| making 'People' work

To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Tag: Employment

Understanding Gen Y: Part 1

I recently came across an article written by a young man who identified himself as Gen Y (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000).  His article reflected on the life of his mother who had served her main profession and few employers continuously and steadfastly throughout her adult life towards the aim of enjoying a comfortable retirement.  As that time loomed near she had not achieved the financial security she needed for retirement.  Even a delayed retirement would provide her little more than a basic existence and the prospect of dependence on others as her health declined over time.

The writer vowed that he would never live his life in selfless service to employers to face the same late life insecurity as his mother.  His article provoked outraged criticism from many readers.  Comments saluted the mother as dedicated and selfless while he was branded ‘typical Gen Y’: entitled, ungrateful, insensitive and selfish.  Respondents compared their own parents who, like the writer’s mother, worked long and hard to provide for them but unlike the writer, they were proud of their parents who earned their pensions and they saluted their dedication.

The emotion of the responses seemed out of proportion to the sentiments expressed in the article.  For instance he was accused of having a sense of entitlement, yet nowhere did he write that he expected more than his mother.  He simply stated he wanted make different choices to his mother so he would have the opportunity to achieve a better outcome.  A look at the profile photos of the respondents suggests reactions could have had something to do with their ages and their own prospects for retirement in the years ahead.

Like this writer, I do not think we should call a system (economic, social or otherwise) that asks for compromises to be made during our working lives in exchange for freedom in future years, but then that freedom is unavailable, a success. Far from disrespectful, he was distressed that his mother’s financial situation did not do justice to the care she took of others during her working life.

What was typical of this writer as a member of Generation Y was his attitude that the system needs to be better. He reached out on social media so he and others can do something about it.  They think this way because we taught it to them.

As Gen X (those born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s) parents, we have sought to do what our parents before us have done: give our children a better life than the one we had.  With experiences of relationship breakdowns, mortgage stress, complying with society’s expectations at the expense of our own fulfilment, job insecurity and social inequality guiding our parenting approach, we taught our children to never settle for less than they deserve.  We have given them the expectations of respect, equality, choice and that they can be anything they choose to be.  We denied them little and protected them from harm that often existed only in our minds.  “Why don’t you look it up yourself?” we would say when they asked us a question and we saw an opportunity to develop their independence.  We drove them from activity to activity week after week, and that was worth it because these activities developed their confidence and their collaboration skills.  Their sense of responsibility to the planet and to the disadvantaged is a credit to us because we told them it was important to care about people more than title, money and power.

And now they are in the workforce, and Gen Y – with the values we instilled in them – and the workplace are out of sync.


Since the modern workplace developed in the 1950s, a clash between the establishment and the new generation has always been the case.  Boomers in the 1960s fought workplaces fraught with inequality and patriarchy.  Gen X in the 1980s fought being ‘treated like a number’ and demanded recognition and career opportunity.  The difference with the entry of Gen Y into the workforce is the previous generations are working longer; they are staying rather than making way for the new generation.

It is far too easy to dismiss Gen Y as a self-absorbed generation that understand technology better than people.  To them, we the older generation can seem not self-absorbed enough – complying with employers for their benefit at our own expense – without fighting to change it.

Gen Y are an educated, caring, confident, connected, inquisitive, socially-minded, innovative and entrepreneurial generation.  Organisations need to harness these attributes not beat young workers into our old thinking that time served equals achievement.  It will not be enough to accommodate them; we need to actively engage with them.  We should learn how we can keep up with an automated, technology-driven and hyper-connected world.  As the world ages, Gen Y will not just be the talent that powers the organisation, they will also be the customers.

As parents we told them not to settle for something they felt was not right, and there is much about work that is not right.  Like them we should also feel outraged when after a long working life we are faced with the fear that our savings will not be enough. Like them we should assume that this is something we should do differently.  As managers we should not even have the time to be complaining about Gen Y.  The time should be spent developing a workforce model that better serves the organisation in the new world, and provides better prospects for financial security in retirement.

What should we do about the job problem?

Reporters, statisticians, economists and demographers are predicting the demise of jobs, millions of jobs. According to futurist Thomas Frey, 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030. Whether you believe all the data or not it is clear that changes, mostly due to technology, in the structure of the labour market have already been significant. In Australia, across Europe and the US, the numbers of jobs lost during the GFC, for instance, have rebounded, however, mostly in lower, entry-level positions and high-level professional positions. The middle class jobs lost have stayed lost.


It doesn’t take much thinking to understand how this has happened. The ‘middle class’ jobs came about through industrialisation. Workers needed managers to manage them, facilities needed controllers to oversee them, professionals needed assistants to administer diaries and type, file and dispatch documents, services needed agents to book and coordinate them. Now, any function that can be performed routinely, mechanically or using an algorithm has been or will be replaced by technology. This will leave many of those in the ‘middle’ to take up work that previously would have been held by unskilled workers, pushing the unskilled or marginalised worker further out of any prospects for economic security.

