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This piece was sitting in the archives at my old job. Just before the economic collapse, I took a walk through my neighborhood in a small California town. I saw a reality that I’d been avoiding.
Today, three short years later, we hardly ever talk about the war for talent. Economic shifts turned us into a nation of underemployed and undercompensated people who owe more than they make.
Still, there’s a consistent truth. What you think and what’s really there are disconnected.
If 50% of homeowners are upside down in their houses, why isn’t anyone talking about what it like to go to work under those circumstances. We’re simply not acknowledging the new reality. It’s never going to fix until we articulate the problem.
Long term readers know that I love it when something doesn’t quite fit together.
This afternoon, I took a walk up the hill that stands behind my little town. The place is postcard idyllic. The streets run 1,2,3,4,5, Mission. The Mission church itself seems to be at the gateway to the hill. From behind the Mission Church, you can see out to San Francisco Bay.
Fourth Street is hopping most of the time. White upper middle class singles jostle with Latinos who have made it. The street is a picture perfect rendition of a diversity poster though it, like most of California, is short of black faces.
Fourth Street is the picture of Northern California as paradise. There’s the arts cinema, home to the California Film Institute where I’ve gotten to see most of the Academy Award nominees in the foreign film category. There are more than fifty restaurants in an eight block radius… Italian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Brewpubs, Thai, Donuts, Vegan Pizza, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, French, Greek, Fusion.
There are easily a half dozen coffee shops with wireless. Japanese home furnishings, Scandinavian Designs, four new age/Tibetan Buddhist stores (including one with live entertainment). Music stores, bakeries, rug stores and on and on.
It really looks good but something is caddywampus.
The hill I climbed goes to the top of the city. It passes through a half mile stretch of “Public Land: Open From Sunrise to Sunset. As I looked closely, I saw large clusters of homeless people, mostly Latino, clearly dirt encrusted from living outside, very threatening, moving in groups of six to eight.
I saw white homeless people surrounded by clothes sitting in the cars on the street across from the Public Land. As I walked up the hill I drew harsh stares from local residents of the houses that bordered the land. I drew equally hostile looks from the homeless. The people in the homeless cars tried not to make eye contact.
I was surprised.
This is not my image of my town. Anxiously, I walked quickly back down to the apparent safety of the main drag. It was as if some magic dust had been sprinkled on the town.
The homeless seemed to spring up from every sidewalk crack. The city took an entirely different texture. It became clear that the main white drag was a thin veneer on something very, very different. People see what they believe.
I am sure that I am not the only one who looks right through the reality of the world I inhabit. I’m reasonably sure that few people take the time to notice. It takes living and working in the town when the only others who seem to do so are lower class and/or homeless. I just didn’t get the magnitude.
It’s a shame to call it a war for talent when it’s really a question of human development and talent optimization. Today, I walked through a world of wasting resources.
In those three short years, I have come to understand that jobs are a part of the problem. The whole employment notion, handed down from feudal practice, creates a nagging sea of entitlement. Today, the wasting resources are hanging on to the payroll and the hope that they will one day be able to afford their home.
Great talent management and optimization ought to focus on creating independence and self-determination. In any company, employees who possess those things add the greatest value. Talent management that doesn’t address the impact of the economy on the workforce is a Pollyannish exercise.
Retaking our organizations from the depression that haunts them is one of the real transformational challenges of HR. Who’s doing that?
The problem you are trying to solve is not the problem you have.
At the very core, this is the issue facing HR operations around the planet. Focused on internal measures, cost efficiencies and process improvements, the generic HR operation looks straight at the question of value creation. More often than not, the distinction seems either too subtle or impossible to achieve.
Before you write this off as yet another whiny, negative piece on the failings of HR, let’s get a couple of things straight.
- The tendency to confuse improving your processes with making a difference is a normal part of being human. In a way, it’s what organizations are good at doing.
- That HR seems to specialize in solving problems that don’t make a difference is mostly caused by a lack of examples for tying the function to business results.
