Category Archives: corporate culture

GE is Reinventing Talent Management

The Sept.-Oct. issue of the Harvard Business Review has an interesting package of articles on the 16-year tenure of recently retired G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt (including an essay by the man himself on what he learned during his time leading the company). One of what may be among his lasting impacts on the company is the campaign to use algorithms to transform the way GE develops and retains its 300,000 employees.

As writer Steven Prokesch notes, GE is now positioning itself as a tech-focused industrial company and has hired thousands of software engineers and other digital natives. These employees tend to have little patience for bureaucratic processes and a thirst to grow in their careers. As a result, GE’s HR team is coming up with a raft of analytics-based applications to help them develop their careers and networks, identify high potentials and match them up with training opportunities. “It’s GE’s version of Match.com,” James Gallman, who helped lead the effort at GE and is now Boeing’s people analytics director, told Prokesch.

GE’s analytics push is focused on six areas of talent management: career and succession planning, training, high potentials, networks, talent retention and cultural change. The tool for career and succession planning is the furthest along, writes Prokesch. It uses data on the “historical movement of GE employees and the relatedness of jobs (which is based on their descriptions”) to help users identify potential new opportunities throughout the entire company, not just in their own business or geography. The app is also intended to help leaders do a better job of succession planning by identifying “nonobvious candidates,” for example. “When we’re thinking about who could possibly fill a particular role, we have a technology that helps us come up with additional possibilities,” HR exec Paul Davies told Prokesch.

GE’s training app, still in the prototype stage, recommends training to help an employee do a better job and advance in his or her career. The company plans to connect it to an existing performance-development app for GE’s salaried employees that provides them with a steady stream of constructive feedback from their managers (Under Immelt, GE did away with the forced-ranking model implemented by former CEO Jack Welch, which has fallen out of favor in most of corporate America).

GE’s HR team is also building an app that uses a technique called the “Pareto frontier” to draw on “outcomes” data such as salary increases, bonuses, promotion rates, etc., to identify high-potential employees. It’s also building an app for networking that’s designed to  help employees identify others within the company they can go to for help or advice on a particular problem.

The team is also testing an app for talent retention that’s designed to predict, within a six-month window, when managers and employees in a given function are likely to jump ship. It will identify certain circumstances — such as when a team member leaves — under which people often quit, so that managers can intervene by, for example, talking about the next roles they might play.

Finally, GE’s “cultural change” app would help it identify factors within its organizational structure that may affect its efforts to become a nimbler, more customer-focused entity. For example, the app — still in the early stages of development — would measure whether people serving on large teams feel differently about the company than do people serving on smaller teams.

As Cade Massey, a professor at Penn’s Wharton School, tells Prokesch, although none of these apps will be a magic bullet for talent retention and development, they will give GE much more to rely on than intuition and bias in terms of what works and what doesn’t. “As analytics progresses, it offers a chance to make more rigorous those intuitive methods and to de-bias some of that judgement,” he says.

The Price of Secrecy

The most comprehensive, carefully thought-out company policies are basically rendered void if they’re not enforced.

And, moreover, not letting employees know that violations of these rules are being dealt with can actually have a pretty corrosive effect on an organization over time.

So says a new study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, who used questionnaire data from “a large U.S. governmental agency” to find that “lower employee trust with tenure is incrementally linearly lower over the course of employment, not the result of an early breach of the psychological contract.”

This occurs, the authors continue, “for employees at all hierarchical levels, but is steepest for non-supervisory employees, suggesting that employees [lacking] information about policy enforcement may be driving this phenomenon.”

In other, plainer words, your people want to know that policies are being enforced, and keeping them in the dark about enforcement proceedings only serves to chip away at employees’ trust in the organization.

“The decline happens incrementally over the span of an employee’s tenure with their organization when policy enforcement is kept secret from other employees,” says lead author Jone Pearce, dean’s professor of organization and management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business, in a statement.

“Secret proceedings weaken, rather than support, employees’ perceptions that policy enforcement is taken seriously, which then works to undermine trust in their organizations.”

Unlike legal trial proceedings, the authors write, most companies’ policy enforcement proceedings “lack the fundamental feature of due process procedures: They are not open.”

In addition, they note, organizational secrecy can spread as employees “assume secrecy is what the organization expects, and so they withhold information that they should be sharing, potentially causing additional harm to organizations and employees alike.”

While the company might contend that keeping policy proceedings hush-hush is done in the interest of privacy, being open about enforcement proceedings actually “helps protect against someone making false charges and allows all employees to know that violations have consequences,” according to Pearce.

“Openness keeps those rendering judgement honest, while secrecy undermines accountability. Hiding enforcement proceedings may help a company or its employees avoid embarrassment; however, it comes at a price. And, that price is a loss of trust in the authorities and their policies.”

