Capturing the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’

On Wednesday, a new digital book titled The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders arrived in my inbox.

HRCI_BookCover_front_finalThe book—edited by Dave Ulrich, William A. Schiemann and Libby Sartain—is unquestionably ambitious in scope, running 582 pages and featuring essays from more than 70 thought leaders. Yet it’s also very straightforward in its approach, asking all of its contributors a single, simple question: What do HR professionals need to know or do to be effective in today’s and tomorrow’s business world? The end result: an impressive collection of diverse points of view covering a wide range of topics.

As the book’s website puts it, “the essays describe how HR practitioners must live up to and even extend expectations of their profession’s growing and evolving role. They focus on how HR professionals and the tools they use must adapt to shifts in demographics and the impacts of technology on the workplace.”

(The HR Certification Institute underwrote the e-book and plans to share it with its database of 140,000 individuals who have received HRCI certification.)

As you’ll see, the book is divided into seven sections—Context to Strategy, Organization, Talent Supply, Talent Optimization, Information & Analytics, HR Governance and HR Professionals—and features lots of gems.

For purposes of this post, here’s just one of many perspectives featured in the e-book, this one offered up by John Boudreau, professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business …

“Can any human do human resource management? That’s what HR constituents and clients sometimes seem to believe—especially when leadership teams admonish their HR leaders to adopt practices such as “rank and yank” performance systems simply because they read about them in a book about Jack Welch and GE, or when they appoint leaders with little professional HR training to top HR roles. Although these practices do have value, they can also seem to dilute the profession’s stature by implying that professional HR qualifications are unnecessary.

HR professionals and professional associations work hard to banish the idea that HR is just common sense, and to establish valid professional standards for HR professional status and practice. As the historical development of the medical profession in the nineteenth century shows, emerging professions strive to establish common qualifications, adjudicate professional practice, establish a monopoly on professional practice among members, and carry out science to build knowledge and inform practice.

There are promising efforts to establish HR as a proper profession, including proposed standards for human capital reporting, several efforts to set HR standards with the ISO and others, renewed attention to certification by SHRM and HRCI, and an increasingly clear and independent role within organizational leadership teams and boards.

In an effort to protect the HR profession, it is tempting to draw a line and say, “You cannot practice unless you meet these standards.” Indeed, sociology research shows that placing such limits is one of several paths to transforming an occupation into a profession. Though tempting, it is important that HR not fall into the “profession trap” by using exclusion to define its professional boundary. Evidence from our work on the future of HR at the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) suggests a more inclusive approach—one that properly welcomes the contributions of disciplines beyond HR while advancing the profession’s stature and evidence-based platform.”

The above excerpt reflects one of a number of threads that runs throughout the volume: that organizations, as well as HR leaders themselves, can no longer afford to view and approach HR in the same way they’ve done in the past. To contribute to their businesses in substantial and meaningful ways, HR professionals, going forward, have little choice but to look at their organizations through a much different lens than the one they’ve used in the past and exhibit a very different set of us behaviors.

Before I conclude, I probably should add I was flattered to be  invited to contribute an essay to The Rise of HR. With our “What’s Keeping HR Leaders Up at Night” survey finding “ensuring workers are engaged and productive” to be the No. 1 concern year after year, I figured I would focus my piece on raising the bar on engagement. You’ll find it on page 257.

I’m personally looking forward to spending more time reading what my fellow contributors have to say on the state and future of the profession.

Twitter It!

Supremes Revive Young v. UPS Case

The reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to revive a pregnancy-discrimination lawsuit against United Parcel Service has been decidedly swift and, of course, decidedly mixed.

The Supremes based yesterday’s decision on the belief that lower courts had used the wrong standard to determine whether the company had discriminated against one of its drivers, according to the New York Times.

When Peggy Young’s doctor recommended that she avoid lifting anything heavy after she became pregnant, the company refused to give her lighter duties to accommodate her and placed her on unpaid leave, according to the 2006 lawsuit.

(UPS has since changed its policy to offer light duty to pregnant women, the Times reports.)

Barry Hartstein, co-chair of Littler’s EEO and diversity practice in Chicago,  says “the Court  essentially treated pregnancy under the classic disparate treatment theory, finding that discrimination can be inferred by certain employer conduct.”

