Just because you have a hammer…

On a recent episode of the sports radio show Mike and Mike, guest Colin Cowherd was addressing the latest developments in Major League Baseball’s issues with players using performance enhancing drugs.  The discussion between Cowherd and hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic turned to 50 game suspensions, 100 game suspensions and being banned for life.  At that point Cowherd expressed the opinion that just because MLB had a hammer, they should be very careful about using it.  He went on to say that corporate America had used the hammer too often recently, leaving employees dejected, fearful and out-of-work.

That conversation made me think.  Often HR is in the position of holding the organizational hammer.  Even if the “hammer” is held elsewhere in your organization, HR is probably involved in the decision to use the hammer versus some other tool.  Which leads me to the question:  How quickly do you use the hammer?

Like me, you may have a line memorized that goes something like:  “We have a progressive employee discipline process that matches the level of discipline to the seriousness of the offense.”  Sounds fair and usually works in an employer’s favor in both internal and legal venues.  But just because you can use a hammer, do you?

I’m not implying that you don’t match the most serious consequences to the most egregious behavior.  I am asking if you had a  process like this one (3 strikes and you’re out):  

  1. a verbal warning,

  2. a written warning,

  3. a decision making leave day, then

  4. termination;

would you ever give an employee two verbal warnings before moving to a written warning?  

I understand that some organizations do not permit any discretion in the employee discipline process.  But if your organization does permit some flexibility, do you use it?

I think you should.  I think that helps keep the “human” in human resources.  What do you think?

Return to blogging

I took a break from blogging that started when my daughter’s family came to visit from East Africa.  That pause was planned, but the pause continued in an unplanned fashion when I was caught up in the challenges at work related to a PeopleSoft implementation.  A couple of years and a job change later and here I am.  I almost started writing again several times, but there was always a project at work or home or church that took priority.  Sound familiar?  So here we go and we’ll see how long this lasts.

DANGER, Do NOT love your employer!

It’s a dangerous thing to fall in love with your employer.  I’m not talking about your boss, although that has its own set of risks.  I’m talking about thinking that just because you love working for your employer, your employer is going to love you back. It won’t happen.  I’ve spent much of my career working in higher education, and it’s not unusual to have a young graduate try to find a job with her alma mater.  She may love the college town atmosphere, the sports, the libraries, and the arts, but her university is incapable of returning that affection.  Its not limited to university employment.  I’ve heard many, many others tell me that they just love working for their companies.  They usually go on to list their favorite things about that job:  the benefits, the hours, the short commute, the challenge, the opportunity, etc. But an employer cannot and will not return the loyalty.

So where’s the danger in that?  You set yourself up for a huge emotional crash if you expect an organization to make decisions and act like a person.  Your family should love you unconditionally; but don’t expect your employer to do so, no matter how many raises or awards or accolades you’ve achieved. Just ask Tiger Woods, Mike Leach or Conan O’Brien. When the time comes, your employer will make a cold, dispassionate business decision.  If you expect that from your employer it won’t lessen the surprise or ease the pain when it happens to you; but sometime in the days ahead you’ll realize it wasn’t personal, it was just business. And then you can better pick yourself up and get on with the rest of your life.  So no matter how great your current job is, do not love your employer!

Leading at a Higher Level

Ken Blanchard writes that leaders should focus on four characteristics in uncertain times:

  • Be a bearer of hope;
  • Be realistic, but don’t listen to the negativity;
  • See your people as business partners; and
  • Be servant leaders, not self-serving leaders.

It seems to me that that HR leaders should adopt Blanchard’s approach for all times.

  • Bearers of hope. There’s nothing worse than a pessimist in HR.  I can take realism (see the point below), sarcasm, and maybe even some cynicism; but those who only focus on the worst possible outcomes drag everyone down.  Too often the pessimist’s message becomes a self-fulfillingprophesy. At the end of the day give me the HR leader who can help put bad news in perspective and point us to the hope that tomorrow will be another chance to improve.
  • Realistic, but not negative.  Bad news, especially “breaking” bad news reported by the media is almost always wrong.  The seasoned HR leader will wait for the whole story to emerge and then analyze the situation before speaking.  That way she can be realistic, but not negative. In fact, there may be some good news hidden in with the bad, which would allow her to also be the bearer of hope (see the point above.)
  • See employees as partners.  When I see that a colleague has crossed the point beyond which he sees all employees as problems, troublemakers, whiners, etc. it’s time he moved on.  He’s become a pessimist (see the first point above.)  Usually the surest way out of a bad situation is to partner with employees in realistically focusing on the positive, and then acting on it.
  • Be servant leaders, not self-serving leaders.  This point has to do with integrity.  If HR is among the first to abandon hope and abandon ship, it will be seen as self-serving.  On the other hand, if HR models the behaviors described in the first three bullet points, other employees will be encouraged to act reasonably and responsibly.

Most employees can handle uncertain times at work.  HR can help in that process by consistently modeling good leadership, in both certain and uncertain times.

The best HR blog post you read in 2009?

What was the best HR blog post you read in 2009?  Leave a comment below with a link to the post, then check back and see what others say.

How the Mighty Fall

Jim Collins’ recent book, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, he is looking at failed companies rather than great companies, which is a change for the noted management author.  Second, he found that failing companies go through some predictable stages before they disappear.  The stages are:

1. Hubris born of success
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
3. Denial of risk and peril
4. Grasping for a silver bullet
5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

It also interesting because Collins claims that if you find your organization at a stage above stage 5, you may be able to reverse the process.  But what’s most interesting to me is that the stages are BEHAVIORS of leaders.  Think about it.  According to Collins, organizations do not fail because of the wrong ERP, old technology or issues related to capital or markets or finance. No, Collins says that organizations fail due to the inappropriate behaviors of their leaders. Sounds like a talent management issue to me.  What do you think?

Research vs. Practice

The November 2009 issue of HR Magazine includes an article by Robert J Grossman about the disconnect between the academic view of HR and the practitioner’s view of HR.  According to Grossman, who’s a professor at Marist College, practitioners:

  • Can’t wait for answers
  • Care less about science than outcome
  • Hate ambiguity
  • Want relevant research
  • Want understandable results

On the other hand, academics want practitioners to:

  • Understand and value research, including its limits
  • Apply research principles appropriately
  • Be flexible enough to try research they don’t like

Grossman offers a couple of suggestions about bridging the disconnect.  Okay he lists three but I think the last two are really the same and that’s the one I want to emphasize:  reach out to a local HR professor.  (Disclaimer:  I’ve been an adjunct faculty member.)  Here’s what I think you’ll find: Most (the article says 60%) will be happy to engage you in a conversation about what’s important to you in HR.

Offer to meet them on campus for a cup of coffee.  Explain what you’re working on and then listen to their reaction.  Find out if they’ve conducted research in any areas of interest to you.  Those common areas can be the basis for some great collaboration.  The professor may invite you to be a guest speaker in one or more of their HR classes.  If so, you should accept. (Hint:  Don’t give a lecture, engage the class in a conversation.  They’ll have lots of questions.)  Invite the professor to serve on an external advisory committee, or to speak to your team at a lunch and learn, or to speak at your local SHRM chapter meeting (talk to the program chair first).  The point is to start a relationship.  Most professors could use more connections to the “real” world they teach about, and most practitioners can use more face time with academics. It’s a win-win proposition.