impact of our actions, we also know our own intentions. It can be easy to get into our own heads and get mired in our own failures. Don’t get stuck there, but you do need to take responsibility. Trust is built through transparency. Own the impact of your actions and decisions and make them right where you can. If you do this consistently, then those around you will trust your integrity and believe in your good intentions.

I can’t go back and change what I said. But I can learn from it, and do better in the future. I hope that if those two people are telling two people, that they all take a closer look at me going forward. They may be looking to catch me in the act, but what they’ll see is someone who fell down and got right back up. They’ll see someone who does her best to be trustworthy. HR pros, let’s continue to act in a manner that invites a closer look.

Let’s build it so they will come.

Field of Dreams came out in 1989, and became an instant classic. It’s taken on a life of its own in pop culture, and today we all recognize the line ‘if you build it they will come’. In the movie, Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, is compelled to build a baseball diamond in order to attract the ghosts of old players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson and his character’s own father. Ray is willing to plow over his own cornfield, putting the family farm in jeopardy, because he believes in his dream of bringing these baseball giants to life. His dream is bigger than his own interests, and at the same time his interests will be better served by following this dream.

In our organizations, diversity is a dream, but it’s a dream that comes at a cost. Those baseball players didn’t show up on the corn field and say, ‘let’s play ball’. Ray didn’t invite them to come plow up the field and lay the baseball diamond or help build the stands. He was willing to do the hard work and take the risks himself, trusting that if he did it right, they would show up and make the place come alive.

We don’t do that in our businesses. In fact, we do the opposite. We say we value diversity, and we do all kinds of crazy gymnastics to attract a diverse workforce. But we haven’t plowed up the field or made a baseball diamond. We think we are welcoming, but when people of color, people who are disabled, people who are LGBT, women, come into our space, we say ‘we’re so glad you are here. Now, build us a baseball stadium – after all, you are the ones who want to play baseball.’ It’s the opposite of welcoming – it’s exhausting. And worse, no matter how hard they work, it will never succeed. Because we don’t really want to plow down our cherished corn field. We want them to wear a baseball uniform while they join us in farming.

There’s an HR quote we all know: ‘diversity is is being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to the dance floor’, but there’s an additional line I love that says ‘belonging is having my music playing’. We have worked hard to invite people to our parties and onto the dance floor, but we want them to dance to our music. Look like a baseball player, but learn to farm. How can we change it up so everyone’s music is playing on that dance floor?

My granddaughters are enamored of series of children’s book about Elephant and Piggie. One particular favorite is called ‘I am Invited to a Party!’, where an exuberant Piggie is invited to a party and enlists the help of her staid friend, Gerald the elephant to prepare. Under Gerald’s guidance, the pair dresses for a fancy party, a pool party, and a costume party cumulatively. There are two important points to this story. The first is that it turns out Gerald is right. The party is a fancy pool costume party. All of their outfitting is appropriate.

Our workplaces ought to be like that – open to all kinds of ways of being. We say we want people to be their full authentic selves at work, but do we really? Are we open to different world views that might clash with our own? Are we only throwing a costume party and those who come prepared to swim are left out? Can people come in baseball uniforms and be welcomed for who they really are? What can we do differently to create a culture where differing voices not only welcomed but celebrated? We’ve all had the experience of being invited to a party where we arrive and feel totally out of place. Is that what work is like every day for some of our employees?

The second thing about this story is that Piggie has never been invited to a party and she needs a guide. Some of the workforce that we want to attract has never been invited to our parties. They aren’t all lucky enough to have an elephant around who can show them the way, and they also need a guide. We can create places that are truly welcoming and send out the invitations. But then we need to get out and meet the people we want to attract. Let’s tell them all about the party we have planned. Let’s make sure they know that our parties are fancy, pool and costume, and that they are welcome. Let’s plow up our own corn fields, because if we build it, they will come.