Meanwhile, Katherine Kimpel, managing partner of Sanford Heisler Kimpel in Washington and co-author of an amicus brief in support of Ms. Young for medical providers and organizations involved in female and infant health and for the National Partnership for Women and Families, says the decision was more than just a victory for Young, who accused the delivery company of violating the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act:

“The Supreme Court today handed a victory not only to Ms. Young but also to all pregnant women and mothers working in this country.  Ms. Young will have her day in court.  UPS does not get to subject women to a least-favored-nation status.  Other employers should be on notice.  The Supreme Court makes clear that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act has teeth.  Employers who accommodate everyone but pregnant workers will be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, Michael Droke, a Seattle-based partner in the labor and employment practice at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, calls the 5-4 decision a “fractured” one, adding that the Court “noted that the expansions to the Americans with Disabilities Act definitions of ‘disability’ might require companies to accommodate employees with temporary lifting restrictions, separate from the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.”

He says employers should beware that federal law, either under the ADA or Pregnancy Discrimination Act, protects disabled employees from discrimination and, in some cases, require reasonable accommodation.

“The Court refused to grant pregnant employees, in the Court’s words, a ‘most favored nations’ status,” he says. “In other words, an employer is not automatically required to give pregnant workers the same accommodations they would offer to others with temporary disabilities.

However, he adds, the Supreme Court required UPS to justify its treatment by establishing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the difference.

“This may prove a very difficult burden for most employers to meet,” he says. “Employers must be very careful when granting leave requests or making job accommodations, because the Company might later be required to justify any difference in treatment for other employees.”

 

Twitter It!

Krawcheck Calls for Greater Diversity

Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck

The second day of SHRM’s Employment Law & Legislative Conference featured a morning talk by Sallie Krawcheck, a former high-profile Wall Street executive who’s now the chair of Ellevate, a New York-based mentoring network for women (formerly known as 85 Broads).

In describing her experiences as one of the few female leaders in an industry that continues to be dominated by white males, Krawcheck paid tribute to HR. “The first young man I had to fire threatened to kill me,” she said. “He said he would hunt me down in a dark alley. The second young man I had to fire insisted that I was doing so because I was actually in love with him. He suggested that I put him up in a love nest. So, I have a great deal of respect for what you in HR have to deal with.”

She also offered her own take on what led to the financial meltdown of 2008: “I don’t think it was greed so much as groupthink,” she said. “And what breaks groupthink? Diversity of thought.”

Krawcheck called on HR to “keep us honest, give us training on this, encourage us to have those courageous conversations where we say, ‘Dave, you interrupted Susie five times during her presentation, but you didn’t interrupt Bill once during his.’ ”

Companies today suffer from a surplus of mentoring opportunities for women but a deficit of sponsoring programs, she said, in which executives actively advocate for women in their careers. “Some companies are actually replacing their mentoring programs with sponsoring programs.”

Companies can demonstrate their commitment to diversity by making it a key developmental milestone, said Krawcheck. “Here’s a thought: Give responsibility for diversity to a high-potential white guy.”

Later on that day, a breakout session featured two board members from the National Labor Relations Board, who sought to explain the Board’s reasoning on controversial matters such as so-called “ambush elections” rule regarding union-certification elections.

“I’m told the best part of the new rule starts on page 500, where [Harry] Johnson and I write our dissent,” said Philip Miscimarra, who is — along with Johnson — one of the two Republican appointees to the five-member Board.

He and Johnson disagreed with the new elections rule on a number of different issues, particularly its dramatic compression of the time allowed between when a union files a certification petition and the election. “The [National Labor Relations Act] is silent with respect to timing,” said Miscimarra. “How fast is too fast, or how slow is too slow — it is silent on those issues.” He noted that both houses of Congress have passed a “resolution of disapproval” of the new rule — a resolution that could potentially nullify the rule should a Republican win the next presidential election and sign the resolution into law.

One of the most contentious issues the Board continues to wrestle with, said Miscimarra, is the extent to which companies have the right to restrict concerted activities by employees that could be considered as “disrespectful, discourteous or insubordinate.”

