Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

Tech Change Will Make Commies Of Us All!!

clenched fist

Is it just my imagination, or has there been an up-tick in socialist rhetoric lately?  Don’t get me wrong, I think that decisions about the role of government in our economy should be put in the hands of voters, and I recognize that for a few decades people steadily voted for less government.  But it looks like once every couple of weeks, another corporate heavyweight and another major news outlet presents a strong case that corporations have screwed it all up and it’s time for government to step in.

I’m counting this as a relevant topic for human resources generalists to take really seriously.  Brokering a compromise between the corporate mission and the sentiments of front-line workers is much of what we do all day, whether it’s in collective bargaining, employee communications, or just explaining a layoff to an affected employee.  So, when you’re trying to find an appropriate balance between the interests of unions and investors, it can be important to keep your fingers on the pulse.

In an article from Wired, the author criticizes Equifax, which released the confidential financial information of hundreds of millions of borrowers.  The author asserts that the Equifax breach is different from security breaches at regular bricks-and-mortar companies because Equifax’s entire reason for being is the safe storage of confidential information.  An effort at which they failed.  The author calls for the dissolution of Equifax’s corporate charter.

In my earlier blog post summarizing a major report by McKinsey on the structure of the gig economy, the general management consultancy started to leak spoonfuls of compassion.  The article notes that modernizing the social safety net may be warranted, in particular to extend social insurance systems to cover independent workers and those changing traditional jobs more frequently.  McKinsey also points to the pooling of workers by unions in the entertainment industry as a suitable vehicle for delivering health benefits coverage.

In an HBR article by Eric Garton from Bain & Company, another general management consulting firm, the author asserts that we should be investing more in employees to improve labour productivity.  After detailing a number of ways employee effort can be harnessed through employee engagement and a lower level of busy-ness, the author then turns to public policy.  Garton asserts that higher wages and investments in health care, training and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.

Over at Guardian.com, the left-leaning publication might normally be expected to call for greater government involvement in the economy.  But in this article they have abandoned those little comments from years gone by about tax-the-rich-here and social-programs-over-there.  They’re going for the jugular and calling for a government takeover of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

The author explains that the first-to-market and winner-takes-all nature of these major platforms eliminate competition, voiding any pretense of a free market.  With artificial intelligence likely causing power and money to concentrate even further in future, nationalization might just be fair game:  “…utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership. …Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won’t do.”

Over at the Atlantic, they’re interviewing people in the Silicon Valley who are asserting that our consumer electronics have addictive properties that are deliberate and need to be curtailed.  One expert “…compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

What should we do about being duped into staring at our smartphones far too often?  Why, open revolt, of course!  “Harris thinks his best shot at improving the status quo is to get users riled up about the ways they’re being manipulated, then create a groundswell of support for technology that respects people’s agency–something akin to the privacy outcry that prodded companies to roll out personal-information protections.”  On the low-end the same experts are calling for a shift to non-addictive behaviours, similar to switching to organic produce at the grocery store.  But that’s for lightweights.

Now, some of this might just be talk, and maybe we should take some of it with a grain of salt.  But next time you’re in the elevator or at the bargaining table or out for drinks with a friend who is stuck in their career, listen more closely.  As an HR professional you’re going to be expected to show that you’re in touch, and this kind of thing can sneak up on your.  So think carefully, ahead of time, what you’re going to say when you’re out in public and your best friend asks you to hold their pitchfork.

Cashiers Smile While Robots Take Stock

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What jobs do we actually want the robots to take off our hands?  Boring, tedious jobs, for sure.  Walmart is deploying shelf-scanning robots to 50 stores on a trial basis. The robots are expected to browse the aisles and take inventory of items on shelves, identifying depleted items, misplaced items, and overlooked price changes.

The technology is expected to complement shelf-stockers rather than replace them.  That is, the robot will collect better and more-prompt information about what is on the shelves, and then humans will come by the exact shelf location and re-stock the shelf with the correct amount.  Apparently taking inventory is thankless and tedious work that can be automated, while the actual use of hands and eyes to move physical packages onto shelves is an overwhelmingly human behaviour, at least for now.