And, compounding the problem is the possibility that this skepticism might trickle down from veteran workers to more junior colleagues who are still forming impressions of their employer.

“Understanding why employees with more tenure trust their organizations less also has important theoretical and practical implications for human resource management practices,” the authors point out. “Longer tenured employees are often sources of guidance for newer employees on understanding organizational values and expectations, and may spread their low trust to their less experienced co-workers, further undermining others’ organizational trust.”

 

 

 

 

 

A Home for Workaholics

The innovators and iconoclasts that inhabit Silicon Valley have long cultivated a reputation for swimming against the corporate current.

So, it makes sense then that some of these same individuals would be pushing their people harder at a time when many companies are striving to help employees achieve something close to work/life balance.

The New York Times’ Dan Lyons says as much in a recent opinion piece that focuses on how some companies in the Valley are actually “branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice.”

In the north of California, “an entire cottage industry has sprung up,” writes Lyons, “selling an Internet-centric prosperity gospel that says there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.”

A tech company’s founder and architect making enormous—and, to some, unthinkable—personal sacrifices to build and sustain a successful business is one thing. But “rank-and-file workers are buying into this madness, too,” says Lyons, a former tech reporter who also worked in marketing with a start-up after losing his job at Newsweek at age 52. (Lyons, who bowed out of that position after not quite two years on the job, has since penned a book chronicling his time in the start-up bubble. Spoiler alert: he didn’t particularly enjoy it.)

He offers a recent scenario at San Francisco-based Lyft as an extreme example of the all-work-all-the-time ethos that persists in the Valley.

Last year, a very pregnant Lyft driver started having contractions while on the road working, and, you guessed it, continued picking up fares on her way to the hospital. A subsequent Lyft blog post celebrated the driver’s refusal to let a little thing like childbirth get in the way of doing her job. The post was ultimately deleted after critics lambasted Lyft for praising the driver; a reaction that Lyons says “genuinely puzzled” those within the company, including the driver herself.

Proud workaholics abound in the Valley, of course, but some show it in more discreet ways—wearing T-shirts that say “9 to 5 is for the weak,” for example. Then there’s venture capitalist Keith Rabois, who bragged in a recent tweet that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation, according to Lyons, who says living at such a breakneck pace is actually a selling point for those with designs on becoming the next big-time tech player.

“Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALS,” writes Lyons. “For a certain type of person—usually young and male—the hardship is part of the allure.”

As for the hopefuls flocking to the Valley to get in on the ground floor with the next Facebook or Lyft, maintaining a brutal work schedule is perceived as just another part of the job, clinical social worker Anim Aweh tells Lyons.

“Everyone wants to be a model employee,” according to Aweh, who Lyons says “sees a lot of stressed-out tech workers” where she works in the Bay area.

“One woman told me: ‘The expectation is not that you should work smart, it’s that you should work hard. It’s just do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore.”

We often hear HR leaders say their organizations are becoming much more vocal in encouraging employees to balance their work with their personal lives—minding the number of hours they put in or taking a day off when they need a break, for example.

If the picture that Lyons paints is an accurate one, then some in the tech sector are taking a much different approach. And—sadly, some might say—the hopeless workaholic will likely remain a fixture in northern California for the foreseeable future.

“The chance to become the next 20-something tech celebrity billionaire has not lost its power,” says Lyons. “Every year thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco, hoping to be baptized into the religion of the hustle. As bad as things have become today, there might be worse to come.”

Who’s Happiest at Work?

When it comes to happiness in the workplace,  the youngest workers may have something to teach the oldest.

According to research carried out by Happiness Works for Robert Half, only 8 percent of 18-to-34 year olds consider themselves to be unhappy at work, less than half the number from the 35 to 49 bracket and those over 55.

Sixteen percent of those in the 35-to-49 bracket considered themselves to be unhappy, while 17 percent in the over-55 category did.

Robert Half’s survey, which included input from 24,000 working professionals across eight countries, found that workers tend to get more jaded as their careers progress, which could have a negative impact on the companies they work for.

“Employees that are aged over 35 have valuable experience that the whole organisation can learn and benefit from,” Phil Sheridan, senior managing director at Robert Half UK said in a statement.

“It’s important that their happiness is not neglected, so businesses need to take the time to invest in their staff at all levels.”

Factors contributing to declining happiness in the workplace include the pressure of taking on more senior roles within a company, a lack of creative freedom, and struggling to strike a healthy work-life balance, the study showed.

Happy workers, the research finds, are more likely to be productive and do good work, with the company citing research from the University of Warwick, which found that happy workers are as much as 12 percent more productive than those who are miserable.

“Happier people tend to care more about their work,” said Nic Marks, the head of Happiness Works. “So they put in greater effort. This also means they are quicker to notice when things are not going right and take action to prevent negative outcomes.”

Back From Vacation — And Stressed

That week in the Bahamas was everything you’d hoped it would be. And now it’s Monday, your first day back at the office — and life stinks.

