Monday, October 25, 2004

The Latest HR Buzzword - Presenteeism

I love words but I hate buzzwords. Buzzwords put a new spin on an old issue but don't generally add any significant value except to help consultants and vendors sell more services. Now that I am in the vendor seat, I should value buzzwords but I just can't do it. The most recent buzzword that annoys me is "Presenteeism". Do we really need a 12 letter word for people who come to work sick? And since that really isn't all that useful the buzzword makers have expanded the definition of presenteeism to include people coming to work sick of work.

If we cut through the bull we have two very basic issues.

1) Employees coming in to work sick. Well, let's think about that for a minute. Why would people come to work sick? The answer is pretty simple. They either feel that:

- their employer will not trust that they are really sick
- they will somehow be penalized by their employer for staying home
- they have too much work that is mission critical or will pile up
- they will not get paid and they need the money

What to do if we don't want employees to come to work when they are sick? We need to develop a corporate culture where supervisors show concern for employee's personal wellness, respect and trust employees without hesitation when they say they are sick and have back up employees cross trained to assist during times when an employee is out. This is really Management 101. Which again brings up the need for better training and mentoring in basic managerial skills.

2) Employees who aren't productive because they are not happy with their jobs. I don't like the word presenteeism for this. It's much more useful to look at the reasons they are not productive. I have my own 11 letter word for those reasons: Irritations. I would much prefer to see a company focusing on identifying and removing the irritations that cause employees to be less productive. Using the word presenteeism simply shifts the blame to the employees.

These two areas are both important managerial issues but do we really need the term presenteeism in order to think about them?

Beth C.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

"Stop Hounding Me" and other Feedback Phrases

I received a preview issue (snail mail hard copy) of "Team Management Briefings" from This is one of those newsletters that provides little blurbs of information excerpted or adapted from other publications. It had some interesting tidbits of info related to management, goal setting, motivation and teamwork.

One item that caught my eye was related to feedback. It suggested finding out what your team members (or presumably your staff) think of you by circulating a list of phrases and asking each team member to circle the three that they would most like you to do. It included things like:

- Give me a pat on the back once in awhile
- Stop hounding me
- Stop yelling
- Stop trying to prove to me how smart you are
- Stop talking down to me
- Smile once in awhile

While I like the idea of feedback, I don't see employees or team mates being comfortable enough to share this kind of information with their leader. I also am not so sure that most leaders would be able to handle hearing this information from their subordinates.

There were a few items on the list that would be less emotion provoking such as:

- Let me know what's going on with management
- Train me
- Give me a challenge

I suspect that most employees when forced to choose would select these non-combative types of responses.

Unfortunately while exercises such as this have great intentions, they are just not realistic in terms of getting real feedback. I was naive enough many years ago when I was a new manager to try and get similar feedback to this. I can remember putting together a little survey and asking my staff to provide me with feedback on how they were doing, what I could do to better support them, what they needed from me to help them be successful. Even with such benign questions I rarely got much actionable information.

The challenge with employee feedback is recognizing that employees have (or feel they have) a lot on the line when they are asked to share their concerns about supervisors, management or the company. It's not easy to solicit this feedback in a way that will produce useful, honest information. This is one of the reasons why I am such a believer in exit interviews. When the employee has less to lose (for he's already leaving), he can feel safe to share honest and useful feedback. It's not uncommon to see the kinds of phrases listed above in the comments sections of exit interviews. I'm afraid though that circulating the list to current staff won't yield much in the way of real information.

According to the briefing, the above was adapted from This Job Should Be Fun! by Bob Basso and Judi Klosek. Maybe Bob or Judi can shed some light on this subject and correct me if my guesses are wrong.

Beth C.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Unusual Search Phrases

From time to time I like to take a look at the web analytics of who is visiting Nobscot's website and what brought them to the site. I use a fairly simple inexpensive program called Weblog Expert. With this program I can see the search phrases that people have entered into their search engine for which they ended up finding Nobscot Corporation.