“Employers have been surprised to learn that rules they have in place for a good reason — rules that require employees to show courtesy and respect — are unlawful under our statute,” he said.  “I do hope the Board can do a better job of devising a standard in this area that people will find helpful.”

 

Twitter It!

SHRM Legal Conference Gets Under Way

You’ve probably heard of the best-selling book What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Well, what about what to expect when your employees are expecting? This was, in fact, the title of a session during the first day of SHRM’s 2015 Employment Law & Legislative Conference this Monday, where employment attorney Courtney Perez reminded a packed room that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made targeting pregnancy discrimination one of its top enforcement priorities.

“This topic is personal for me,” said Perez, a working mom of two and the expectant mother of a third. As a senior associate at Dallas-based Carter Scholer Arnett Hamada & Mockler, she advises clients regularly on how to avoid discriminating against employees and ending up on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Mothers make up a huge chunk of the workforce: 57 percent of women with children 1 years old or younger hold down jobs outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 62 percent of women who give birth are in the workforce at the time and 40 percent of U.S. households with children younger than 18 have mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinners, she said.

As the number of women in the workforce has grown, so too has the rate of pregnancy discrimination: The number of pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC went up by 35 percent between 1997 and 2008, said Perez. One of the biggest areas of contention revolves around the topic of light duty for pregnant workers: The Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling soon in Young vs. UPS, in which delivery driver Peggy Young filed suit against the package delivery company after it required her to go on unpaid maternity leave instead of providing her with light duty during her pregnancy. UPS said Young didn’t qualify for a program in which temporarily disabled employees were given light duty until they could resume their regular jobs.

Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of Young, “it may expand the definition of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” the 1978 law passed by Congress in response to an earlier Supreme Court ruling that employers who discriminated against pregnant employees were not guilty of sex discrimination, said Perez.

Although pregnancy itself is not considered a disability under the law, the EEOC’s guidelines recommend that employers treat pregnant employees whose condition limits their job abilities the same as other temporarily disabled employees, said Perez.

She recommended a set of best practices for HR to follow, chiefly that HR ensure that a company’s policies and practices related to hiring, promotion and pay do not disadvantage pregnant employees or those who plan to take or have taken maternity leave. And beware the “mommy track,” she said, referring to the practice of steering pregnant employees into less-prestigious, lower-paying jobs.

“That’s the stuff of which discrimination lawsuits are made,” said Perez.

State governments aren’t waiting on the Supreme Court or Congress to give increased protections to pregnant workers, said Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia. At least nine states have passed laws that go further than the federal PDA in requiring companies to accommodate pregnant employees, he said, part of a trend in which states are taking a more activist role in workplace matters.

“There may be gridlock at the federal level, but at the state level we’re seeing a lot of action,” said Segal during the session “All Politics is Local: State Law Trends.”

Thirteen states so far (and at least 90 municipalities) have passed so-called “ban the box” laws that prohibit employers from asking job candidates on their initial application whether they’ve ever been convicted of something. Four states have passed laws specifically protecting interns from discrimination and harassment. Twenty one states have passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 19 of those states also have laws banning gender-identity discrimination.

“With the 2016 election, you can expect to see more ballot initiatives pertaining to paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, gender identity — more Democratic voters tend to participate in presidential elections than mid-term ones, and these issues resonate with them,” said Segal.

Conservative state lawmakers have also been active: Twenty-two states have passed laws protecting the right of employees to store guns in their cars while they’re at work. A new law proposed in Pennsylvania would even allow employees to store guns on the outside of their vehicles, said Segal. Meanwhile, the number of “right to work” states is at an all-time high of 26, having recently been joined by Wisconsin and Michigan.

All of this poses a special burden for multi-state employers, said Segal, who must comply with a patchwork of regulations across the country.

In some cases, he said, the best approach is to keep it simple. With respect to ban-the-box, it might make sense to simply remove the question from all job application forms, rather than having differing forms for different jurisdictions.

“Does it really make sense to have multiple forms for different states?” asked Segal. “This is an area where we’re certainly going to see more states adopt this rule. It’s one thing that actually attracts support from both Republicans and Democrats.”

Twitter It!

Will Those Millennial Enigmas Stay, or Not?