The significance of the implications of this global workforce restructuring cannot be overstated.  With the expectation that by 2030 only 2 billion of the 8.3 billion people on earth will hold jobs of the nature we currently recognise, protecting jobs and industries is not only futile it gets in the way of the vital work preparing for the future.  If this lack of urgency continues, the inevitable increase of people living below the poverty line will be one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.

The 16 years between today and 2030 is only enough time for a person to finish high school, complete a university degree and gain two to four years of work experience.  Is this enough time (assuming in the future this method of progressing through education will even be relevant) for us to also understand, develop and regulate new industries?  Will it be a fight between the health, biotech and manufacturing unions over who represents the 3D body part printing industry workers, for example?

Space architects, nanotechnology, memory neuroscientists, livestock engineering, robot repairs, virtual ethics lawyers – these are just some of the jobs set to emerge over the next decade.  It is easy to think that obsolete jobs will be replaced with new jobs and therefore no need to panic.  The problem is that the opportunities favour those who are already practising their specialist field.  They will be the ones with enough accumulated experience, training and knowledge to take on these positions.  The expected shortage of qualified workers will push up the remuneration they will be able to command, increasing the divide between the wealthy and the poor.

In this scenario it seems incredible that governments are focused on progression from the past rather than preparation for the future.  ‘Saving industries’ and ‘creating jobs’ is great for political cachet but the reality is a marketplace that simply does not want commoditised goods and services produced and sold using old industrial/traditional methods (especially due to cost).  Government does not have a say in whether these industries or jobs are saved.  All we are achieving is a constant state of tension between the desire to cling to the past and the looming approach of the future.  In a state of tension action is stymied by the pain of movement and the paralysis from no clear plan of action.

The projected imbalance between the working and the non- or intermittently working must put ‘work creation’ on the priority list.  How will the working minority ever be able to pay enough taxes to support the rest?

What should be done?  There are many ideas that have been proposed to improve employment such as the reduction of red tape, revision of unfair dismissal laws and removal of penalty rates.  Many good ideas are made difficult because they are unpopular.  These ideas endlessly argued in parliaments, courts, the media, social media and organisations are only improvements on the master-servant relationship enshrined in English common law.

It’s time to debate some new ideas that will help societies enable more people to work in fulfilling and productive enterprises.  Here are mine:

  1. More people will be working as freelancers and small business operators than employees within the next 5 to 6 years.  As more Gen Y and Millennial Generation workers enter the workforce the growth of this sector will continue.  Why then, are schools still preparing students for jobs they may never hold?  The focus on ‘preparing’ students for the future writing résumés, applying for jobs, career advice are akin to the compulsory subject I was forced into for two years in high school.  I am grateful that I can touch type but the chances that it would be how I earned a living was, even then, dubious at best.
    How many in the school system still operate, even subconsciously, on the premise that the ‘smart’ ones should be groomed for university, the ‘non-academic’ encouraged to find a trade and the non-conformists to find a job.
  2. Whatever funds government is pouring into employment should be adjusted so that at least the equal amount is made available for solo and small business operators.  Not only are they going to outnumber employees, there will be more opportunities for the at-risk of unemployment in their own enterprise than in jobs.  You might even consider self-employment the new entry-level job.
    This option will give government far better return on their investment.  Companies are increasing their use of outsourced work, while average earning for freelancers and solo business operators have been increasing on average year on year.
  3. What if governments paid the first five hours per week up to 30 weeks, say, for any worker employed by a micro or small business?   How many more people would get a starting chance at work?  How many retiring workers could mentor new workers?  How many businesses might be encouraged to reconsider their (non-tax paying) unofficial operations?
  4. What if there was tax incentive for workers to change jobs?  A social policy version of Tony Hsieh’s initiative where Zappos’ new hires are paid $2,000 to quit.  This would relieve employers of workers who would rather be elsewhere but force them to get serious about providing a decent work environment if they want decent workers to stay.
  5. With all the smart technology available, payroll administration should become the responsibility of the individual.  Payroll administration is an expensive burden for large employers, and a nightmare for small employers.  It’s the workers’ money, why don’t they look after its administration?  The employee registers once as an individual tax payer, then as they are employed to work, links up their account with the employer’s.  It then becomes one tax payment on the employee’s total monthly earnings, one tax return.
  6. One of the main arguments against employment reform is that workers need protection.  Putting restrictive practices in place such as minimum hours and penalty rates to discourage poor employer behaviour disadvantages decent employers and employees while the rogue employers simply flaunt the law.  What if employers were required to apply for a licence that comes with basic employer training?  When registration and licences are required for rights like driving a car and owning a cat, it does not seem unreasonable to register for rights that give employers so much control over the economic and in many ways physical and mental well-being of their workers.  Plus it would be a nice windfall for government coffers

The objective for society must be work, not job, creation.  To do this we need to focus on where most of the work will be available, and if this is NOT in employment, then we need to make it easier for independent operators to set up, to operate and to become good employers themselves.

What other ideas do you have?

The workforce talent quest (why Gen Y don’t want to be ‘retained’)

Most employers agree: retaining talent is at the top of their list of HR priorities.