The video produced by Walmart explains the technology itself, then wraps up with the following statement:

When we combine the passion of our people with the power of technology the possibilities are endless.

While it sounds like a corporate-speak motherhood statement, these words are truer than you can imagine.  The empathy of human sales staff has an outsized impact on customer engagement, and as such the jobs which are most immune to technological disruption are those that deliver the human element of the customer experience.

So if you’re feeling blue and bewildered about all of the rapid technological change in the world, put on your happy face, make eye contact with someone you can help, and offer a hand.  It might actually improve your job security, directly.  Knowing you’re more secure, your smile might turn real.

Workers Have Upped Their Game. It’s Your Move!

039-hard-work, by jdxyw
039-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
Does business make people productive, or is it people that make business productive?  It’s the latter.  Increasingly, in the modern economy, it’s people who keep the engines running, people who bring in revenue, and people who create profits.  And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that people have been neglected to the point that their full potential is not put to full use.

Eric Garton has written a compelling article for Harvard Business Review entitled The Case for Investing More in People.  Garton, from Bain & Company, has created and/or found strong research that makes the case that high-functioning human resources can be the best driver of corporate performance.  I haven’t read his book, but it looks like the article is an overview of his 2017 book Time, Talent, Energy.

Restoring Fairness in Wage Growth and Labour Productivity

There is a variety of metrics that show that labour market productivity (i.e. how much an individual worker puts out) has been growing at a very slow rate in the US relative to other countries and years past.  While labour market productivity is normally a good predictor of wage growth, the link has been broken such that even that meager growth that has been realized has not been passed along to employees.  This failure to re-invest in labour productivity is a problem.

The article cites a book by Zeynep Ton from MIT entitled The Good Jobs Strategy.  Ton notes a variety of businesses that have chosen to pay above-market wages in order to encourage employee engagement, which is increasingly seen as a driver of customer engagement.  The higher wages lead to “…lower levels of employee and customer churn, and correspondingly lower employee hiring and customer acquisition costs.  The compounding and virtuous effects of increasing customer and employee advocacy more than offset the higher cost of wages.” The decision to spend more on wages is not actually an expense so much as an investment.

We Are So Busy That We Are Unproductive

Garton also frets about employers carelessly wasting employees’ time.  Research shows that the over-abundance of interruptions and time-wasting meetings is causing employee burnout.  Particularly amongst managers “…great ideas that drive breakthroughs in productivity come from human beings with time, talent and energy to innovate.”  In my estimation an accidental or deliberate decision to slam managers with workload is a decision to reduce productivity.  Being cavalier about work volume implies a flippant view of workplace productivity, especially when people are working too hard.

The obligation to see every email, show up at countless meetings, and “look busy” is the hallmark of an organization that has chosen to do everything the same way, every day.  This hamster-wheel organization brings little hope to the future of labour productivity growth.  Yet there are opportunities to remedy this problem through productivity efforts such as Agile and Kaizen… if the workplace decides creative time is a desired business goal.  Remember, this is all about making choices.

Emotions Prevail: Employee Engagement is the Jet Fuel of Productivity

Another missing ingredient is employee energy.  In this case employee engagement is the focus.  “An inspired employee is more than twice as productive as a satisfied employee and more than three times as productive as a dissatisfied employee.  Yet, only one in eight employees is inspired.”

Personally, I’m fascinated by these performance metrics of an engaged employee.  If what the author says is true, and an inspired employee is producing 300 units, a satisfied employee is producing 200 units, and a dissatisfied employee is producing 100 units of output.  Can it be the case that turning an employee from dissatisfied to satisfied is proportional to a doubling their productivity?

That sounds about right to me.  People who are still feeling pretty good (i.e. “satisfied”) can probably get inspired and pour it on, increasing their productivity from 200 to 300 units (a decent 50% increase).  This means that for every 10% of the workforce that experiences a jump in employee engagement level, the return for the employer is in the realm of 5-10%.  And that’s mostly based on intangible items such as job design, power sharing, compassion, and open conversations.