Forgive me, first off, for focusing yet again on millennials in the workplace. We’ve admittedly done more than our fair share of 84464529 -- millennial workersstories and blog posts on this demographic and what they need, and  apparently aren’t getting from many employers.

But it seems no matter how much we write, or how much we study them, we simply cannot get our heads around these younger workers, generally born between 1980 and the early 2000s. Do they come to work with far too many expectations and little regard for established protocol? Are they one of the sharpest generations, or not so? Do they communicate well on paper and face-to-face, or only through their mobile devices? Then there’s the million-dollar question: Are they loyal or are they going to leave their jobs as soon as something else looks more interesting?

We’ve all certainly heard and read about the latter, haven’t we? It appears to be a worry that’s been plaguing employers for some time now and hasn’t been letting up much either. Indeed, both our January-February cover story, “Millennials in Charge,” and our soon-to-be-published April cover story, “Engaging Gen Y,” mention this age group’s propensity for job-hopping. So does a recent Aon Hewitt study that finds nearly half of all working millennials intend to find new jobs this year.

But then come all the counter findings: the most recent from the U.S News & World Report’s Money site suggesting “the reality doesn’t back that up at all.” In fact, writes columnist Alison Green March on that site, “a report from Oxford Economics [written about on the Forbes site] found that millennials are no more likely than non-millennials to leave their jobs in the next six months.”

Just last month, HRE Editor Dave Shadovitz blogged about another study, this one from IBM, suggesting “millennials change jobs for the same reasons other generations do and are no more likely than older colleagues to leave a job to follow their passions.”

So who are these guys? And should we be worried or not? Better yet, are we simply overthinking all these demographics and putting way too much stock in the latest survey or study?

I put all this to my 30-year-old son who will have been working as a mechanical engineer at a firm in Philadelphia for eight years this April. Count ‘em: eight. First job out of college and he’s still there. That’s way more loyal than most studies indicate.

He’s a good texter, but he also communicates extremely well face-to-face. In his words: “I don’t really waste time thinking about those studies, but I do hear that about my generation from time to time.” Yea, the way I figure it, he’s way too busy flying to site visits and drafting up building, systems and circuitry designs to spend much time reading about how likely he is to job-hop.

“The generational-studies thing, I don’t really get it,” he says. “Seems like they do that with every new generation, right?”

Well, yes, but his generation seems to have gotten the lion’s share of attention, I tell him.

Then again, haven’t millennials always gotten the lion’s share of our attention? I’ve read that about us baby boomer parents in a number of studies as well.

Twitter It!

The Battle Over ‘Quickie’ Elections

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed a GOP-led resolution to overturn a National Labor Relations Board rule aimed at streamlining union-organizing elections, setting up what is likely to be President Barack Obama’s second veto since Republicans took full control of Congress, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The vote was 232-186 and closely followed the Senate’s March 4 passage of the measure, which, according to the WSJ piece, uses a rarely invoked law that allows Congress to reverse certain agency actions.

It has been widely reported that Mr. Obama’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto the resolution.

The current ‘quickie’ kerfuffle can be traced back to December of last year, when the NLRB completed the rule’s creation, which is scheduled to take effect April 14.

The rule, according to the WSJ, streamlines elections by allowing certain documents to be filed electronically instead of by mail. It also generally delays legal challenges from employers—such as whether certain workers are eligible to vote—until after workers have cast their ballots.

And, according to Lori Armstrong Halber’s post on Fisher & Philips Government Solutions blog, the rule could have serious consequences for employers:

Euphemistically called a “representation case procedures rule,” the new Ambush Election Rule will result in sweeping changes to policies that have been in place for decades, including significantly shortening the period between the filing of the union petition and election from the current median 38 days to as little as ten (10) days and mandating that petitioned employers will be required to turn over a list of employee names, their home addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses.

This, she writes, will stifle employer free speech, deny employees full disclosure about the decisions union organizers are pressuring them to make thereby crippling worker free choice and jeopardize the privacy of workers and their families.

Now that both houses of legislature have weighed in on the NLRB rule change, the only thing left to wonder about now is when to expect Obama’s veto.

Twitter It!