Talent retention is part of the traditional HR approach to people management: ‘resources’ that can be ‘gained, trained, maintained and retained’.  Having established the organisational hierarchy and work flow, the cog that fits in that wheel is able to be determined.  The cog vacancy requirements are documented in the position description and the lengthy process to find the right cog can begin.  Although you cannot always expect a perfect fit, you can ensure the cog is malleable enough to adjust itself, perhaps with a little leadership lubricant as required.  More significant building up of the gaps or filing down of the rough spots may require some training, a process that is more likely to be made available to the cog as long as everyone can see that the right shape, size, fit and movements can be eventually achieved (being able-bodied, with English as the first language, and not too young and not too old are generally good indicators that the cog has potential so they are often more likely to be hired).

Having gone through such effort to create the well-oiled machine, management needs to generate the highest possible returns and this means keeping people in the position for which they have been selected and moulded for as long as possible.  The cost of cog replacement is estimated to be around 1.5 times the employee’s annual salary.  Significant management efforts go to motivating employees to remain as shiny, new cogs.  Little cogs are encouraged to want to learn how to become bigger cogs, or to move to another part of the machine.  Even if they never get there, at least aiming and hoping, is a strong incentive to stay.

But this is ‘talent’ of the old model.  It is not just that the industrial model no longer fits the rapidly changing world in which organisations operate and compete.  It also no longer fits the people who will fill these jobs.  With the ‘Gen Y’ worker now between the ages of 18 and 30, they currently make up approximately 20% of the workforce.  Within ten years this generation, often considered by employers to be uncommitted, entitled, ungrateful, lazy and impatient, will account for close to 75% of the workforce.

Figures often quote Gen Y workers to have an estimated 5 careers and 20 employers in their lifetimes, and so the race is on for employers to find the best of the best and keep them.  This however is just not how Gen Y works, and the problem is not just attitude it’s structural.

The Baby Boomer generation, having survived depression and war were grateful for a job for life.  Mutual employer-employee loyalty was expected and given.  Retiring with a gold watch was more enticing than a new job.  Generation X that followed, living in the post-Vietnam war years and with memories of the Cold War, recognised that they were here for a good time not a long time.  They divorced and remarried at unprecedented rates and learn to enjoy the spoils of an increasingly materialistic lifestyle.  They learned to ‘look after number one’ and ‘greed was good’.  Their loyalty was to their careers.

Generation Y have grown up in an insecure world.  They not only learn of the terrible conflicts from wars and ideologies but they do so in real-time, the internet giving them instantaneous access to not just reports of disasters, wars and revolutions but delivering these in images and first hand accounts spread through social media.  They see thousands of displaced people whether from natural or man-made disasters, they see natural resources exploited to the point of exhaustion, and a world heading towards an environmental disaster.  Closer to home, they are as likely as not to have experienced their parents’ divorce and would have first hand experience of someone who has been made redundant and or suffering unemployment.  They were told that education was the key to a secure future, and the most educated generation ever is a victim to post-secondary degree inflation.

What Gen Y want is meaning.  They feel a greater responsibility than one to the employer they work for.  They have a responsibility to the environment, to social causes, to their peers who are co-survivors.  They have also been brought up by parents who considered them their peers; they were the centre of the household, consulted for their opinions and supported at a very close level.  They were told that they could do anything.

Gen Y were also brought up with the internet.   They cannot remember a time without email and mobile phones – both of these now old school anyway.  They don’t think knowledge is power because with their smartphones and mobile devices knowledge is everywhere and it is everyone’s.

To Gen Y their first loyalty is to their lifestyle.  There is no such thing as work/life balance, it’s life/life balance.  Personal goals mesh with professional goals.  They simply do not understand a workplace that will not allow them a six month leave of absence to build a school in India or save the elephants in Africa.

Being both highly (if not hyper-) encouraged and protected from birth, they prefer to work as part of a team, to be self-directed, to be allowed to innovate and to take risks.  Work that offers them freedom their preferred environment, will see Gen Y will work hard and drive towards their goals.  They are also used to taking their friends everywhere and being only a status post away.  Working in an office, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 just because, simply doesn’t make sense to them.

The statistic that Gen Y will have 20 jobs in their lifetime only reflects the jobs of those Gen Y who look for and stay in full-time jobs, and these will be the minority.  An oDesk survey found that close to 60% of Gen Y consider themselves to be ‘entrepreneurial’ meaning having an opportunity-seeking mindset, rather than business ownership.   Gen Y have learned that the internet democratises work.  Anyone can build a business, it may be an eBay store or a single idea that might become another Facebook, or it may be joining in on someone else’s crowd sourced idea or investment.   They can do this at the same time as they hold a regular job – found online of course – or find a gig through Elance or 99designs or any number of marketplaces.  They can have upwards of 100 jobs in their lifetime, which suits Gen Y perfectly because they can come into a job at exactly the right time and only work on their specialist area.  There will be tertiary-educated Gen Yers who will never experience a permanent, full time job.