The top phrases are usually things like:

exit interviews
employee turnover statistics
teacher retention

Sometimes there are more interesting search phrases such as:

turnover rates and loss of knowledge
charts and graphs on the glass ceiling
on call schedules employee turnover
job embeddedness
post interview satisfaction surveys

Last Friday we got one that I would love to know what the searcher was trying to find:

"Can companies withhold raises for employees bathroom"

Even stranger was the fact that Nobscot came in number 5 on the search engine results for this puzzling phrase.

It looks like the search engine ( in this case) picked up one of Nobscot's news abstracts that was on stress relievers for call center employees. The abstract mentioned how call center employees are often monitored on everything including the length of their bathroom breaks.

But that probably wasn't what the searcher was looking for since presumably he or she is looking at ways to withhold employees' raises because of their bathroom breaks. With any luck he found the information he was looking for elsewhere.

Beth C.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Apprentice and Wimpy Management

Apprentice fans - Do any of you wonder why the team project managers continually choose to bring in 2 teammates when Donald Trump gives them the option of bringing in 3? Wouldn't bringing in three people improve the PM's odds of not having to hear, "You're Fired!" directed at them?

So what is going on? Why has every single project manager done something that potentially sabotages him or her self?

I believe what we are seeing is what I call wimpy management. Wimpy management is when supervisors are unable to face conflict head on because of their own personal insecurities, need to be liked and/or fear of rejection. We see wimpy management every day. Supervisors who procrastinate conducting performance reviews or avoid providing feedback to employees on areas where they are not performing up to par. We see wimpy management when managers reprimand (or worse demote or terminate) employees through email. We see wimpy management when managers treat employees who are considered their friends differently than how they treat the rest of their staff.

Nobscot Corporation recently analyzed employees' perceptions of their supervisors. What we found from looking at 10,000+ exit interviews is that employees generally feel positive about their supervisor's skill level but less positive about their supervisor's management abilities on such things as providing the appropriate level of praise, rewards and reprimands. One of the things that surprised us about the research was in the area of reprimands. We might have guessed that employees would not be happy with abusive bosses that rant and rave in front of colleagues and clients. What we did not know was the degree to which employees are frustrated with supervisors who don't provide reprimands to those who need it.

Some of the comments we saw on the exit interviews regarding this type of wimpy management included:

  • "unable or unwilling to face conflict."

  • "there are quite a few people who get away with doing very little or very badly."

  • "Don't feel that poor performers are addressed whatsoever. Dead weight stays on."

  • "Lots of lazy employees who don't do their job or call in sick a lot but are never addressed by management. People who work hard are never rewarded."

It's clear that companies need to do a better job of helping managers with their supervisory skills. What we can surmise from the exit interview analysis is that employees are being promoted into management because of their job skills without being given the tools of the trade related to being a supervisor. Without training, supervisors manage by instincts. For many managers their instinct to have people like them is the dominant force. Result: Wimpy management.

How does wimpy management relate to the Apprentice and the boardroom? Because the apprentices are living and working so closely together, they are forming bonds of friendship that are getting in the way of them doing the right thing from both a business and a winning game perspective. Take last night's episode with Project Manager John and the fashion show. When the boardroom time came around, he chose to bring in Andy, the young man from Harvard who didn't do anything wrong in this task and Kevin, one of the two team members involved in the pricing. When Donald Trump asked John why he didn't bring in the other teammate who handled pricing, John had no answer. In fact, Kevin has been a valuable team member in each prior assignment. While Wes, on the other hand, had not contributed much. Why didn't John bring Wes with him into the boardroom? I'm betting on wimpy management. John and Wes have more than likely become friends and this clouded John's business judgment.

John probably still would have been fired but he would have stood a much better chance of being a survivor if he had brought in Wes. He might have been able to shift the focus of the board room discussion on to Kevin and Wes and let them battle out who was most at fault.