Diversity, Leadership and Performance: i4cp Report

In HRE’s most-recent annual “What Keeps HR Executives Up at Night” survey, HR leaders ranked attracting and retaining diverse talent sixth on their list of top concerns, just below driving culture change and aligning people practices to business.

185905158Of course, it’s hardly a surprise attracting and retaining diverse talent would be a significant concern, considering the obvious benefits of employing a diverse workforce. But that said, there’s also little question employers have a lot more work to do on this front.

The link between diversity and business performance was one of many topics address during the i4cp 2015 Conference, held this week at the Fairmont Princess in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In his opening remarks, Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp, referenced a recent research report produced by the institute titled Diversity & Inclusion Practices that Promote Market Performance.

The research found high-performance organizations shared the following characteristics as far as D&I is concerned, including:

  • They make D&I part of the organization’s DNA;
  • They ground their D&I efforts in metrics, thereby spurring greater leadership buy-in;
  • They place greater emphasis on inclusion;
  • They have leaders who “seek awareness of differences” and “take action to establish relationships” that bridge gaps and build an understanding of differences.

Later in the morning, a panel featuring diversity leaders from CVS Health, W.W. Grainger and Lincoln Financial participated on a panel titled “Business Impact Diversity & Inclusion.”

Jacqui Roberson, senior director of inclusion and diversity for Grainger, noted that far too many organizations still operate in silos. In order for D&I initiatives to succeed, she said, employers need to get people to “cross over the lines.”

David Green, vice president of diversity at CVS Health, noted that having a CEO who gets it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Referring to CVS Health’s recent decision to remove tobacco from its store shelves, Green recalled how, soon after the decision was announced, his CEO came to him and said, “ ‘Just so you know, we need to make sure we’re thinking about what this means in helping [employees] quit tobacco. We need to be focused on multicultural communities, youth communities and lower-income communities.’ … I didn’t have to go knocking on his door to say, ‘What do you think about all those diverse communities.’ ”

At CVS Health, Green said, diversity operates as a separate function, but works closely with HR to ensure shared goals are in place and each group knows what the other is doing.

Altimeter Group Founder and Principal Analyst Charlene Li also explored some  key themes from her new book (released Tuesday, the day of her talk) during a session titled “The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Digital Transformation.” (Her book shares the same title as the session.)

Technologies are changing the nature of relationships, Li said. Yet many leaders, she added, continue to be stuck in the old ways of doing things.

If organizations are going to thrive in the new digital era, she said, that’s going to need to change.

“Technologies come and go,” she said, “but leadership is [always going to be around] and something you need to have a long-term strategy about.”

In her talk, Li shared several examples involving companies that are using technologies to strengthen the link between leaders and employees.

One story she told involved the introduction of a new burger at restaurant chain Red Robin.  Soon after the launch, she said, leaders at Red Robin learned through the company’s internal social network that the burger wasn’t very good. Employees were saying on the site that “people were complaining about it” and “the burger was falling apart,” she said.

Listening to that feedback, Li said, the organization quickly realized it had a problem and leaders went back to employees for more details. “They then took [that feedback] back to corporate headquarters, cooked up a new recipe and brought it back to the restaurants in 30 days.”

To put this in context, Li said, “it usually takes 12 to 18 months to change a recipe and get it back to the restaurants, but they did it [in this case] in 30 days!”

As a result, she said, Red Robin didn’t just change the recipe. By recognizing the value these employees were delivering to the organization, she said, “they were able to change [the company’s] relationship with those employees.”

Value—or more precisely the “lack of it”—was one of the reasons behind Sears Holdings Corp.’s decision to begin to seriously revamp its performance-management system last year.

During a session titled “The Rise of the Crowd: How Social Platforms Can Drive Performance and Democratize Performance Management,” two Sears Holdings Corp. HR leaders detailed the retailer’s efforts to transform the way it does performance management.

Aimed at salaried workers, the new initiative is based on the work of Neuroleadership Institute Director David Rock and others.

“The old process was cumbersome and annual reviews were happening three or four months after the year had ended—so by the time we were having the conversation, things were stale,” recalled Phil Menzel, vice president of HR for SHC.

In contrast, Menzel said, the new system is much more agile and responsive.