- There are solid examples of how to move the ball forward; not best practices but insight generating stories. Best practices, as you might guess, doom the function to irrelevance.
- The question of HR’s essential value is critical. Knowing what to outsource and what to keep is the primary decision being made in HR organizations today.
There is an old Sufi story about solving the right problem:
A man was walking home late one night when he saw the Mullah Nasrudin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground.
"Mullah, what have you lost?" he asked.
"The key to my house," Nasrudin said.
"I’ll help you look," the man said.
Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key. After a number of minutes, the man asked, "Where exactly did you drop it?"
Nasrudin waved his arm back toward the darkness. "Over there, in my house."
The first man jumped up. "Then why are you looking for it here?"
"Because there is more light here than inside my house."
It is normal and very human to look for the keys where there is the most light. In HR, we know all about retention, time to hire, cost per hire, and a thousand other measures of our work. What we lose sight of is the business impact.
In a few really visionary companies, HR leaders are assigned real business objectives. One really large and innovative Silicon Valley firm measures recruiting performance for the director with "revenue per employee" (RPE). There is a single RPE goal and bonuses and performance begin with that objective.
So, when faced with a choice between hiring 30 people in a declining subset of the business with low margins and a trend towards commoditization (which would improve overall cost to hire and cycle time measures) and finding two really difficult positions in a fast growth high margin operation, the prioritization is obvious.
Far too often, HR Leaders who express their objectives in the few things that they can control lose sight of the rest of the business. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you hire people if you are hiring the wrong people or even the right people for the wrong business segment.
There are many, many ways that HR can be the generator of massive transformation and huge economic success. It’s just that none of those things involve doing HR faster, better or cheaper. They all involve applying smart Human Capital planning and practice to the business.
Great HR makes money.
Five links to improve your view of HR Transformation
We’re in a challenging time. Seeing the present is as difficult as seeing the future. The rules don’t seem to be operating properly.
This week’s links will stretch your thinking about the future of the Internet, the role of schools, the way work is distributed and how cultures of innovation are created. Each idea has its place in the macrocosm and in your enterprise. HR ought to be the source of this conversation in the organization.
It isn’t always.
- The Next Silicon Valley
For more than 100 years, the San Francisco Baty area has been turning itself into a global model for innovation and technical development. When things go well, the world is envious. When there is a bust (like now) there’s not so much envy. The culture of innovation jas been built over that history. Developing a similar phenomenon requires a similar horizon. This is a great think piece about the intersection of technology, capital, education, culture and human capital.
- Thousands of Workers are Standing By
Why crowd sourcing may be the next outsourcing. Labor on Demand is like cloud computing for staffing agencies. This function, which would be run under purchasing in the current construct, is how organizations will interface with many of their people.
- The Future of The Internet
Save this one for a serious hour of your time over the weekend. The 45 page pdf is the product of a project between Cisco and the Global Business Network. The report offers four different potential futures. Underlying those scenarios are several simple and important ideas… the keyboard will disappear quickly; the Internet’s real growth will be in lower economic strata; digital natives will interact in ways beyond our imagining. The scenarios will give you a range of input with which to imagine your future.
- The Big Lie (Thoughts on Why School Is Not Only About Workforce Development)
A public education that centers first around workforce development will put a high premium on following directions and doing what you’re told. A public education that centers first around citizenship development will still teach rules, but it will teach students to question the underlying ideas behind the rules. Workforce development will reinforce the hierarchies that we see in most corporate culture, while a citizenship-focus will teach students that their voice matters, regardless of station.
- A Deeper Kind of Joblessness
A reminder that Henry Ford knew that economies were grown by paying workers more.
Please welcome Ami Givertz to the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board. Amitai Givertz has over 25 years experience in business with the majority of that time spent in the talent management space where he has held a number of leadership positions. Through his unique brand “disruption,” Ami has helped numerous organizations to innovate and develop their organizations. Full Bio…
Some would argue that America has come a long way since people could be denied employment based solely on the color of their skin, their sexual preference, physical ability, religion or other “protected” classes. That may be of little comfort to those who experience workplace discrimination on a daily basis, otherwise qualified workers who are stigmatized for their lifestyle choices, unfortunate circumstances, medical conditions and so on – the “unprotected classes.”