In light of the changing demographics in the workforce, a radical shift in thinking to the ‘talent retention’ problem is needed.  It’s a catch-22 situation, the machine needs people to stay yet it is the machine that people – especially Gen Y – leave.  Employers need to start thinking of their workers as permanent but their employment as stints, much like universities see their alumni students.  They need to de-construct work so that ‘talent’ is no longer defined as those that fit the box, the cogs.  Instead talent should be what is actually means, ‘innate ability or skill’.  To Gen Y who have grown up mixing and partnering with people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, appearances and able-bodiedness, they are used to the talent fitting the situation, not the situation deciding the talent.

More reading:

The unravelling

This article was first written at the height of the GFC – we have not advanced much since then.

This blog is about the state of work – often a sorry state of work. When times are tough, as they presently are, we are more protective of work: as employees of the jobs we have; as employers, the jobs we make available. Perhaps in adverse times we become more aligned, united in our efforts. Otherwise employment is an undeniably a relationship of conflict: about money, about rights, about being a worker with human needs and issues. And if employment is relationships between the interests of different parties, then the employment system is aimed at mediating between power and rights between workers and employers, thus, we have not resolved the employment conflict, we have made it mainstream. Many will disagree. We have heard all the objections before. We know many protesters will be from the human resources fraternity. After all, their programs and processes are designed to create harmonious, productive workplaces: finding “right” people, ensuring feedback is provided, careers are available, development is promised, people are “retained”. We don’t mean to sound cynical but the happily aligned workforces are those often relentlessly policied, programmed and filtered to the point that they are sanitised of individuality.

I am not anti-employer, nor anti-human resources (HR).  I also see employees who cause all manner of headaches to their employers and colleagues: bringing to work a sense of entitlement, an expectation that they are there as a right, contributing angst, uncertainty, and complying with workplace expectations if not with grudging, feet-dragging unwillingness, then selectively. What I am saying is that the current method of employment is inadequate and unsustainable. Unsustainable because the willingness of workers to be subjected to autonomic organisations’ decision-making agenda and abilities, and the potential for uncertainty, lack of fulfilment and demands that cross reasonable work/life boundaries, is waning. Inadequate because the resource/productivity mentality of the industrial age does not cater for the many ways that people can work. We are used to putting values on, say, a salesperson with a 300-customer database, but what about a person with no sales experience but with a following of 3000 (interested, potential customers?) on Twitter?

The cracks in employment have been showing for a very long time. Unemployment and underemployment, skills and labour shortages are problems in the labour force that have yet to be resolved. In the workplace rates of burnout and stress are on the rise from the ever-growing number of causes: overwork and under staffing, or being over-managed by the under-skilled, or the lack of variety and stimulation, or the need for on-demand availability from access to mobile phone and technology, or the erosion of confidence and esteem from people or systems that intimidate, bully, harass, or systems that cannot cope with the demands on them. The thing is people do want to work as much as they have to work. They just want to work in a way that suits them as humans, not in the way that organisations subject them to work. The irony is that for all that organisations and people are basically similar in their desire to achieve, to succeed, to engage and to meet challenges, the current system of employment is more likely to accede differences than build on similarities. People get it that organisations need to be, to one extent or another, commercial or entrepreneurial. What they want is an open dialogue about the environment in which this occurs and they contribute. When HR becomes involved, the opportunity for this dialogue diminishes. HR, an advocate for management, weights the flow of dialogue top-down rather than two-way. Further, commerce and business are not the common language of HR, so its ability to facilitate shared concern for the success of the enterprise is often limited to generalities without the specifics of data and metrics, strategy and analysis. This is less a reflection on the intelligent, professional, dedicated people who work in HR, it is just the nature of the profession and the way HR is educated.

Some of the problems with employment can be explained by its history. The late 1800s to early 1900s was the golden age of industry. Wealth shifted from the land-backed class to those who controlled resources – the mines, forests, factories, and populations shifted to towns to take up the demand for mass employment. Employment law is at its roots part of family law originating in the old English feudal relationships of master-servant, where the master had the right to control the servant for the benefit of the master.

As great wealth became available following the advent of machinery, great conflict ensued with strikes each year involving millions of workers throughout the industrialised nations around the world often turning violent even deadly. Workers fought against work conditions which were often inhumane, the use of child labour and working six and seven days a week and days up to 16 hours long. Demands for an eight-hour day, increased daily wages, sanitary working conditions and safer conditions usually resulted in compromise until the world-wide spread of the “human movement”.

Thus the interest of this blog is to share what we do, the lessons we learn and the successes we achieve in our work. We begin by rejecting “human resources” as having found the solution for today’s workforce. Its practices may have once been appropriate, when people were a cog in the production wheel; today it is an oxymoron. “Resources” are assets by definition, “the property of a person or corporation, a thing of benefit to its possessor”. Notwithstanding that an organisation might appease some by calling people their “greatest” asset, employment is a process that causes people to be treated like a resource for the corporation’s purposes, capable of being bought, sold, hired, used and disposed of in line with its plans to achieve wealth or revenue. The human is not the resource, it is their skills, ideas, networks, time, experience and so on. No wonder people so often feel used – they have been. As the late, great management thinker, Peter Drucker, wrote in the Harvard Business Review February 2002, “They’re not employees, they’re people”.