Using a tool developed internally called GameOn, associates every quarter now sit down to identify up to five objectives for themselves.

The new system also features an online feedback tool called Soundboard, which is accessible to associates. “People can go on the tool and request feedback from anyone in the company or provide feedback,” said Chris Mason, head of strategic talent solutions at SHC. “It gives people something they can take action on right away.”

The final part of the new process is a quarterly “check-in” component aimed at facilitating a more meaningful dialogue between associates and managers.

Martin noted that associates now have to prepare as much for the check-ins (which includes a one-page worksheet) as their managers.

Though still very much a work in progress, the new system has already shown some good traction, according to Menzel and Mason.

Introduced last August, the Soundboard tool already has 10,000 active users and has resulted in 40,000 pieces of feedback. “When we surveyed people, 75 percent said they took the information and actually made a change in [their] behavior,” Mason said.

The new system officially launched in February.

Twitter It!

In Search of Quality Job Seekers

successionIt’s not 2010 anymore.

Alan Momeyer, vice president of human resources at Loews Corp., delivered that helpful message to attendees who came to check out yesterday’s “HR Tips and Trends” session at the HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Momeyer, who was accompanied on stage by HR peers from Four Season Hotels & Resorts, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Destination Hotels and Resorts/Lowe Enterprises, and Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, was referring to how quality job candidates seek jobs now versus five years ago.

In the past year or so, Loews saw approximately 300,000 job applicants come just from a partnership with indeed.com, the popular employment-related meta-search job engine, according to Momeyer.

“That didn’t just happen. It happened because we paid to be visible,” he said, urging the HR leaders in attendance to get more aggressive in seeking out quality candidates via sites such as Indeed as well as ever-more popular social networking sites.

Momeyer and his colleagues on the panel also stressed the importance of taking a more active role in managing your employment brand online.

For example, panelist Robert Mellwig, senior vice president of really cool people (that’s right) at Destination Hotels and Resorts/Lowe Enterprises, says the organization views employer-review sites such as Glassdoor.com similar to the way its customers look at tripadvisor.com.

According to Momeyer, his introduction to Glassdoor came via his millenial-age daughters.

“When they graduated college and started talking to companies about interviews and job openings, they went straight to Glassdoor to find out more about these companies.”

HR can help the organization have a bigger say in what candidates find when they (inevitably) visit such sites, said Momeyer.

“A lot of times, it’s unhappy employees complaining on these sites,” he said. “You should think about approaching your employees who would have something good to say, to share their reviews.”

Panelist Carolyn Clark, senior vice president of HR at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, “knows how important our external brand is for our guests, and what differentiates our guest experience.”

But, equally as vital, she said, is determining what makes the Fairmont employment experience a positive one for its 45,000 global associates.

To “differentiate our colleague experience, increase our job applicant flow and increase employee engagement, we really want to tell our colleague experience, and [show candidates] what it’s like to work here.”

Doing so requires “fishing where the fish are,” she said, noting that Fairmont has recently undertaken an initiative to “identify [the most used] channels and best candidates, and seek them out and ask them what’s most important to them in their jobs and careers.”

Clark and her HR team have asked the same of current Fairmont employees, surveying associates to find out what attracted them to the company, what has kept them there and what about their jobs makes them happy, she said.

What Clark and company have gleaned from this process is that, above all else, employees (and potential employees) value a connection with their co-workers as well as the organization.

“What we’ve learned from hearing our employees describe their work experience is that they look at their jobs as if they were working with their families.”

Twitter It!

HR’s Role in Fostering Innovation

100843802 (1)How do you define innovation?

Chris Hunsberger asked that (rhetorical) question of the 550-plus attendees within minutes of kicking off his keynote talk yesterday morning at the 9th annual HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

A quick Google search will bring you nearly 270 million different definitions, explained Hunsberger, the executive vice president of HR and administration at Four Seasons Hotel & Resorts.

So there are a few different ways to define the term. But, in essence, innovation is about “creative problem solving,” he said, “and doing things in new and different ways.”

Indeed, doing things in new ways is a necessity for any organization with hopes of succeeding in 2015, said Hunsberger, who is, by his count, 75 days into his new role, after 34 years in operations at Four Seasons, where he has spent his entire professional career.