Instead, John made a fatal mistake and let his friend stay out of the fray. Failing to lead/manage because of fear of hurting someone's feelings or because he might not like you can cause equal damage in the real business world. As HR professionals, we need to keep our eyes open for wimpy management within our organizations. We need to hire and promote the right people. We need to train those who are newly promoted. We need to provide mentors to new supervisors. We need to measure manager's effectiveness and the affects they have on their staff. Wimpy management can be overcome but it does takes some effort to stay on top of it.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A Role Model CEO

I'm happy to see Meg Whitman, CEO of Ebay, on top of Fortune Magazine's list of Most Powerful Businesswomen. She would have been my choice for the last several years. In fact, I don't know why she is not tops on all the business lists not just the ones limited to women. Ebay's performance has been stellar since Whitman took the reigns growing it into a profitable powerhouse. Ebay's revenues have grown under her leadership from a modest $5.7 million to $3.2 billion in 2004. It's staggering and yet you rarely hear about Meg Whitman the way you hear about other brash, celebrity-style CEOs.

I've been keeping my eyes on Meg Whitman since she joined Ebay back in the late 1990s. She left a position as head of Hasbro's Playschool Division to join what at the time was called Auction Web and had just 19 employees. Believe it or not I was actually an Auction Web user and I can remember when they switched over to the funny colorful ebay logo. What I like so much about Meg Whitman is that she seems like a regular person, a mom and a wife who happens to also be one of the most outstanding business people of our times.

If ever there was a good role model for CEO success it would be Meg Whitman of Ebay. Meg, if you're out there, would you like a nice CEO of an HR software company to mentor? If so sign me up. And Congratulations for making it to the top of the list.

Beth C.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Two New Technologies to Shy Away From

Two new technologies are coming HR's way that have me concerned. The first is cell phone technology that uses satellite GPS technology to track the location of the phone and consequently the phone holder. The second is a polygraph type program that measures the sound of the voice to determine a speaker's emotional state.

Apparently my HR brethren are taking to the idea of tracking their employees' locations through their cell phones. The software maker, Xora, has signed on its 1000 customer and is adding about 200 new customers per month. The software maker provides a service called Geofence that "sets off an alarm at the office when field workers go to preprogrammed off-limits sites, such as a bar or a park." The CEO of Xora jokes, "There's no electro shock--yet."

Sorry if I'm not laughing. Even the name Geofence makes me bristle. Is this the kind of respect (or lack thereof) that we want to place on our employees? Do we want to keep our employees fenced in like sheep? This only serves to further distance employers and employees. If we want a workforce where our employees feel engaged in their work and dedicated to the company's success than we have to do better than spying on their every movement.

The polygraph type program uses something called LVA technology. LVA stands for layered voice analysis and was designed as a counter terrorism device by the Israeli army. According to this site
"LVA uses a patented and unique technology to detect Brain activity finger prints using the voice as a medium to the brain and analyzes the complete emotional structure of your subject."

Anne Freedman, staff columnist for HR Executive Magazine describes it this way,
"LVA uses 8,000 algorithms to track and analyze the mechanics of voice patterns. What it determines is more than just honesty; it measures emotions such as excitement, stress, uncertainty and depth of thought."

According to Freedman's article, a company called V & V Resources is hoping to distribute this technology to the HR community. They see many possibilities such as pre-hire interviewing and screening, background checking, reducing employee theft and gaining truthful information in exit interviews.

From a recruiting perspective, even if the software is shown to be 100% accurate (which I highly doubt) I'm not sure how an applicant's emotional state during an interview translates into how well he or she will perform in the job. Recruiters may find themselves doing a disservice to their companies by screening out applicants based on the results of technology such as this.

As for exit interviews, that is just a silly notion to even contemplate. Exit interviews are not for interrogation. (I have a picture in my head of the terminating employee strapped in a chair with a bright light on him and the HR rep with clipboard and LVA technology by her side.) Exit interviews are a voluntary communication where employees are free to share their observations of the workplace and the issues that motivated them to leave.

I really hope that HR professionals will be wise in their selection and use of new technologies. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to control employees through external forces. That's short term thinking at best. A better method is to create a corporate culture where internal influences motivate employees. When employees are motivated internally, they are able to produce the kind of work that drives long term success. It may take more thought and effort to build a motivating corporate culture but ultimately it will prevail over those that rely on threatening and controlling environments.

Beth C.

You think YOU'VE got Employee Retention Worries

What about Google? If it's true that 60% of employees are now millionaires as Bill Coleman of estimates, how might that affect employee retention? Do people work strictly for money? Can google create such an interesting, challenging, enjoyable workplace that employees will stay even if they don't need the money?

Beth C.