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.

The Power of Community

I’m so thankful for social media. Twitter has opened my world to a whole network of HR pros that I am now in contact with outside of Twitter; I’ve got a great national network to go to for advice, opinions, ideas, and the occasional reality check. They make me a better professional, and I appreciate them all. #HRTRibe, you know who you are. Thanks!

Recently, I’ve had a couple of conversations with these great HR pros that got me to thinking. First, we talked about the recent rash of articles blaming HR for inaction in the wake of so many sexual harassment cases finally coming to light. Kelly Marinelli wrote this great blog about the HR community, and we all agreed that Kelly’s community is the community we know: professionals who wouldn’t sweep allegations under the rug, who work hard to create safe and inclusive spaces for all employees, who don’t bow to pressure from executives who only look at the bottom line.

Several days later, this same group of HR pros found ourselves sharing horror stories of bad practices we’ve had to clean up when new to an HR department. You know – I9’s files in employee files, paper files jumbling medical records with employment records (going back decades), written policies that didn’t line up with local laws, and lots of other less-than-best-practice things we’ve all seen.

This seeming dichotomy has been bothering me since these conversations happened. How is it that we can confidently state that our HR community if full of professionals and at the same time all have war stories of things we’ve had to clean up in our HR departments?

I have decided one main difference is the idea of HR professionals as opposed to people who ‘do HR’. I’m blown away by young professionals like Jazmine Wilkes, who is actively pursuing and sharing HR knowledge as she grows her career.  That is not how I got my start. Like many, I ‘fell’ into HR. It’s common for an organization that doesn’t realize HR is a profession to simply task a likely staff member with HR duties. As they get more and more involved in HR, many of us realize that we don’t know enough to do it right, and pursue advanced education, certification, or start attending workshops and seminars to build our HR knowledge. We become HR pros.

But at the beginning of their journey, many of us practice HR without sufficient knowledge. I think about some of the things I did as an HR newbie and I cringe. I did things that seemed like common sense at the time, and later learned that they were far from best practice. I was involved in HR for several years before I realized that different localities had different employment laws!

What happens when someone falls into HR and they never get that ‘a ha’ moment and realize they need formal training? What happens when they work for an organization that isn’t concerned about HR doing it right – good enough is good enough for them? I believe it’s possible to make an entire career of HR without ever really knowing that you aren’t qualified. Hear me – I am not disparaging these HR folks who don’t know. They fell into a job. They are getting positive feedback from their employer. So far, nothing they’ve done has escalated to legal trouble for their organization, and they have no idea that the potential for legal trouble is there.

So what do we, the HR professionals who have training and knowledge, do for our profession? First, I think we need to be more gentle towards those in HR who don’t know. Let’s seek them out and welcome them into our community. Let’s not blast them for filing the I9’s correctly – let’s give them some context on why proper care of I9’s is important, and share best practices and resources. The HR community we know is not a clique – we need to actively seek out HR folks out there who need that community in their lives.

Beyond that, though, we need to change the narrative. Companies need to know why HR is an important profession, not just for legal compliance, but all the strategic value add that we bring to the table. In the wake of so many scandals, let’s shift the conversation from ‘where was HR?’ to ‘this is why you need HR as a partner, not an afterthought’. We know that good HR can do great things. Let’s make sure the world knows that, too.

Engagement isn’t just for employees

What do you think of when you hear the word engagement? If you are not in HR, you might think of two people planning to marry. But if you’re in HR, you more likely thought about how invested or involved employees are at work. We know that an engaged workforce is more productive, has better retention, and leads to better business outcomes.

I was at the SHRM Volunteer Leaders Summit a couple of weeks ago, and in one mega chapter session we talked about problems facing our chapters, and everything boiled down to engagement. How can we keep our members engaged? How can we keep our board engaged? How can we keep our volunteers engaged? HR talks about engagement a lot.

All of this engagement has really started me to wonder – how engaged are we? While we work to engage our employees, our local chapter members, even our local chapter boards, do we stay engaged ourselves? I’ve talked in other posts about the importance of remembering that we are employees, too. But I don’t just mean our engagement as an employee. How engaged are we to our profession?

I checked the dictionary to get more insight into what engagement really means, and what struck me were the antonyms: boredom and distraction. Are you bored with HR? Are you so distracted with the pressures of doing HR everyday that you’ve lost your engagement with the profession? It’s time to step it up and reengage. How can we do that?