To illustrate the importance leading companies (and their HR functions) place on doing things “a little differently,” Hunsberger pointed to organizations such as Zappos and Netflix.

Zappos, of course, has famously offered employees financial incentives to leave the company, in part as a way to separate those who are truly committed to the organization’s success from those who are simply working for a paycheck.

Meanwhile, Netflix is piloting a program that allows employees to set their own holiday schedules.

To further demonstrate his point, Hunsberger also offered a few “short stories of innovation” from within Four Seasons.

In search of innovative ideas from employees, Hunsberger and the leadership team asked senior leaders throughout the organization to arrange and oversee “innovation sessions” focused on identifying opportunities to improve the guest experience, for example.

At one of these sessions, the Boston-based hotel’s team came up with an idea for “15-minute room service.”

“We obviously get a lot of feedback from guests, and many felt room service was too pricey and, at an average of 30 minutes to 40 minutes, took too long. So the Boston team had the idea to develop a 15-minute room-service menu,” said Hunsberger.

Leadership loved the idea so much, he said, that “we rolled this out as a global initiative in about 90 days, and we even had a competition to see [which hotel] could come up with the best menu.”

In addition to drawing raves from Four Seasons guests, the 15-minute room-service initiative “really allowed our team to think about innovating,” he said, “and doing things in a new way.”

Twitter It!

A ‘Window’ into Transforming GM’s Culture

There have been no shortage of books over the years devoted to the glass ceiling, a phenomenon that is still very much evident today in organizations, both big and small. But few, if any, have attempted to explore the issue through the story of one single leader.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280In Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling, a book being released today by Bloomberg Press, Laura Colby, a reporter for Bloomberg News, has found a worthy subject in General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra. What makes her story of particular interest to those of us in HR is the fact that, for a short but very trying period of time (when GM was in the process of navigating through bankruptcy), Barra led the HR function at GM.

As head of HR, Colby reports in Road to Power, Barra held a significant amount of power in shaping the company’s future management. “Thousands of people were leaving the company. Barra’s job was to maintain morale among the most promising ones—the high achievers—so that they wouldn’t bolt at a time when they could get bigger salaries elsewhere.”

Early in her tenure as HR chief, Colby writes, Barra went on the road, “visiting the company’s locations across the country. She’d hold brown-bag lunches at plants and offices to answer employee questions. She also had a series of more formal meetings with invited representatives from different sections of the company, so-called diagonal slices. With more than a dozen plants closing and thousands of workers laid off, she needed to underline the message that the company wanted those who remained to do their jobs well and to be accountable for the results.”

Colby describes in the book some of the more formidable challenges Barra faced at the time. But as the author reminds us on at least a few occasions, sometimes it’s the small stuff that can be particularly telling about an organization’s culture.

A great example can be found in the chapter titled “The Volt: Shocked into Action” (keep in mind this is an excerpt from an advanced copy of the book). It specifically touches on GM’s dress code …

“One of the most iconic things Barra did to get the message across that times were changing was to relax the company’s dress code. It ran to about 10 pages when she joined HR, including descriptions of proper attire for everyone from assembly line workers to office staff to executives. “It was probably the most interesting change and the biggest learning that I had into a culture,” Barra said at the Fortune women’s forum. She whittled the code down into two words. We said, ‘Dress appropriately.’ That was it.”

Rather than liberating employees, the change left some of them terrified. Barra said she’d have managers e-mailing or calling her and asking for written details of the policy.

“So I’d take them through, and say, ‘What do you do?’ And they’d say, ‘I manage 20 people and a $10 million budget.’ ” And I’d say, ‘I can trust you to manage 20 people and $10 million but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ ”

True, the future of GM hardly hinged on what folks wore—or didn’t wear—to work. But as Colby quotes the subject of the book saying at the Fortune conference, Barra considered the dress-code experience a “window into the change we needed to make.”

And for those of us reading about it some years later, it serves as a valuable reminder that many of the policies and practices we put in place as HR leaders, even the ones that don’t fall into the category of make-or-break—along with the behaviors we demonstrate—send powerful signals about our organization’s culture and priorities.

Twitter It!