Month: May 2013

There Is No “F” in Team

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I play soccer on Sundays. At my age, this entails 90 minutes of running around with my head cut off, trying not to get hurt or collapse from exhaustion. Still, I enjoy it.

Sometimes, my daughters come to the games with me. They sit on the sidelines with the pretext of cheering me on, but spend most of the time playing with the kids of other players or gulping down the crackers, cereal bars, strawberries and whatever other snack I packed to keep them from complaining they were hungry ten minutes into the game.

I look over on the sidelines regularly to see how they were doing. Usually, they are just fine. But this once, my oldest and my youngest were gone. I shouted to the middle child, asking where they were. She said they had gone to the bathroom (a Port-o-potty near the parking lot). They returned a few minutes later, the younger one crying because she had wet her pants. A rarity at her age, but still, it happens.

I took a substitution and got off the field. I took the crying girl in my arms. She was soaked through. Usually, a hug from dad helps, but in this case, she was inconsolable. I called my wife at home and explained. Dutifully, she arrived soon after with a change of clothes, and took our daughter home. The other girls were as helpful as possible. They didn’t mock her or tease her about this embarrassing incident. That is the best of what family is. Whether you lose your job, crash the car, fail a test or wet your pants, they stick by you and help you the best they can.

All too often, I hear employers and employees alike describe their workplace as being like a family. Some companies even celebrate it. It makes me cringe. Workplaces shouldn’t be fostering family. They should be fostering teams.

Workplaces should be like the people I play soccer with. I usually loathe sports analogies, but in this case, it makes sense. My team gets together for a set amount of time, and work together for a couple of simple, common goals – to play well, to put the ball in the other team’s goal, to stop the other team from scoring on us. Win or lose, when the ref blows the final whistle, we shake hands with teammates and opponents alike, and say “good game”.

Workplaces also get together for a set period of time to achieve a few simple common goals – build market share, serve customers, maximize profit, etc. And at the end of the day, or week, or project deadline, we are done, we go home, “Good Game”.

With families, the goals are constantly shifting and changing. Different members may be working towards different ends. And, unlike a soccer game, or work, it’s never over. Barring some huge falling out, family will always be family. Someone can’t easily quit, and it’s hard to fire someone. Ask anyone with an adult child who won’t move out on his own.

Employees who want work to be a family seek the unconditional love inherent with strong families. However, the employer-employee relationship is all about conditions. Employees give their skills, knowledge and abilities to an employer. The employer gives the employees pay and benefits. If the skills, knowledge and abilities are no longer needed by the employer, or if the employer cannot provide adequate pay and benefits, the relationship ends.

Strong families are committed to each other without any such conditions placed on the relationship. That is why some employers like to have their employees think of the workplace of family. They then get the commitment without having to give any sort of compensation. Show me an organization that touts its family atmosphere and I’ll show you one with lousy pay and benefits.

Up to this point, I’ve been talking about the ideal family. Families are rarely ideal. All too many are dysfunctional. Dad’s a workaholic, sister’s dating a stoner, mom never wanted kids in the first place, brother tries to hold everyone together even though he’s only thirteen. Workplaces that are like family are no different. They are rife with petty squabbles and people focused on personalities rather than performance. Crying and yelling are not uncommon. They have bosses unwilling or unable to have the tough conversations with underperforming workers. They rarely, if ever, fire anyone, forcing everyone else to work that much harder.

Is this what most people want in a workplace?

I care about my team mates, both at work and on the field. I have a responsibility to each and every one of them. But let me tell you, if you one of them wets his pants, don’t expect me to give him a hug.

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Unemployed Need Not Apply

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New York City recently passed a law making it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant based on whether or not that applicant is currently employed.

In other words, they passed a law to keep employers from being stupid.

Outright rejecting applicants currently unemployed has existed for years, but the Great Recession brought the issue to the forefront. Suddenly, not only did people find themselves among the unemployed, but among the long-term unemployed. Employers stating on job postings that only currently employed applicants will be considered didn’t help any. They may as well have plastered WHITES ONLY on their postings.

Employers give a variety of reasons for this stupidity. They claim that they have no reason of knowing why an applicant lost his/her last job. They think that if an applicant hasn’t been able to find a job in a while, it must be because they are not hirable. They state that being out of work for a period of time makes an applicant’s skills out of date.

