Don’t Let Your Worst Enemy be You!

Several years ago, on an assignment with an international computer and software developer, I was asked to assist in developing a recruiting image for its R&D division. We call it branding now. At a senior staff meeting a VP at one of the labs brought up a particularly advantageous employment situation. A serious candidate had recently mailed in his resume after “networking” the VPs name. No recruiting efforts or dollars on their part were invested in this candidate. A pure “walk-in.” He was working for a competitor, on a similar project. The candidate’s masters thesis was a theoretical discussion on the need for the creation of the very tools the lab now was focused on developing. A preliminary background check among “insiders” showed that the candidate was a great theoretical and practical project manager with excellent training, mentoring and team building skills. It was suspected that he would probably bring four to six members of his team over with him within a short period of time. His only motivation to leave his current employer was that, in his current position, he didn’t get to spend enough time on research. The new position was in an R&D Lab. This was such a perfect and unbelievable situation that the manager should have begun his explanation with, “Once upon a time…” Being a recruiter at heart, I wanted to send the offer letter that instant with a dozen roses, chocolates, and a Corvette… two if he was married. At the meeting was the lab’s full-time HR/staffing manager, who at this moment made his sole contribution to the meeting. “Evidently, based on the enthusiasm shown, no one else noticed that on his resume he used the word ‘there’ in place of ‘their,'” he said. “Aren’t good grammar and spelling skills also an issue for management candidates?” You could not only hear a pin drop, you could hear it falling through the air. It was one of those moments where you were so embarrassed for someone else that you were embarrassed yourself. As the silence continued and deepened it became obvious that the HR/staffing manager actually appeared to believe we were considering his comment as a factor in the hiring decision, and not a reflection of a concerted effort on everyone’s part not to break out laughing. The lab VP broke the silence with a simple and telling comment. “Of course we noticed,” he said. “But in light of the real contributions this person can make, we ignored a minor error. Obviously if the candidate was a marginal applicant, I would have taken it into account. Too bad I did not find a typo on your resume. We could have avoided this whole episode.” The VP sitting next to me leaned over and quietly whispered, “Typical HR type.” He then stopped and did a double take, realizing what my chosen career path was, and said, “Present company excluded, of course.” I thanked him for his dispensation. If I had not been there myself, I would not have believed it possible for a fellow HR/staffing professional to be that out of touch with reality and the needs and prerequisites of their business partners. Then again, scholars of the New Testament believe that at the miracle of the “Loaves and Fishes” it was in fact an HR/staffing representative who yelled out, “Where’s the tartar sauce?” Sometimes the trivial is telling and reveals an insightful look at a person’s core value system. Then again, sometimes the trivial is just trivial. The flaw may have been more germane if the candidate had been applying for a position as an editor in Marcom or PR. But when you consider the overwhelming and significant qualifications for this critical role, a minor lapse in grammar usage was an acceptable single flaw that carried no significance. If you only have one dollar in your checking account, a ten-cent error is significant. If you have a million dollars, a ten-cent error isn’t worth the accounting time to fix. What brought all this to mind recently was a discussion at one of many local HR/staffing network groups I monitor for ideas and possible topics to dwell on based on what seems to be on everybody’s mind (no, not ERE this time). Based on recent events, one of these sites has had a significant number of questions for information about companies’ respective obligations to employees in the Reserves and National Guard who are called for active duty. In and of itself, a worthwhile topic, as it is obvious that this will be a critical area for HR/Staffing for some time to come. The problem I had was that the tone continued to focus on questions like, “What do we HAVE to do,” or, “If they fail to do this, do we still have to do that?” Much in the same way an errant child will ask if they have to “pick up ALL their cloths.” The quest for the absolute minimum required by law, and no more, appears alive and well. Everybody was scurrying to websites to cut and paste rules ? in many instances not so much to support as to threaten. The battle cry of the true bureaucrat: “What is the very least I am required to do?” This makes me wonder if HR/staffing representatives prefer minimalist art to impressionists. The irony is, I understand how well-meaning and concerned people could find themselves sucked into the minimalist vortex, worried only about compliance and not the core issue. I do not think any one of them wanted to learn the rules to merely to “stick it to veterans.” But it does take a ton of empathy not to think that this is the case. And many of the people we support, especially reservists and members of the National Guard, may not see our book-bound attitude so kindly. Agreed, we are the ones burdened with the responsibility of insuring corporate programs are developed, conducted, implemented, and enforced within the limits of state, federal, and sometimes union, laws. We are tasked with keeping the good name of our companies unsullied by bad press, bad reputations, bad fines, and bad practices. Often this obligation is further confounded and confronted with varying and conflicting guidelines from regulatory agencies representing varies departments of government on the same mission, but with different rules, priorities or social agendas. Agreed, that to further complicate matters, if we successfully navigate the regulations minefield there (or is it “their”?) is still the chance you may face litigation for the appearance of foul play, if not the actual proven act of foul play. (In my dictionary “litigation” is defined as, “Nature’s way of insuring that even the fair and just have an equal chance to be punished and shamed along with the unfair and unjust.”) We therefore tend to allow ourselves to become so rulebook-bound that we seldom look beyond those rules and consider their original intent, or more to the point, a more beneficial and logical extension of that intent and benefit to serve our own professional purposes and goals. Then, to add insult to injury, we all walk around with sad eyes asking, “How come no one likes HR/staffing? We don’t make the rules!” Yeah, and the hangman didn’t buy the rope either. Then there is the other great limitation on creative thinking and rule “manipulation”: cost. Recruiting and retraining good employees is not cheap. Even in an economic slowdown, your top 20% can walk out and find a new job with marginal effort, and your middle 60% can still exit, it just takes longer. That leaves you with a “lock” on your bottom 20%. Way to go! So, with government regulations “imposing” their own cost of doing business on corporate America, the attitude is often, “Hey the law says I owe them ‘X,’ and that is just what they will get, and not a day or a penny more!” You have got to wonder how these employees managed to upset so many in general management and HR/staffing in particular by merely defending the country, or in the case of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), caring for their children or caring for an infirm loved one. (The nerve of some people, really. Don’t they know they owe their heart and soul to the company store?) So we are cursed if we do, and fired if we don’t. Well, there is an old clich?: “In for a dime, in for a dollar!” But to be honest, that expression just never made any sense to me. I mean, if you are only in for a dime, maybe you should cut your losses rather than risk another dollar. On the other hand, “In for a dollar, in for a dollar and ten cents” ? now that makes sense. If you have spent a buck, for no purpose of your own design, spend a buck ten and make it your own. If you have to provide a particular time allotment of job protection to ALL employees who leave their work on a temporary basis in compliance with laws protecting employees under the Family Medical Leave Act or Federal law protecting members of the Reserve and National Guard, why not expand those minimum requirements based on:

  1. The amount of time a person has worked for the company
  2. Their peer ranking based on objective review criteria

Why not spend a voluntary “dime” on top of the mandatory “dollar” and turn mandatory requirement into a recruiting and retention tool. Keep your best and brightest for a “dime” extra. The retention aspect is obvious. An employee ranked in the top 20% of their peer headcount with three years’ service knows that she will receive “X” days leave of absence from any company ? that’s the law. But, after three years’ service with good reviews with your company it is now “X” plus “Y” days leave of absence. For an employee with young children, aging parents, or a helmet and flak jacket in the closet, this is a retention value. You could also consider offering a “welcome back” bonus to take some of the sting out of the unpaid leave or reduced military wages. The total dollar amount driven by years of service and overall standing as an employee and paid in installments for the first six months of the employees return to work. For potential employees, it is an indication of your company’s commitment to its employees’ obligations outside the office. It enhances your image as a caring employer. It reinforces all that money you spent “branding” yourself as a caring company. Sometimes it is not enough just to say; you also have to do. Creating attractive recruiting and retention programs does not always mean you have to continuously create programs on top of programs to attract and retain quality employees. Sometimes it is just a question of taking a “value plus” view of the ones you are already mandated by law to provide. Yes, you will be a “recruiting magnet” for people who place high value in their obligations to family and country. Do you really think you would be better off with a payroll consisting exclusively of selfish, self-indulgent, “me first” employees who have no incentive to stay with your organization beyond a paycheck. Remember, these “requirements plus” benefits are “earned” by retention and quality of performance. Those who are attracted for selfish reasons probably will not make the grade. There are an unlimited number of approaches you can take. Every company may seek a different “formula” or a different type of benefit extension. For example, your current healthcare provider may only allow one-day hospital stays for new mothers who experienced births with no complications. But, for employees, or their dependents, of three years’ service or longer with rankings in the top 20% of their peer group, your company will “pony up” for an extra day in the hospital. Not all new and innovative ideas will work, are feasible, or can be consistently applied to all companies in all circumstances. But it is the reluctance to think beyond the rules that has often kept HR/staffing professionals from being respected, appreciated, and sought by their business partners as problem solvers. It is the closed mindset that turns us into “rulebook bound bureaucrat” instead of innovators and leaders. No matter what benefits a company provides, most employees feel it should be more. So give them more, based on how much they have given to you. My favorite expression remains “quid quo pro.” Let’s take the issue of obligations to employers to protect Reservists and National Guard veteran’s jobs. Which headline would you want your CEO to see as he or she reads their morning paper on the way to work tomorrow:

“Local Employer Uses Rules to Deny Returning Veterans Their Jobs”

or…

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“Local Employer Shows Their True Colors And Offers Expanded Benefits To Employee Heroes”

You can follow the rules, and still be hated, or even worse…ineffective! So, go into work tomorrow and crack open the old policy and procedure manual and look for those mandates, requirements, and contractual obligations and see if you could make any of them work for you in your efforts to help your company become branded an “employer of choice,” and you, a creative and innovative HR/staffing professional, will lose your current title of “Typical HR Type.” Ah, present company excluded, of course. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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