That rate of return significantly out-performs most of what can be produced on the capital investment and cost-containment side of the productivity agenda.  I think that’s why we should conclude that the American investor class has completely screwed up their country’s ability to reach its full potential.  Low investment in labour productivity has been driving lower shareholder returns, flat wages, and generalized discontent.

Amongst society’s greatest woes is that people are working harder but not seeing any results in their paycheques, free time, or government services.  The instinct that we’re making sacrifices for the benefit of nobody but the investor class increasingly rings true.  The article notes that in addition to higher wages, investments in health care, training, and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.  If only there was some entity in the American economy that had accumulated extra money in the past few decades which might be available to pay for all of this…

Don’t Hate Mayhem. Love Complexity Instead.

You Better Hold On. By Jane Rahman
You Better Hold On. Photo courtesy of Jane Rahman.

The strongest defense against a bewildering world is a love of complexity and ambiguity.

Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most popular female novelist, has provided a brilliant critique of our modern times.  In her TED Talk from September 2017, she expresses concerns about economic uncertainty, the impact this uncertainty has on our emotional bewilderment, and knock-on effect this has on the appeal of demagogues.

“Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment, and I think lots of fear.  But here’s the thing:  Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors.  …I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions.  Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure, and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models.”

Speaking as a workforce analyst, these are my sentiments exactly.  People like me often try to figure out what is happening inside the workplace while thinking of employees as livestock or machines.  But then the people talk, and their souls come through.  Their context and their lives prevail over objective definitions of effectiveness.  Workplace culture overpowers the declarations of those with authority.

Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification

Nowhere do I see this more than when I split a dataset into demographic categories.  The categories are usually either-or scenarios, such as age bracket, binary sex, or length of service.  And just as we find the definitive behaviors and opinions of a certain category of people, with a little more digging we find that there is a deeper human story that defies categories.  I see men taking parental leaves, older workers expressing career ambitions, and high-school dropouts with unmet educational needs.  Putting people into categories only helps find a demographic that best gives voice to the human story.  But that human story will usually speak for everyone.

Shafak, who understands human stories, notes that demagogues “…strongly, strongly dislike plurality.  They cannot deal with multiplicity.  Adorno used to say, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.’  …that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we are living in?  Because everywhere I look, I see nuances slipping withering away.  …So slowly and systematically we are being denied the right to be complex.”

To Shafak, it is the bewilderment imposed upon us by change that makes us susceptible to the simple ideas offered by demagogues.  “…In the face of high-speed change many people wish to slow down, and when there is too much unfamiliarity people long for the familiar, and when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.  This is a very dangerous crossroads, because it is exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture.”

Emotional Intelligence, Embracing Complexity, and Building Resilience to Organizational Change

Shafak suggests that “…we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide.”  Those who struggle with complexity and ambiguity need our help.  We’re not at liberty to define non-complex people as the “other,” as people whose opinions we can reject in yet another polarizing simplification.

I felt this concern when I followed the James Damore incident at Google.  A programmer on the autism spectrum was fired for writing an anti-diversity manifesto, and his memo showed that he struggled with sensitivity training in a culture of diversity.  He attempted to attribute the onus of emotional intelligence to a liberal bias and the imposition of allegedly feminine social concerns.  The true lesson was not so much that bigotry sucks; it is that simplified emotions make us prey to extreme opinions.  I think we need to devote more time and energy to empathizing with the perplexed.

Shafak is insistent that we must cherish complexity.  We must value ambiguity.  We must allow ourselves to carry multiple identities and become the cosmopolitan people who can adapt to the world.  For me, I felt reassured that a deep curiosity for new information and enthusiasm for diverse views is the ultimate resistance against bad ideas.

With complexity we can have a meaningful society, meaningful work, and a resilient sense of self that allows us to move forward.  Only then can we get back to work and do our jobs well.