The worst reason, however, is that the employer states that it gets so many resumes that it needs a way to single out the good ones. The employer may as well use criteria such as pet ownership or what type of car a person drives to screen applicants.

These reasons are never backed up with evidence. So I did a little study of my own using my current organization. In the past 16 months, 32 percent of our hires were not employed at the time of hire. I compared their performance to the those who were employed at the time of hire. Surprise! I found no significant difference. In fact, the poorest performers were all ones employed at the time of hire.

So there.

Candidates find themselves out of work for a variety of reasons, many of which are not their fault. They also may find that they miss out on new jobs for reasons not of their own making. Too many hiring managers think, well if so-and-so employer didn’t like this person, there must be something wrong. In making htis assumption, they forget one important fact.

A lot of bosses are idiots.

They ask interview questions like “Pick two celebrities to be your parents”, or “Name three Nobel Prize winners”. They have fired people for being too attractive or for leaving their post to save a carjacking victim. One man in Chicago was even fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers tie (even as a Bear’s fan, I can’t justify that one).

There are those people who have trouble finding and keeping jobs because they are lousy workers. But you can’t tell that from a resume or an online application. Being unemployed shouldn’t keep the person from getting an employer’s full consideration.

I had an employee who was very open about being let go from her last employer during the interview process. When she told me why she was fired, I almost thought she was lying. It’s something I might have given a reprimand for, but it was by no means a firing offense. She worked for me for several years and always did a great job.

High performers are already difficult to find. Why would employers want to rule out an entire pool of potentially great employees?

I could even argue the opposite. Perhaps that person who has been out of work for 18 months is so eager to work, and values a job so much, that they will repay your faith in him/her with loyalty and dedication that you wouldn’t find in someone who believes that they can just go out and get another job if they need one.

So would I state on my job postings, Only the Unemployed Need Apply? Of course not. I don’t have the evidence to back it up.

Should HR Be In the Hiring Business?

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Recently, Nick Corcodilos of http://www.asktheheadhunger.com, answered this question and answered with a resounding “No”. You can read what he had to say here, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/businessdesk/2013/04/ask-the-headhunter-the-talent.html. He provides three reasons for his thinking:

1) HR Professionals (clerks, he calls us) don’t have the knowledge of the jobs for which we are hiring.
2) Hiring is too critical a function for a manager to delegate it to HR.
3) HR has no “skin in the game,” because they are not held accountable for who they hire.

I’m not sure which HR departments Mr. Corcodilos was referring to, but they sure weren’t any of the ones for which I’ve worked. He paints a picture of HR as some monolithic bureaucracy straight out of the movie Brazil, mindless administrators sitting appearing to be busy at our computers. All we’re missing are the vacuum tubes.

If this description is accurate, then Mr. Corcodilos is right – HR has no business hiring. But this doesn’t describe HR – just bad HR. Good HR partners with others in the organization to find the best candidates. They don’t take care of the hiring process from start to finish, without any input from the hiring manager. It’s not as if one day, HR plops a complete stranger into an empty seat and then says to the manager, here you go, he’s all yours.

Good HR works with the hiring manager to help that hiring manager find the best person for the position. In my current workplace, we start by discussing the requirements for the position, and adjusting the job description accordingly. HR then creates a job posting based on this description and coordinate recruiting strategies with the manager. Especially when looking for highly skilled employees, this involves the manager actively recruiting candidates through his or her own network.

The hiring manager sees all resumes. We do not do a keyword search to narrow the field (I agree with Mr. Corcodilos that this is a bad practice, which I discuss in a previous post, From the Great State(s) of Winnesota http://wp.me/p3ovkQ-l). The hiring manager provides HR with a list of candidates to screen.