When you’re the disengaged employee

A month or so ago I posted a blog about what to do when a highly engaged employee becomes disengaged. This led to some conversation on social media, and the question arose: ‘what if I’m the disengaged employee? How do I decide whether I should re-engage or if it’s time to leave the organization?’ I think we’ve all been there. There have been times that I’ve had to learn how to re-engage and find my passion for my job, and other times it’s been the signal that it’s time to look for a new opportunity. Let me also be clear – losing your passion for the job is not the same as losing your passion for the field. You can be a passionate HR professional, involved and giving back to the community, and still tap out in your current job for a variety of reasons.

The first question to ask is: is this me, or is this my company? Does the company experience a high turnover? Does senior leadership have unrealistic expectations of its employees? Is there a lack of direction as to where the organization is going? If this is the case, and you’ve given it your all to influence leadership and be a change agent, you may have to realize that the problem is bigger and more systemic than you can fix, and it’s time to move on.

Maybe the company overall is great, but your manager or department is in disarray. If the leader of your department is unclear on her objectives or is constantly changing the expectations, and you’ve tried to address this directly, it might be time to look for a new opportunity.

Is the job what you signed up for? Maybe you were told there was tremendous growth potential but it turns out there isn’t. Maybe you were told that administering benefits would be a small piece of your role, but it turns out that it’s the bulk of what you are doing. Whatever the case, if you thought you were taking a particular position and it didn’t live up to the promise, consider – if you knew what it would be before you accepted the offer, would you have? If the answer is no, it might be time to move on.

Sometimes, the job is exactly what we thought, but then the organization goes through significant change and the job changes. This can be a great opportunity to learn and grow, or it can be a time of chaos with no end in sight. Only you can determine what the changes mean for you.

But sometimes, we just get tired. Maybe you had a new initiative that you really believed in, but senior management shot it down. Sometimes we take that rejection personally and start to disengage. You’ve seen it in your employees; don’t think you are immune. If an employee came to you with this situation, how would you coach them? Would you encourage them to look at the company holistically and understand why their idea isn’t right for the company at this time, but that doesn’t mean that they should give up, or would you suggest that nothing is going to change and they might want to consider leaving? I’ve actually coached employees both ways. If someone feels that there is an element to their current situation that has become a deal breaker, and I know that specific element is integral to their position and the company, I let them know. If if means them leaving, then they get to find a better fit, and we get to find a better fit to replace them. It’s painful in the moment, but in the end everyone wins.

So you are disengaged. Think it through. Can the things that bother you be changed? If so, then change them. If not, are they deal breakers? If so, then start looking. If not, then put them to the side and focus on what’s working. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But if you’re struggling to decide, think about how you would coach an employee in your company who came to you with the same situation. That might be your own answer.

Managing Vendor Relationships

I met with a colleague recently, and over coffee we chatted about the job. Somehow, we started swapping open enrollment stories, and I was struck by how much the success or failure of an open enrollment experience is dependent on the insurance broker we were working with at the time. For an HR department of one, or any small HR team, vendors can make or break the success of the operation.

A small HR department means that we represent smaller organizations. We’ll never be a big client or bring our vendors high sales numbers. There are some great boutique vendors that serve smaller companies, but they also tend to be smaller themselves and can be stretched thin. How can we ensure that our vendor relationships fully support our work? By managing expectations, both our own and our vendors.

When looking for a vendor, whether a health insurance broker, HRIS or payroll system, outside anti-harassment training, or any other of the many functions a small company may outsource, it’s important to know what is reasonable to expect. Read up on some of the ATS functions available, and you can be star struck by the options out there. However, some of the more advances technologies are really expensive. It might be cost effective when you have thousands or tens of thousands of employees, but when your employee count numbers in the hundreds or even smaller, those options might not be reasonable for you. Educate yourself and know what services and technologies make sense for a company of your size.

Once you know what you can and cannot expect, it’s time to manage your vendor’s expectation. Know what is important to you. Do you want a dedicated service representative that will know you and your company personally? Or is 24/7 call-in support more important? Do you need a company that offers to go over your needs and suggest additional services that you might not be aware of? Or do you dislike the upsell and want to control exactly what you are going to see? There are many right ways to work with a vendor and knowing what works for you is critical. Communicating those preferences to your vendor is critical.

