photo of hands holding glass sphere in article published 2015-07-15

Susan LaMotte discusses the cost of HR policies that rely on leadership assumptions that are out of touch or based on outdated employment experience.

A few weeks ago, one of the walls in our home started “crying.” Water poured out of the nail holes where we’d hung some photos and ran down the wall.

So we started making assumptions—maybe the water was coming from the bathroom or laundry plumbing. Maybe there was a leak from the townhouse next door. But it didn’t look so bad, so we made assumptions based on leaks we’d seen before in the house.

Turns out, it was bad. A leak from the roof pooled water in the walls on all three floors of our house. Once we started cutting holes in the wall, we understood how bad it was. If only we hadn’t assumed.

Assumptions are the downfall of many situations. Consider Kodak. During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, they passed on the opportunity for sponsorship opening the door for Fuji, assuming Americans wouldn’t abandon an American brand. People did, and Fuji ate into their established market share in a big way.

JC Penney didn’t fare much better. In 2012, their new CEO, an Apple marketing veteran, assumed that the no sale strategy used with Apple customers would work in JC Penney too. When they decided to do away with sales, calling them “fake prices,” customers revolted. Turns out they really wanted those discounts—fake or not.

We make assumptions all the time, at home and at work, but they’re so often based on our own experiences. And that’s understandable. Our own emotions (i.e., the JC Penney CEO’s success at Apple) drive confidence in decision-making and we forget that old adage about what happens when you assume.

When you’re the customer or employee, it’s easy to assume. HR conference room tables are full of leaders speculating on their own employment experiences, or what they’ve heard on the road or in town halls.

But one employee never represents many.

And too often, we’re making important people decisions based on assumptions of:

  • What we think the culture is
  • What was valuable to us at a previous age or stage in our careers
  • What matters to us in a workplace

Unfortunately, we’re using these assumptions to make important decisions in how we attract, hire, reward, and retain employees.

Here’s the rub: no one in HR or in the C-Suite is an average employee. No one.

Consider a client of ours who fell victim to assumption. His highly non-management (hourly) workforce overwhelmingly complained about childcare issues as affecting their work. When he learned daycares often charge by the minute when parents are late, he was stunned.

Why? Our research uncovered several reasons. First, his own experience: he personally never had to deal with the problem (his children were now older and his wife was a stay-at-home mom), and all of his direct reports were in similar situations—no one had childcare limits.

Second, it wasn’t something employees were willing to mention to their CEO when they met him—they rarely interacted with him (if ever), and on the off chance they met him, they were too afraid to complain.

Finally, employees themselves assumed it could never be fixed. They saw everyone else struggling and assumed there was nothing that could be done.

Once the CEO realized this, it led his team to take a long, hard look at their scheduling processes. More importantly, it made them really pause and think more carefully about how to look at the workforce and the decisions they make based on assumptions.

You don’t have to learn the hard way. Here’s how to avoid making assumptions that can derail your HR goals:

  • Gather recent data: don’t rely on how you felt 20 years ago or focus groups from five years ago just because you have the data. And, make sure the data set accurately represents the audience for whom the decision you’re trying to make will most affect.
  • Field test assumptions: if you’re not sure if something holds true, before you act, go find out in the field. Instead of a town hall (where no one is honest), go in the field and give employees choices and see which choice they gravitate towards.
  • Use an unbiased source: no matter how hard you try, data collected internally is never honest. Employees simply won’t open up in an honest way to their managers, bosses, HR or colleagues. Plus, letting someone else gather the data means they won’t be leading employees subconsciously to a desired answer.

It’s hard not to compare yourself to your employees. It’s easy to assume you can fairly represent them. But you can’t. And assuming you understand their needs and wants can lead to some dangerous HR fails.

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