For some of us, that means stepping up to the plate into leadership, whether in our local chapter, national SHRM, or elsewhere. Maybe it means becoming a mentor or finding a mentor.

For others, it’s time to plan to attend some conferences or trainings. Or maybe 2018 is the year you earn your certification. Sometimes, professional engagement means becoming a leader at work. Own your subject matter expertise and don’t be afraid to speak up, ask questions, be disruptive. Find ways to be a change leader in your organization.

For every HR pro, being engaged means staying current in the profession. Whether its attending conferences, reading blogs, books and articles, or checking out the myriad resources that SHRM has to offer, be committed to knowing what’s going on in the HR world. Know the laws that affect your work. Know the trends and best practices of your profession. You owe it to the employees you serve, but more than that, you owe it to yourself to be the most engaged HR professional you can be.

2017 is winding down, and this is the time we start to think about New Years resolutions. May I challenge you to up your engagement in 2018? Engaged people are more productive and more satisfied. What commitment will you make toward your professional engagement in the new year?

Programming our response

On a recent #nextchat about diversity, there was a brief conversation about diversity programs, and whether or not HR tries to program its way through every challenge. Do we over-program? I’ve been pondering this for a couple of days, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. At first glance, I think, ‘Right on! People, not programs!’ But then I play that scenario out in my head and I realize that programs, when they are done well and for the right reasons, can effect real change.

At the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference, I attended a pre-conference session on leading transformational change. We spent the day looking at different change models and discussing their merits in different situations. This was the key to the day: no one model is the right one. It will always depend on your circumstances. What is the change you are enacting? How do people feel about that change? Where are you in the process? First, understand what you are trying to accomplish and how that change will impact people and then figure out which model or combinations of models might best assist you in leading the change.

Change models have real value as a tool. They give us a framework to think about what we are trying to accomplish, and to make sure we are thinking about the change holistically. It can be easy to gravitate towards the parts of a change, process, or program that you have an affinity for – the part you like or are good at. Change models keep you focused on all aspects, not just the ‘good’ ones.

Shouldn’t we, as HR, approach programs in the same way? The #nextchat conversation was about diversity hiring programs in particular. It might seem on the surface that creating a program is the easy way out. And certainly, there’s lots of historical experience to back up that concern. We see a problem, create a program, and voila! Problem solved.

We all know it doesn’t work that way. Programs aren’t a silver bullet. But if we really want to effect that change – if we really want to hire a more diverse workforce and create a truly inclusive culture – don’t we need a plan? If good intentions were enough, we’d be there. There is no one magic answer, and if we don’t have a plan for what to try or how to coordinate our efforts, how will we know if it’s working? Which parts of what we try are having real benefit and which parts just feel good?

I suspect that the concern about too many programs is really a concern about using programs as a way out, rather than committing to a solution and then using programs as a way to get to that solution. When we use programs to truly solve a problem or make things better, we must be more committed to the solution than we are to the program that we think will get us there. Good programs have built in feedback loops so that they can constantly respond and adapt as needed. Success is not having the program work smoothly; success is monitoring and constantly tweaking or even overhauling the program to continuously improve the results.

We won’t magically find ourselves in inclusive, diverse organizations without real effort. It’s hard and often uncomfortable work. In order for us to succeed, we’ll have to try a number of things. Some of them will work, some will fail spectacularly. But the effort needs intention and planning. Intentional planning becomes a program. Good programs make for good organizations. There’s a lot to critique about the way in which some companies, and some HR pros, approach programs. Let’s keep critiquing to build a better world. But I’m not quite ready to call program a 4-letter word.

Let’s get this party started

I’m sitting in the airport following the last session of the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference on twitter, and mulling over my takeaways as I get ready to head home and do the D&I work. I learned so much, and each session is worthy of its own blog post, so I expect I’ll be processing this conference on this blog for a while. But there were some common themes that held the conference together for me.

The first theme is that, while we’ve been doing D&I work for a long time, we haven’t made nearly enough progress. That said, I’m hopeful. Even though we aren’t progressing fast enough, we are still moving that needle slowly. And as Dr. Tony Byers said, we need to keep asking the same questions and seeing that we get different answers. There was also a theme about moving away from a focus on diversity to a focus on inclusion. As I heard over and over in several versions, diversity is a fact and inclusion is a choice. We really need to be moving beyond inclusion – another saying I heard in a variety of forms is: if diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked onto the dance floor, belonging is having my music playing.