This all makes sense, again looking at history, because the success of the early firm depended on productivity, that is the most efficient and effective way to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. From F.W. Taylor (scientific management to increase industrial efficiency c. 1900s) to W. Edwards Deming (post-World War II inventor of Total Quality Management) organisations have sought ways to increase productivity. As competition intensified and demand plateaued, corporations have sought to differentiate themselves, through service, unique features, niche offerings, or other value-add. “Looking after employees” became a priority. Not only was the employee trained in the organisation’s way of doing things, they were often part of the customer service. The loss of their knowledge and relationships was a disadvantage to the firm, and worryingly could be used by a competitor. More specialised skills and knowledge vested into positions also meant a greater cost of replacement. Unfortunately for productivity, employees are unwilling to commit to firms who are not prepared to give loyalty, but think it can be bought (“retaining employees”, they call it). So organisations continue to base employment on productivity-based models and buy loyalty.

To spell this out further, a productivity-based model is one that develops specifications for production output at a certain cost. In human resource terms we might call them job descriptions and KPIs (key performance indicators). We refer to the production-based organisation as “linear”, that is, sequential (i.e. process x follows process y;) and standard HR processes are designed in the same way (ergo I feedback, you perform). For this “greatest asset” we offer incentives and rewards: promotions, bonuses, feedback, training. However, this is becoming unstuck if not because people – enter Generation Y who have no memory of being grateful for having a job – are demanding more “human” treatment but certainly because knowledge is the new “resource”, and knowledge cannot be conveniently measured.

Where the industrial revolution rewarded those who controlled the resources, controlling people as a resource only benefits the production part of an organisation’s offering. It might get the coffee made, but what about the smile, remembering the order of a regular, the conversation with customers? When we count wage costs, we know what we pay for labour but do not measure what the “people factor” costs. This part of “labour cost” – and it does cost – is where traditional employment fails most. The cost is frequently not monetary but we are so tuned in to the concept of “resources” we overlook the non-production costs. So what does this cost? Well the key “cost” is that employer must drop control. By “control” we do not mean having proper, diligent management, we mean the type of control, that as just one example, favours the few (those who are not a non-English-as-a-first-language speaker, a casual, a temp, too old, etc, etc.) in the name of “performance”.

“Dropping control” is a worrying concept for many employers. They constantly asks, “How do we stop them leaving? How do we protect our information? How do people know what to do without job descriptions?” And much more. But these controls are only illusions. People leave if they want, they take information with them, that they cannot “unknow” something when they leave, and who takes instructions from their job description anyway? An organisational infrastructure is the new people resource because it allows people to supply their efforts in the same way as, say, electricity powers a building. An organisation without a well-developed organisational infrastructure (OI) is inefficient because it allows the “leakage” of non-”productivity” efforts; we see trust, motivation, good will and other people qualities as no less valuable to a firm than a person’s labour for all their intangibility.

Employees should not be the source of instability and stress that it is for so many. It is enterprise that should be the common language of employees and workers with common goals and values and that in doing so both employers and workers alike take responsibility for and benefit from their ability and willingness to contribute.

Engagement: masturbating employee satisfaction

Just over 100 years ago while much of the Western world was enjoying unprecedented growth brought about by the industrial revolution, the medical profession was treating women afflicted by a particular malady, female hysteria, that was thought to be caused by abnormal movements of the uterus.   By late 1800s it had become something of a crisis with an estimated 25 per cent of all women affected by hysteria.  It was easily recognised by many its symptoms including faintness, nervousness, erratic behaviour, anxiety, bloating, paralytic states, loss of appetite, irritability and a tendency to cause trouble (one physician who attempted to catalogue all the symptoms had to concede defeat after seventy five pages).  While it was not a new disease having first been described 2000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians, and also contemplated by such wise heads as the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, Socrates (who should know as his mother was a midwife) and his student, Plato, in the late 19th century relief was available through physician-assisted ‘hysterical paroxysms’, the manual stimulation of the patient’s genital area.  At a time when medicine was based on mysteries rather than science and consisted of primitive treatments such as bleeding, doctors were as likely to kill their patients as cure them.  Treatment for hysteria, by contrast, not only did not kill but the doctors were enjoying unprecedented success.  The invention of the vibrator facilitated a surge in their productivity – not to mention popularity (with the added benefit of the end of doctors’ work injury claims for hand cramps).   Some history writers even credit the boom in demand for hysterical paroxysms with helping to lift the status of the physicians from quacks to medical professional.  Hundreds of satisfied, repeat customers will do that.

Female hysteria as a diagnosed medical illness declined in the first decade of the 20th century, coinciding with the birth of the feminist movement and the growing understanding of psychology.  Rather than believing women were more susceptible to illness because they were the weaker sex, it was gradually recognised that depression, anxiety and stress were the product of the lack of power, independence, control and freedom forced upon them in a patriarchal society that expected women to be subservient, docile and of high moral character.  Families could avoid scandal by quietly confining ladies affected by’ hysteria’ to a sanitarium or an asylum.