Mr. Corcodilos believes that the hiring manager should make the first contact. That would be great in an ideal world. However, managers are busy. They may find nine or ten candidates who, judging by their applications and resumes, are worth talking to, but in actuality, are not a fit for the position. We used to have candidates come in and interview with the manager without the HR screening. Too many times, we found that the candidate was not right because, regardless of what the application said, they were not willing to work the hours we needed, wanted too much money, had poor communication or interpersonal skills, or didn’t share the organization’s values. A twenty minute phone screening eliminates these candidates, leaving managers with the three to five candidates who are actually worth an interview. Also, a good HR Professional takes the time to understand the position, at least on a cursory level. I used to go out to job fairs to talk with engineers looking for new positions. After talking to them a few minutes, they would often ask, What type of engineer are you?

I’d give a standard response: I’m not an engineer. I just play one on TV.

The manager conducts the in-person interview in order to determine who is the best candidate. HR trains the managers in how to conduct an interview and write interview questions that will help them make an informed decision. Afterwards, we often act as a sounding board to talk through the final decision with the manager. We also conduct all the necessary background checks and provide guidance on compensation. When making the offer, we make sure that the candidate understands our benefits and pay packages, and answer any questions regarding these issues.

Keep in mind that this process is not always the same. It may change to meet the needs of the hiring manager or the position. We are internal consultants. HR is there to help, not to dictate.

And what if we weren’t involved? Let me give you two examples from previous employers:

1) One of my first days on a job, I was asked to sit in on a round of interviews. Being new, I let the hiring manager run the interviews. After talking to six different candidates, he asked me what I thought. I told him I had no idea. He spent most of the time talking, never asking the candidates a substantial question.

2) When I started another position, I went into New Employee Orientation with five other new hires. After six months, only two of us were still employed with the organization. At that time, HR was only involved in the hiring process to ensure legal compliance. For example, they reviewed interview questions, but only to make sure managers weren’t asking anything inappropriate. Managers were hiring to fill positions, without any training or guidance. A revolving door had been created, costing both time and money.

Mr. Corcodilos last point, that HR is not held accountable for hires, is a problem with organizational structure, not with HR. In my organization, I am measured against factors such as turnover rates, customer satisfaction and sales performance. If I don’t help get the right people in place, those measurements will suffer, and it will show up in my compensation. In addition, if an employee turns out to be a bad hire, who do you think the manager calls to help solve the problem? That’s right, me, HR guy. So it only creates more work for me in the long run.

If you still don’t believe that good HR should be in the hiring business, ask managers. I did. The response was unanimous.

I don’t think I need to tell you what their answer was.

Wanted – Top Chef

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So some restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana posted a Craigslist ad for a line cook. The ad got a lot of press. It’s longer than Raymond Carver’s story “The Little Things”, and has a less happy ending.

It includes 44 requirements. Some highlights:

“You admit when you are wrong, but never point out when others are wrong — especially the chef.”

“You are able to work double shifts for many days without days off.”

And my personal favorite:
“You always show up for work, even if sick as a dog. Let the chef see that you’re really sick and send you home.”
(I don’t know about you, but if a cook has Bird Flu, or the bubonic plague, or even chronic halitosis, I don’t want him anywhere near the kitchen that’s preparing my food).

The want ad has since been taken down, but you can read it here: http://www.happyplace.com/23551/ridiculously-detailed-craigslist-ad-for-restaurant-line-cook

As I read this ad, I could see its author, most likely the chef himself, at his tiny desk in the corner of his kitchen, furiously typing out all the things he didn’t like about the last six people he hired for this job (each of whom probably lasted no more than a week). And while we’ve all had our share of bad hires, a job posting like this one won’t help attract top candidates. It fails on many levels:

1) The employer is showing he’s a demanding control freak. No one wants to work for a jerk. The job of a line cook is hard work for little pay, gruelling even under the best employer.

2) If someone is stupid or insane or desperate enough to apply for the job, the employer has made it easy to ace the interview. Every expectation has been laid out ahead of time. Someone who is a crummy worker, or worse, a lousy cook, could walk in and say everything this employer wants to hear. Sure, the person wouldn’t last long, but in the meantime, the employer would have to deal with the mistake.

3) This employer wants someone who can walk in and do the job even before he’s figured out where his apron is hung. He is not going to take the time to lay out expectations, he’s not going to pair this person up with a peer to learn the ropes, he’s not going to train in any way. Most good candidates take a job for more than money. They want the opportunity to improve and develop. None of that with this job. Do it right, do it now, or you’re out.