I would suggest we’re doing ok making sure everyone is invited to the party, but we’ve got a ways to go to get everyone out on the dance floor. And I firmly believe we still expect them to dance to the music we choose to play.

How can we take off our version of Lisa Ling’s ‘American’ glasses and see the world through a clear lens? Obviously the first step is to acknowledge we’re wearing our own glasses, whatever they are. And to start having those difficult conversations. But to be perfectly honest, I’m tired to hearing about these first steps. Haven’t we been talking long enough? When do we start doing?

This is not to say that we don’t have difficult conversations ahead of us. If everyone had talked and listened, presumably the world would be a different place. Another theme I heard again and again is that we must have courage to say the hard things. As Dr. Tony Byers told us his grandma said, ‘tell the truth, then duck.’

But beyond talking, we have to do the work. We have to develop strategies to create inclusive places, belonging places, for everyone. Everyone has a voice, everyone’s voice has value, everyone needs a space to be heard. Maybe one reason that our conversations haven’t solved the problem lies with who is controlling the conversations?

If I sound frustrated, it’s because this is so important to me, and I want it to be fixed. Today. I’m actually leaving this conference hopeful, motivated, energized, equipped. I learned specific tactical tips (take a sharpie to those resumes and hide bias-inducing info from your hiring managers; learn how to practice and model micro-inclusions), I learned models and tips for creating holistic strategies, I learned more hard questions to ask in order to guide myself and my organization in doing this work.

Above all, I’m encouraged because there are so many other HR professionals out there, both at the conference and those who couldn’t attend, who are committed to continuing the journey. We won’t rest until everyone is out on the dance floor, and the playlist reflects every dancer.

D&I Preparation 

I’m in San Francisco getting ready for the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion conference that starts tomorrow, and I’m thinking about what diversity and inclusion mean.

On the plane here, I listened to an episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast about male privilege. The host, Deborah Frances-White, likened privilege to hot and cold running water. Most people reading my blog have lived their entire lives with hot and cold running water in their homes. It’s an expectation we don’t think twice about. We know in our heads that there are many people all over the world who don’t have running water, but it is so foreign to our own experience that we can hardly even imagine living without it.

Years ago we lived in a house with well water that ran on an electric pump, and once after a huge storm we lost power for about four days. I had three kids and a dog, and no running water. For four days. I don’t even remember being put out by the loss of electricity, but I remember not having water. After the power and water came back on, I thought to myself ‘I’ll never take this for granted again!’ But that gratitude probably only lasted a day at best.

Privilege is like that. Our experiences of privilege, by definition, are so assumed that we can’t separate them from ourselves. Intellectually we understand that other people don’t have the same experience, but we can’t really, truly understand what their experiences are like.

Thinking about diversity, and privilege, and intersection, I come up pretty good in the privilege sweepstakes. I’m white, middle class, able bodied, cisgender, and straight. Most spaces are open to me. I can assume I’m welcome, and included. Even in male dominated settings, my race and status often force the door open for me, even if I’m not fully welcomed.

As I prepare for the D&I conference, of course I’m wearing my HR hat. I want to use this time to add to my toolkit, and go home more equipped to ensure diversity and equity within my organization. But listening to that podcast, and remembering my four days without water, I want to be clear eyed about the lens through which I see the world. I want to recognize my own assumptions so that I can set them aside. I want to make sure that, when doing diversity and inclusion work, I’m not saying ‘let me create a place for you’, but ‘you deserve a place here, let me move over and make room’. It might sound like the end result is the same, but the message of inclusion isn’t.

My colleagues whose intersectionality is different than mine will have different experiences at this conference. I won’t begin to assume I understand the lens through which they will approach it, but I look forward to conversations and learning from them. A regular theme in my blogs is that we can’t separate ourselves as people from our role in HR. We bring our whole unique selves to the work and we have to understand how to be true to ourselves in how we approach the work. With diversity and inclusion, this can be uncomfortable. But we must be comfortable with our own discomfort if we are going to serve our employees and create spaces that are truly inclusive for everyone.

Whose side is it, anyway?