Fortunately for workers suffering from depression, anxiety and stress, the history of female hysteria provides a precedent.  As it was for their 19th century medical counterparts there is a solution for employers struggling with unmotivated, intractable, under-performing and otherwise disengaged workers.  However, it seems that most HR professionals are yet to administer the ‘engagement program’ treatment that requires only some dextrous application to change people from melancholy to happy and satisfied.

In a recent report on the results of an online survey by cloud-based social talent management solutions provider SilkRoad, 781 HR professionals revealed their companies’ employee engagement practices. The survey tested for:
• the number of companies with explicit employee engagement programs
• the organisational impact of low engagement
• the ways professionals involve the C-suite in engagement
• HR professionals’ employee engagement ‘pain points’ and concerns
• which generations in the workplace are perceived as being more engaged
• the methods companies use to measure employee engagement.

“One of the most significant findings we uncovered is that a majority (54 per cent) of employers still don’t offer formal engagement programs,” said the director of product management at SilkRoad.  “While 73 per cent report participating in engagement programs on some level, only 38 per cent are offering formal programs.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, but top among them is the fact that informal programs lack clear goals and accountability.”

As any director of a company that sells HR software would tell us, we have a modern-day employee engagement equivalent of the vibrator.  Software designed to solve the engagement malady with financial, value-affirming, communicational or professional developmental paroxysms is available.

A pity that history has yet to catch up with the workplace which is still legally based on the feudal master/servant relationship.

Peter Hall-Jones in his 2008 article, Of Masters and Servants, posits:

“In this relationship, the servant works at the direction of the master and engages in work for the benefit of the master. In return, the master compensates the servant for his or her labour.”

“It appears that servants are not so thrilled about the conditions of their servitude.  And they are even less impressed with the behaviour of their masters.  Could it be that the two are linked?  Could it be that the master-servant relationship itself is creating all this alienation?”

“Make no mistake—this is not an airy-fairy ivory-tower kind of an issue.  Problems arising from workplace culture (depression, stress and anxiety) are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries.  Some 420,000 cases are reported in the UK each year.  Estimates put the cost to business in the US alone at about $44 billion per year.  And we do know that job satisfaction, engagement and productivity are somehow linked.”

While on one hand HR looks for the cures for employee disengagement, it continues to reinforce systems and structures that create the problems.  Employee disengagement is not an ailment to be ‘treated’ with a ‘program’ but has the same root causes (no pun intended) as female hysteria: having to live in a controlling environment in which she was totally dependent on the master and where she was expected to perform her duties, fitting into her rigidly-cast role.

Hopefully when the workplaces in which most people have to work are reformed so that workers can focus on how best to do the work, not on what will keep them the job, the good engagement programs can also go the way of the vibrator – no longer a treatment tool but used because it gives a little extra to something we like.

Moral blindness

The day following the blog post, “HR: Morally Culpable?” an article appeared in the business publication, In The Black, entitled Are You Guilty of Moral Blindness?    Article author, Eva Tsahuridu, writes:

Generally, when we assess unethical behaviour, we tend to see it as rational and intentional. Sometimes it may not be so because of the specific frame we use to see the issue….  Failing to identify the ethical content of an issue leads to moral blindness, which is potentially more concerning than deciding to behave unethically. Moral blindness prevents us from considering the moral consequences of our actions….  Workplaces develop their own frames, which are shared and affect how people generally perceive situations. For example, framing something as an opportunity is very different to seeing it as a bribe. Frames can make something desirable or undesirable. They blind us to some aspects of the issue while emphasising others. They may make things that we would see as unethical and wrong outside the workplace seem appropriate and right.

Frames are necessary because they enable us to deal with the complexity of living. But they pose ethical risks that we must mitigate. One way to do this is to use multiple frames and make sure one of them is an ethics frame. … Failing to see the ethical content of issues increases the risk of unethical behaviour. Remembering that ethics is an inherent part of every business decision can help us avoid moral blindness.

The organisational prerogative to meet targets and/or maximise profits creates the frame through which employers are entitled to treat people as the human resource; to repeatedly quantify workers until they are defined as the sum total of their most desirable parts.  They know which of their inputs (competencies) will produce the required measurable outputs (KPIs – key performance indicators).

Within this frame the objective of employment is to analyse what perfect combination of procedures, activities, skills and knowledge  will achieve optimum productivity.  The typical HR approach applies processes designed to separate work from the workers and workers from the people who enter into the employment relationship.  This objective approach to managing performance using data enables decisions for selecting, managing, training, promoting or reducing staff  to be more accurate and therefore the workforce more effective.  Equally employees, knowing what is expected of them, can leave their employers and find more suitable employment elsewhere, a natural selection process to achieve a workforce ‘best fit’.

The rationale for this approach goes further, that an objective focus on work creates fairness; because the evaluation processes are evenly applied, all employees have an equal chance of success (when people are withing this system they are staff or employees, another indication of the system’s impartiality).  Having their performance measured using set criteria they will thus know which skills should be developed and being successful in these they will experience greater job satisfaction, increased job security and improved career prospects. The increased confidence and morale that follows leads to even better performance and the employment relationship should be long and mutually rewarding.