4) All 44 items appear to be non-negotiable. Have 35 of the qualities? Not enough. 41? Still no good. It’s all or nothing. Rarely have I hired the perfect candidate. IF I can find someone with 70 percent of what I’m looking for and 20 percent that can be taught, I’ll live without the last 10 percent.

5) It’s obvious that this employer never had to write an ad in the pre-internet days when newspaper want ads were five sections long. Back then, we had to pay for ads by the line or by the word. The longer the ad, the higher the cost. Craigslist is free, so if someone wants to create an ad complete with chapter headings and footnotes, they can go ahead. Although they should be surprised if it’s dubbed TLTR (Too Long Too Read), and most of it gets ignored.

So, Mr. Chef, here is how I’d rewrite your ad:

Line Cook wanted to work in the culinary equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. Boss no other than Beelzebul himself. Must be able to walk on water, and even that won’t get you through the Pearly Gates.

May Day! May Day!

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On May 4, 1886, workers in Chicago gathered in Haymarket Square to protest for an 8 hour workday. Police came to break up the rally. A bomb was thrown at the police, and the police responded with gunfire. Seven police officers and four protesters were killed. Scores of others were wounded.

International Workers Day was born.

It would take the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to make the 8 hour workday the norm throughout the country.

Recently, retail and food service workers in Chicago and New York went on one day strikes to protest low wages. For these workers, earnings are generally near minimum wage, around seven to eight dollars an hour. They say they need at least fifteen dollars an hour to make ends meet.

Good for them. I hope they succeed, but they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Call me a socialist, but I believe anyone willing to work hard at a job should have the opportunity to put a roof over his or her head, put food on the table, pay for other necessities and maybe even set a little aside for a rainy day. Those “Job Creators” who say they can’t afford to pay more to their employees are either greedy liars, or have a poor business model. Any employer who can’t succeed and still provide a living wage to employees deserves to go out of business.

Still, I have little hope anything will change.

The problem with trying to bring up the wages of these workers comes down to simple supply and demand. These jobs are generally unskilled, and despite the improving economy, a lot of people are still looking for jobs. The supply of employees is high, the demand low, so wages remain stagnant. The owner of a fast food franchise could lose all his employees tomorrow, and be up and running again in a couple of weeks with all new staff. He might even be able to pay the new employees lower wages.

A factory worker for a small manufacturing company I once worked for went to the owner and said he needed a raise. The owner asked him why. He went on to list his expenses – car payment, mortgage, etc. The owner told him no. If he had said how the owner would miss his skills and experience if he had to leave for a higher paying position, and the owner agreed, the answer may have been different.

But the worker didn’t see it this way, instead, he followed Karl Marx’s adage, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

The strikers in Chicago and New York appear to agree with him. They are demanding more money because they need more money, not because they are necessarily worth more money on the open market.

I never said I believed everyone should earn a living wage, only that they deserve the opportunity.

I guess I’m not a socialist after all.

This isn’t necessarily their fault. In some cases, they have been failed by the system. They are the product of poor schools and low expectations that have left them with little hope of getting more than a low skilled job. Or they are over educated and underemployed, told that they should get a college degree, but found that degree in Sociology or Medieval Literature had little value to employers.

To them, I’d say that they should not look to the system that failed them to help them now. Instead they should rely on their own talents. Look for ways to show their value to their employers. Take on extra responsibilities, learn new skills, be adaptable, be a team player. And if their current bosses don’t recognize this value with cash, find some other employer who will.

My first full-time job had lots of responsibility and little pay. I took that opportunity and made the most of it. I learned as much as I could about the industry. I took on whatever came my way. When I said I was taking a job with a competitor, they gave me a raise to retain me. I received a promotion. And when I started to stagnate in my position, and there were no more opportunities to grow, I moved on to another employer. I did this with subsequent jobs. Today, I am by no means wealthy, but I am able to support a family. There have been sacrifices. I’ve had to take jobs that were far less than ideal. I have been underpaid, overworked and under appreciated. But you do what you have to do.

And for those employers who take advantage of their high performers instead of rewarding them. Who see employees as an expense, keeping wages low for no other reason than to increase the bottom-line, remember what Henry Ford said, “A business that makes nothing but money is poor business.”