Finally, be a good customer. Make sure you’ve read your vendor contracts thoroughly and you know exactly what they have promised to provide. Don’t ask for things outside the scope – or be prepared to pay for it if you do. Communicate your needs to your vendor; don’t just wait for your vendor to contact you. If the makeup of your workforce changes significantly, don’t wait until your broker brings you renewal rates for the year – reach out and talk through how your insurance needs might be changing.

Part of being a small HR department means partnering with vendors in order to provide our employees the full range of services they deserve. Knowing how to manage those vendor relationships can make our lives easier, and our departments a success.

Expanding my world

I’m so excited to be part of the SHRM18 blogging team as I count down the days to the 2018 SHRM conference in Chicago this June 17 – 20. The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Expand Your World’. That is the perfect theme for my journey to this conference.

Like so many, I came into HR through the back door, and for a long time I didn’t even realize I was doing HR. When I figured it out, it was time to get serious and get an education. For most of my career I’ve been a department of one (DOO), and that can be an isolating position, especially if you fell into the job and don’t have a built-in network. Being a full time HR DOO and going to school is not super conducive to networking – when is there time? – so while I was gaining important knowledge, I was still alone in my profession.

After graduating and obtaining my SHRM-SCP, I knew I needed to get out there and meet people, so I registered for the SHRM 17 conference in New Orleans. I didn’t know anyone! But once I registered, I started getting email about how to prepare for my conference experience. And then magic happened: I got an email from some woman I’d never heard of, Mary Kaylor, telling me that I could join the SHRM 17 bloggers on something called #nextchat. So, I dusted off my old, unused twitter account and joined in. Can I just say, #nextchat is a little scary for a twitter newbie.

But the #nextchatters and the #SHRM17 bloggers were so welcoming and gave me so much good info about what to expect in New Orleans, I felt confident as I packed my bags. SHRM 17 was amazing! I made friends, I learned SO much, I left feeling more confident and equipped as an HR pro. While at SHRM17, I attended the #nextchat reception to meet my virtual colleagues IRL. It was wonderful to put a face and a name to a twitter handle. At that reception, that same Mary Kaylor encouraged me to start blogging. I was hesitant, but the conference experience and the consistent conversation on #nextchat helped me find my voice.

I started the blog, and people read it. And now, as I prepare for SHRM18, I’m part of the blogging team. My HR world has expanded beyond my wildest dreams, and now I’m part of the team that gets to welcome others to learn and grow and find their HR voices as well – whether you start a blog or make new friends or learn new things, you’ll leave the conference more connected to an amazing HR community. You’ll be energized and excited about your profession, and you’ll be equipped to be a better HR pro. Come to Chicago and expand your world!

HR, we’re not that awesome.

I was at an education conference recently where Dr. Howard Fuller was the keynote speaker. If you ever have a chance to hear Dr. Fuller speak, do it. He’s a tremendous presenter. In fact, he’s awesome. Speaking to educators, Dr. Fuller cautioned against the constant striving to be awesome. ‘It’s not about being awesome,’ he said, ‘it’s about being regular and getting awesome results.’ This is true in education, but it’s also true in HR.

HR friends, we are really not that awesome. Let’s be honest, being awesome takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and attention. And that time and attention has to be focused on ourselves to make ourselves awesome. That’s not the goal of good HR. Our goal should be to embrace our ordinariness, and channel it into awesome results. The work we do is what should be awesome.

What does being regular and getting awesome results look like? For a DOO like me, it looks like employees who have a seamless experience with their HRIS interface, no matter how much work I have to do on the back end. It looks like managers who are confident in doing annual reviews because they’ve been equipped know how to do it well. It’s an organizational culture where people talk about how their work explicitly ties to the organization’s mission on a regular basis. It’s low turnover because people have no reason to leave the company.

If you specialize in your area of HR, awesome results will look different. If you are a recruiter, making that perfect connection and seeing that both hiring managers and candidates have an amazing experience – even the candidates who aren’t selected – is an awesome result. Having clients reach back out with future needs and recommend you to others is an awesome result.