Advocating for their real or perceived rights, many unprotected classes are finding a voice to many employers’ chagrin. But to avoid dealing with the underlying issues and implementing necessary but difficult change, the conversation is recast as a defensive strategy. The most vocal disenfranchised are applied with new labels: the attention-grabbing, the insecure, the victimized, the disgruntled, and the politically-motivated. Anything but a “human resource.”
At its primal core, the categorization of certain classes of worker as “protected” has less to do with legal framing than it does the type of social stereotyping designed to identify “outsiders” as just that, outsiders. People who are tattooed, scarred, pierced and otherwise self-mutilated experience discrimination as widespread as the haplessly disenfranchised. Decidedly an unprotected class under the law and with no common sense of injustice, the pierced and tattooed are likely to continue suffering for their art, at least until such time as issues of supply and demand converge with a new set of norms – as so it has been traditionally for homeless, the morbidly obese, rehabilitated drug-user and now the growing number of unprotected classes who represent an increasing percentage of marginalized American workers.
While it follows that inclusive hiring practices, whether mandated or not, are designed to counter the exclusion of those who historically “don’t fit”, there is little evidence to show that employers feel they should be making similar accommodations for modern-day social outcasts.
Institutional Responses to the “Unprotected Classes”
A case in point: According to The Society of Human Resources [SHRM], 60 percent of employers rely on credit-checking to qualify hires in or out of the running for employment. However, in the wake of an economic meltdown, many people find themselves broke. Unable to pay bills, once unblemished records now show credit ruined by lengthy unemployment, late payments, closed accounts, liens, foreclosures and repossessions. This alone can be a deciding factor in employment decision-making.
Systematic discrimination that excludes a worker based on their economic circumstances, the obvious exceptions accounted for, is madness. One imagines someone desperate for a job would be more likely to do everything to keep it, no?
In addition, The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners [ACFE] recently produced a report suggesting that the recent recession, and its subsequent impact on staffing levels, actually leaves employers at greater risk of theft and embezzlement as a result. One would think that might counterbalance the fear that desperate people do desperate things, implied in checking credit as a condition of employment.
Not ones to miss the opportunity to recast the conversation, some employers opposed to the passage of H.R. 3149: The Equal Employment for All Act which seeks to restrict the practice of pre-employment credit checking, interpret the report differently. For example, in a letter to Members of the House Financial Services Committee [PDF] they cite the same sources to argue the case for keeping broke workers broken. In essence their position is people who have fallen on economic hard times cannot be trusted.
Protecting the Unprotected?
Countering worker marginalization should be a part of every employers’ thinking if they are sincere in their boasts of inclusive hiring, workforce diversity, “employer of choice” status, and good corporate citizenship. Unless perhaps that is all it is – boastful.
So, as a starting point, ask yourself:
- Are “fairness” and “equality” overrated in employment decision making?
- To what extent do you, corporately or personally, discriminate against otherwise capable workers based on convention or “traditional values?” Whether sanctioned or not, how do you justify that?
- If you could add one group of people to the list of “protected classes” which group would it be and why?
- Under what circumstances would you bend the rules to employ a person that would otherwise be denied employment based on their personal preferences or circumstance?
- To what extent should HR leaders be change-agents, for both their employers and society-at-large?
- Will America ever have a tattooed President?
Our society fails on so many levels to anticipate workforce needs that allowing sanctioned, institutional prejudice to compound the problem should be an anathema to any right-minded HR leader. Affecting change is never easy though. It often takes more time than most HR leaders have tenure. And the truth is, sometimes it is more politic to practice the double standards embodied in “pragmatism” and “expediency” than champion change. After all, being an agitator carries a stigma all of its own.