The narrow frame of ‘competency-based’ employment systems creates the very moral blindness Tsahuridu describes.  Firstly the criteria used to evaluate workers is not applied equally.  People are no more able to be separated as workers than research in behaviour and brain functions show that their workplace assessors are able to be impartial.  Further the criteria the employees are informed affect their employment usually do not mention the technology, changing business/organisational direction, stakeholder interests or outsourcing options, for instance, that are also evaluated for achieving targets and profits.

The frame used to create fairness is possibly responsible for the majority of the unfairness that exists around employment.  The separation of the person from the performance is a significant factor in the rise of workplace bullying.  The ability to justify actions that produce results help managers turn a blind eye, if not actively protect, those whose actions push the boundaries of ethics.  Those who have been involuntarily out of work for any amount of time know full well that no matter how strictly applied a process for evaluating their merit against a pool of other applicants, age, nationality, any visible disabilities and appearances are just some of the other factors that will play a part in the hiring decision.  It is ironic (if not breathtakingly hypocritical) that organisations responsible for assisting the disadvantaged/unemployed to find work, who actively encourage employers to look beyond the exterior and give untapped potential a chance, are as likely to be the most avid proponents of deconstructed work, quantifiable criteria and measuring  performance.

The rights of employers to prioritise their desired results and for people to seek work that suits their abilities and preferences are not the issue.  It is the rational economic frame that people can be dealt with as productive resources that is so morally dangerous.  Dealing with workers as complete people who can contribute beyond the job description will not only potentially result in more ethical employment practices, but in the knowledge economy where work cannot be mechanised, employers stand to gain substantially (future blogs will deal with the hows and whys).  While HR that has built an entire industry around the fallacy that humans are rational resources may have little incentive to dismantle the system, employers have much to gain from increased emphasis on people as contributors to organisational objectives.

HR: morally culpable?

Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over. And the situation is even worse than it appears. Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

This excerpt is from a report entitled, “Recession, tech kill middle class jobs“, published in newspapers around the world in January 2013.  Its authors, Paul Wiseman and Bernard Condon, describe the ‘hollowing out’ of mid-skill, mid-paying jobs that are being lost in large part to technology.  Like many manual jobs before them that were replaced by machines, the ability to self-serve, self-manage and automate, is changing the demand for secretaries, travel agents, accounts clerks, tellers, retail sales assistants, manufacturing workers and countless other – predominantly service – jobs.  With middle class jobs the backbone of the developed nations, the prospect of these jobs disappearing is truly frightening.  In the US, 7.5 million jobs were lost during the Great Recession; half of these were midskill, midpay.  Since then 3.5 million jobs have returned: 70 per cent low-paying jobs, 29 per cent high paying jobs, and just over 1% of the jobs in the middle.  The euro currency-based countries are faring even worse: since mid-2009 the number of low-paying jobs have increased by 4.3 million, while since July 2008, 7.6 million mid-tier jobs have been lost and the numbers are continuing in the downward trend.  The story was the same for 20 countries analysed for this report.  The evidence of the shrinking of this sector of the job market is not recent with data pointing to such a trend since the 1990s.  Labour markets experts, say the report authors, predict the problem will get much worse.

HR – human resources – is the profession/function that is responsible for the workforce of an organisation.  What this means in reality has been the subject of much contention.  Unlike other professions, HR has no mandates outside of their organisation.  Qualifications are not compulsory, there are no mandatory standards for the practitioners or their practices, and there is no independent oversight of competence, integrity, objectivity or effectiveness.  The fact that HR has one of the most critical areas of responsibility to an organisation’s success but are generally so poorly equipped to make a difference contributes to the on-going debate about what HR really does and even whether it is a legitimate profession at all, such as the ideas proposed in the article, “Why everyone hates HR“.

We expect when we receive advice from professional advisers such as our lawyers, doctors, financial planners and accountants, that that advice will be sound and reliable.  In these professions the advisers would be liable for negligence if an act or omission occurred due to a failure on their part to exercise the degree of professional care and skill appropriate to the circumstances.  Of course the same degree of duty of care does not apply to HR because the same rigour does not apply to its qualifications and practice.  While it could be arguable because of the variability of human behaviour, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to manage the profession in the same way, it is interesting to note that HR qualifications do not actually include the study in people or people management.

So if HR does not answer to workers but to the organisations that employ them, and no professional liability applies to its practitioners, are they nonetheless morally culpable for the way they exercise their duties?  For instance, how many of the millions of midpay, midskill workers who have not worked since their retrenchment participated in HR-devised programs in which they were exhorted to work harder and do better because that was how their career ambitions would be realised?  How many would have been better off attending training in new skills rather than encouraged to aspire up a disappearing ladder?  What if they were given warning a year in advance to prepare their finances and plan for an impending redundancy?  Of course these are philosophical rather than practical questions and HR has no obligations outside the walls of the employment relationship.