With all the talk about sexual harassment in the news, it’s only natural that HR folks would start talking about what went wrong at companies that are being rocked to their foundations. Where was HR? Why didn’t they step in and do their job? I’ve been following a twitter conversation among colleagues who I respect, and among other things they’ve been touching on the age old question: who’s side is HR on? Whose side should they be on? Protecting the organization or the individual?

I’ve mentioned before that I came to HR from an operations background, so it can be easy for me to think in terms HR’s role as supporting the company’s interest. On the other hand, the longer I’m in HR, the more I see how much influence I have to make life better for individual employees. And pondering this seeming dichotomy, I’m struck by the meaningless of it. Shouldn’t HR’s goal be to find the win for everyone? If I support the organization, I’ll support policies that make for an engaged workforce because engagement leads to productivity and the company wins. If I support the employees, I’ll support policies in the employees best interest. And guess what? That will still lead to high levels of engagement and productivity. Either way, when the employees win the company wins, and when the company wins the employees win. All ships rise together.

When it comes to sensitive topics like sexual harassment, some people might see supporting the company over the individual as sweeping the harassment under the rug or pushing the employee out. That view is short-sighted at best. The more you sweep under the rug, the more that rug starts looking lumpy, and people start to trip up on all that hidden dirt. You leave your organization open to litigation and loss of branding that can be impossible to recover from. Not only that, but that dirt becomes the elephant in the room that everyone knows about but doesn’t acknowledge. It hurts engagement and productivity. Even if you can get past the part about wronging the harassed employee, you are still not supporting the organization.

When you take reports of harassment seriously and investigate appropriately even when the accused is at the top of the organization, you do right by the victim, but you also do right by the company. You protect the company from litigation and negative publicity (because we’ve all seen – the publicity of ignoring accusations is much worse than the publicity of dealing with them), and you prove to your employees that the place they work is a company that does the right thing even when it’s hard. They will trust you when other hard things come up, knowing that you operate aboveboard.

In the end, I can’t choose a side. To do right by the company I have to do right by the employee. When I do right by the employee, I’m doing right be the company at the same time. I had a boss once whose motto was ‘doing the right thing is always the right thing to do’, and all of his business decisions followed this axiom. I’ve come to realize that in HR, doing the right thing is not always easy, but it’s always right.

Are you HR or an employee? The answer is yes.

A family member recently had a health scare that had me worried, and for a moment I thought I might be needing some time off to care for them. As I was working things out in my head, I suddenly realized – this could qualify for FML! I am a DOO in a small organization, and I’m the one who administers and tracks our FML. It doesn’t seem ethical, however, to approve or track that for myself.

Thankfully my family member is fine, so FML isn’t an issue for me right now. But it still got me to thinking about how it would work should I ever need it. I reached out to my colleagues on SHRM Connect (a great resource, by the way) and got some good advice. I’ve identified someone in finance/payroll who is not part of my reporting chain, and I’m giving them a crash course in FML requirements so should the need arise, they’ll be able to cover me.

As a DOO, there are lots of things I’m solely responsible for when it comes to the employee lifecycle, employee relations, and engagement. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that I’m also an employee that needs to be engaged and taken care of. I suspect I’m not alone in this. When you spend your time thinking about your staff’s professional development needs, do you include yourself? When you do an engagement survey, you certainly want to consider the results from an organizational perspective. But do you take the survey and answer as an employee? Your individual feedback is as important as anyone else’s.

How do you remember to consider yourself an employee who has the same right to benefit from HR as anyone else that you are serving?

On the flip side, sometimes it can be a challenge to put your own needs as an employee aside. I’ve been in meetings discussing changes to health benefits or leave policies that are going to negatively impact me, even though they are good changes for the company strategically and good for most of the workforce. It takes a conscious decision to set my own situation to the side and make the right decision for the good of the rest.

How do you separate your needs as an employee and do what’s right as the voice of HR for your organization?

While these issues might be more apparent to those of us who are sole practitioners, they are true for all of us who are both employees and HR pros. It’s impossible to fully integrate yourself as an employee separate from your HR hat, but it’s equally impossible to use that HR hat to hide your own interests as an employee. It’s important to remember that you are a real person under that hat, but equally important to remember the responsibility you’ve taken when you put the hat on. There’s no perfect answer to this tightrope we walk, but it’s important that we recognize the tension for what it is, and thoughtfully respond to situations in a way that acknowledges our whole selves.