We don’t accomplish these things by being awesome. We do it by working hard. We make mistakes and pick ourselves back up and keep going. We give it our all, we keep learning, and we do the best we can.

Not only are we not awesome, our employees aren’t either. They are regular people doing their best and accomplishing amazing things. Your superstar employee? Probably isn’t innately more talented than her coworkers. She puts in more time, or she gives more focus, or in some other way just works better. Maybe she taps into the knowledge of others around her in a way that is unique. Maybe he reads up on work-related news on the weekends. Whatever it is, it’s something that is attainable to anyone else on the team.

As we engage our employees, as we think about what success looks like for them and for us, we need to remember that we don’t have to be awesome, and neither do they. We have to be invested in the outcome. We have to be willing to do the hard work that earns success. HR, we aren’t awesome. But we are delightfully regular people achieving some awe-inspiring results.

How solid is that career ladder?

I had dinner with my brother about a month ago, and he was sharing his frustration about career choices – in order to move up, he has to supervise people. But he doesn’t like managing people, and he doesn’t want to stop doing the highly technical work that he loves. This past weekend I had dinner with a friend who was telling me about her job. Her department is now fully staffed, and she has eight direct reports. I said it must be great to be fully staffed, and she acknowledged that it was, but also that managing so many people was taking her away from the content work that brought her to that organization in the first place. “I spend all my time thinking about other people’s professional development.” Managing people has become a distraction.

We all know that promoting subject matter experts to management is fraught with problems. The skills that make you good at your job are not the same skills that make you a good manager. I have a Master’s degree in management, but no one in my program was studying to become a manager. Managing people is seen as a side effect of career development, and we don’t give it enough time and attention. We don’t spend enough time training new managers about how to do it well. There’s been a lot written about how we can do that better, and why we must.

What we don’t talk about enough is how to create viable career paths for talented people who don’t want to manage. Why is managing people traditionally the only way ahead? Why should a talented individual contributor be pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to take, and if he turns down management opportunities why should he be viewed as lacking drive or not wanting to move forward? Why is management so often the only promotion opportunity?

Let’s be honest – there are not enough management jobs to reward everyone or move everyone up that ladder. And there are star employees who lack the natural skills and the desire to manage people. Yet these people bring great value to the organization. They have institutional knowledge and technical skills that keep our businesses moving. But when the company fails to reward their contribution, it becomes more and more challenging for them to stay with the company, and to stay at the top of their game. Do we still send our long term individual contributors for training to stay cutting edge in their skills? Or do we think that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks, and expect long-time employees to be coasting through their career? Even worse, do we try to push them out so we can get less experienced employees who can do the same work for less pay?

HR, we need to be more creative with our career paths. We need to value people who want to stay in individual contributor roles with tangible support. Highly skilled individual contributors can be mentors, trainers, take the lead on process documentation, and be integral in brainstorming how to improve the systems where they hold expertise. They can lead those improvement processes, and be change agents when they are part of the team. You don’t need to have a management role to be a leader – let’s find ways to let individual contributors lead.

The tough work of reengagement

Recently my husband was telling me about a situation with an employee and he said ‘I think it’s impossible to reengage someone who has become totally disengaged.’ My first reaction was excitement – my non-HR husband is using terms like ‘employee engagement’! I am an HR influencer! Beyond that, though, I started to wonder. Nothing is more disheartening to morale than to have a previously engaged employee check out. A truly engaged employee, the kind who routinely goes above and beyond and is a culture leader among her peers, does not disengage easily. Once she does, it’s hard to get her back. How we react will determine whether or not we can get that employee back.