As much as HR practice may be wanting, however, few practitioners would be unaware of the bigger job market problem of which they are all a part.  Should HR as a profession think more widely about its responsibilities?  For instance, job descriptions – those mechanisms designed to cut people down to the sum of the skill and knowledge parts relating to a particular part of a workflow – were a construct of the last century.  In a world far less static, where because of technology, a workflow once designed may only be useful for a few months, categorising workers by job descriptions is outmoded and it could be argued makes it more likely that people in certain jobs and industries will be unemployed for longer.

Whatever the direction for HR, the question of culpability is worth discussion.   If I can sue my financial adviser because I lose my house due to deficient advice, should I be able to sue the HR director of my employer if I had the same outcome because I was not given full and frank professional advice?

Another blog on people and work, and the concept of collateral gains

It’s already a crowded space, the many articles and writings available, full of ideas and opinions on what makes the intersection of employment and people successful.  Amongst them all is there room for yet another blog?  The fact that employment continues to be plagued with difficulties: disengagement, unemployment, underemployment, skills shortages and bullying, for instance, would suggest that the conversations should continue; that many more ideas need to be proposed, tested, debated and learned.  And so I hope this blog can add to this.

My interest in this area was piqued many years ago when I first began working in management.  The approach of human resources was so different from that of marketing, the field of study I first completed.  In marketing, activities start with understanding the target market and how to cater to them; in human resources it starts by telling the target market what’s good for them and how they can be part of it.  This interest was mostly academic until one day, sitting in the city traffic, I saw a body of staff of the major metropolitan newspaper, The Age, sitting outside their workplace (a building nicknamed ‘The Spencer Street Soviet’ for its stark façade) on makeshift stools on the street in the cold, protesting management decisions to reduce staff following the establishment of a new print facility in Tullamarine.  The set of their expressions communicated their determination to have their views heard by management.  It was easy to imagine how these – the news stories would suggest – semi-skilled workers, many  in their fifties and older, would find getting their next job a struggle.  Two thoughts struck me in quick succession.  First was how much stress these people would be under: going home each night to discuss with their spouses the possibility that the next paycheck could be the last for a while.  This was overtaken by the second thought – why a company that employed thousands of people could not have found a way to benefit from the single-mindedness shown by this group joined by their common predicament, just one of the many attributes they could no doubt offer beyond their labour.

From this point – unconsciously at first – I became increasingly aware of the impact of management on the lives of workers. Job security and job prospects can affect workers at the most fundamental levels from their ability to care for themselves and their families to the quality of education their children will receive.  No one’s child/parent/sibling/partner should be demeaned at work either by the workplace structure or from their treatment.  Yet no statutory minimum standards exist for managers; there is no specific responsibility imposed on managers to the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

The term ‘collateral damage’ – the incidental costs that occur as a consequence of the pursuit of another objective – is used often to refer to the job losses or other pain inflicted on members of a workforce.  Yet in my work with organisations large and small I see many incidences of ‘collateral gain’ and even more untapped opportunities to build them from the daily efforts of people .  These potential gains covered all ground from new ideas, to new solutions for old problems, to feelings of camaraderie within a work unit, to knowledge shared, to fresh enthusiasm for a task, to awareness of new problems yet to be fully understood.

The industrial model that still dominates despite massive changes in the types of, and how, we work since it was initially devised in the early 1900s is no longer relevant for today.  This method, born of FW Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, is based on the assumption that division of labour and time and motion efficiencies (finding ‘one best way’ to complete a task) will produce maximum productivity returns for the employer.  This was true when most job were comprised mostly of manual tasks, but even then it was only so long before the gains were eroded by boredom, mistakes, employee turnover and accidents that resulted from work that was mundane and routine.  Unfortunately, the initial gains to industry were so significant, the conviction that dividing work into specialisations, supervising inputs (such as time and skills) and quantifying performance is the ‘one best way’ continues to this day.  Even as we are in the full swing of the knowledge economy we continue to apply the rules of the production era.

The other mantle that persists is the ‘science’ of performance management.  An industry worth billions thrives on the ‘sciences’ developed for selecting and managing people.  Despite the emergence of actual scientific studies on how people behave (usually not rationally), neuroscience, the influence of environments and networks on performance and much more, outmoded notions such as, “If you don’t measure performance how can you improve it?” are still treated as valid.  However, as some wise person (most people believe Albert Einstein, but wise nonetheless) once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  Oddly, what most employers say they want to foster in their people are emotional connections: caring about the job they do, committing to the organisation’s goals and values, building relationships with customers, a sense of pride in their work, and so on.  At the individual level however, their discussions are about the rational: career steps, targets, competencies, KPIs (key performance indicators), KRAs (key result areas).  One thing science has clearly proven is that cognitive reasoning instantly displaces emotional engagement.

This blog intends to explore these and similar issues.  In the years since watching the determined workers from The Age, I have had the benefit of working with many organisations and their hundreds of employees.  I have met and spoken to many people doing amazing work and breaking new ground in understanding.  I have read about new things we are learning about work and motivation and found new apprp://isabelwudotcom.wordpress.commportant to my client organisations.  I look forward to sharing these with you.

Isabel Wu

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