When that star employee first checks out, we often overlook his behavior. Many an employee coasts for a long time on an old reputation. (This can work in the reverse, and when a previously troublesome employee turns it around, it can take a while for management to clue in and start to value that employee’s contribution.) But we often give the newly disengaged employee a pass on poor behavior. We remember his past successes and ignore current failings. This is not fair to the employee or to his coworkers. People will see someone getting away with doing less and less, and it will effect overall morale. Unfortunately, by the time management wakes up to the employee’s dissatisfaction and dissatisfactory performance, it’s often too late. The employee has felt her concerns were ignored, and management has suddenly woken up to the subpar performance. The employee has gone from being a star to having a corrective action plan, and no one is quite clear on how that happened.

We can avoid this by getting involved and noticing behavior that is actually happening, not making assumptions based on past performance. If a top employee is suddenly doing the bare minimum, we need to ask why. And then we need to really listen to the answer. This can be tough – sometimes the employee’s complaints seem totally unmerited, and we want to rush to defend the company’s actions. Other times, something has gone wrong and we want to blithely promise to fix the issue without thinking through what that might actually look like. Either way, we need to take our time. First, honor the employee with the dignity of being heard. Be that safe space that allows an employee to own their feelings of frustration without trying to solve the problem. Once you are sure that you have heard the employee, only then can you work together on a plan.

If we truly want to reengage that employee, we can’t go for the quick fix. When a previously engaged employee checks out, they’ve often experienced a sense of betrayal by the company, whether real or imagined. Building trust takes time, but the effort is worth it, because when that employee does reengage, she is likely to be one of the strongest brand ambassadors your company can have.

Beyond D&I, how inclusive is your culture?

Years ago I worked in a call center. For those of you who have experienced this, you know that the work can be both stressful and tedious. In an effort to make the environment more fun, we started creating office theme weeks. The first one was beach week. It was winter, and we brought in a kiddie pool that we filled with sand. On breaks, employees could lounge in beach chairs by the ‘beach’, drinking frozen mocktails with little paper umbrellas in them. I can’t remember all of our themes, but that one stands out.

Some employees loved the themes, suggested new ideas, wore crazy clothes to work during ‘school spirit’ week and otherwise joined in the fun. Others ignored the craziness and stayed at their stations processing calls. Both approaches were fine. Enough people seemed to enjoy the fun that it was worth continuing, and no one bothered the folks who didn’t want to participate.

Years later, I worked for an organization that took Halloween very seriously. I didn’t come to work dressed up, but they were prepared for me. Somewhere on the internet you could probably dig up a picture of me wearing a purple wig. I really didn’t mind, because, while I’m not into dressing up for Halloween, I am an extrovert and I like being part of a team.

But what if I didn’t? Suppose I hated wearing purple wigs in front of a camera. What if I wanted to be left alone at my desk to ignore the whole goings on? Even more, what if I had a religious objection to Halloween? At the call center, we had several staff members who did not celebrate holidays, and we tried to consult with them to be sure our themes were always inclusive.

A couple of years ago, when I was last interviewing for a new position, I interviewed at an organization where everyone wore a suit. Mostly black. And I left the interview wondering how happy I would be if I had to go out and buy a new wardrobe of black suits. (I didn’t get called back – was it because my interview suit was blue? I’ll never know.) There was a job I didn’t even bother applying for because the website showed that everyone wore jeans and a company t-shirt. I’m relaxed, but I know that a company t-shirt would feel too stifling to my own sense of style. I wouldn’t be a good culture fit for that organization.

Culture is so much more than the values on your company website. And diversity is more than making sure that different genders and ethnicities are represented in your organization. If your company culture values dressing up in costumes, what happens to the person who doesn’t want to join the fun? In a sea of black suits, is the person in the blue suit valued? Do we really want to lose people who could bring great value to our organization because they don’t like purple wigs or black suits?

As HR, it is our responsibility to guide our organization in ways that create positive culture, including beach weeks when appropriate. But let’s remember that not everyone needs to opt in. Let’s make sure we are creating inclusive spaces. I was recently challenged by Steve Browne to do more blogging – he might have used the words ‘peer pressure’. Peer pressure can be a positive force for good. But if we want everyone to be able to be their authentic selves, it has to be ok that not everyone participates in the extras. Unless your organization makes and sells beach umbrellas, remember that some folks prefer the mountains, and that’s ok.