If this scenario rings true to you (regardless of whether said vacation was in the Bahamas, Disney World or your own backyard), then take heart in knowing you’re hardly alone: Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of 1,000 full-time U.S. workers polled by training and communications firm Fierce Inc. say they’re either more stressed or have the same level of stress upon returning to work after taking paid time off. The reasons why aren’t that surprising, with most respondents citing having to catch up on missed work, followed by having to readjust to “a work mindset” and needing to resolve major issues that arose while they were away.

Not all employees feel equally stressed, however, with only 14 percent of respondents who said they were “very satisfied” with their job feeling more stressed returning from vacation. Meanwhile, 38 percent of those who reported being unsatisfied with their jobs said they felt more stressed returning to work.

“The fact that returning to work is a stressful situation speaks volumes to the lack of support many employees feel both leading up to, and returning from, vacation,” says Stacey Engle, Fierce’s executive vice president of marketing.

Interestingly, while more than half of employees believe their managers support and encourage them to take time off, only 40 percent say the same of their co-workers. Once again, there’s a correlation between this factor and job satisfaction, with 57 percent of those unsatisfied with their current job saying no one encourages or supports them in taking paid time off, while just 18 percent of those who are very satisfied say the same. Lower-paid employees also report a lack of support, with 45 percent of those with annual household incomes of $50,000 or less saying no one encourages them to take a vacation. Meanwhile, less than 30 percent of employees who make $100,000 a year or more say no one encourages them to take time off.

Then there’s the perennial issue of under-vacationed Americans: Although a third of the Fierce survey respondents say they receive 20 or more vacation days each year, one in every five say they receive less than 10. Not surprisingly, younger and lower-paid workers tend to receive the least PTO days. By way of comparison, countries within the European Union require a minimum of four weeks (20 days) of paid leave for all workers, while a number of them(such as Germany and Switzerland) are even more generous.

Given that there is no national law requiring paid time off in the U.S., employees and HR need to keep the lines of communication open regarding the issue of vacation. As Fierce’s Engle says, “employees need to feel empowered to ask for what they need, and managers must be open to hearing concerns of these employees.”

Taking a Mental Health Timeout

Madalyn Parker could have said she had the flu. She could have said that a family situation came up.

Parker, a web developer and engineer at San Francisco-based Olark Live Chat, could have offered any number of reasons for why she wouldn’t be at work that day, or the following day. In fact, she probably could have gone without saying a word to anyone, aside from letting her supervisor know.

The truth, though, was that she felt she needed some time away to concentrate on her mental well-being. And she felt obliged to tell her colleagues as much, which she did in a now-viral email.

The message—complete with the subject line “Where’s Madalyn?”—advised the Olark team that Parker would be “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” adding that she hoped to be back the following week, feeling refreshed and ready to give 100 percent to her job and to her co-workers.

“Mental health day” has long been a figure of speech that employees use (away from the office) when they aren’t necessarily physically ill, but take a sick day to mentally regroup and recharge their batteries.

But many workers probably wouldn’t dare use that term when they inform their manager or colleagues of their absence, for fear that this explanation would be met with raised eyebrows or worse.

This is why Parker’s honesty is so surprising. Her chief executive officer’s response, however, might be even more startling.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” Olark CEO Ben Congleton wrote to Parker the day after he received her initial note.

“Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health—I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”

HRE has written quite a bit about the stigma that still surrounds mental-health issues in the workplace. We’ve also discussed at length the progress that’s been made in terms of understanding and accepting those issues, and the strides employers have taken to help employees manage their mental-health needs.

We might be a long way from mental health days becoming “standard practice” at all organizations. But Parker’s email—and Congleton’s reply—offer compelling signs that that stigma might truly be dissipating, and that more employers are giving real thought to the role that mental well-being plays in overall employee health.

“We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance,” Congleton recently wrote for Medium. “When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

Keeping a Distance Between Genders

If you believe the findings of a recent survey, conference rooms at the average company look like the gym at a typical middle school dance: boys on one side and girls on the other.

All jokes aside though, the results of a new poll conducted for the New York Times paint a picture of modern workplace dynamics that should be a bit unsettling.

For example, the survey of 5,282 adults asked respondents whether it was proper to take part in a variety of activities—enjoying a drink or a meal, driving in a car—alone with someone of the opposite sex who was not their spouse.

With respect to the workplace, 25 percent of women said having a one-on-one work meeting with a man would be inappropriate. Twenty-two percent of men said the same about private meetings with female colleagues. Overall, close to two-thirds of respondents said employees “should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work,” according to the Times.

In interviews conducted with survey respondents, some depicted the workplace as a “fraught atmosphere in which they feared harassment, or being accused of it,” the Times reports.

At first blush, it might be startling to think that roughly one quarter of employees feel this way. But consider recent developments at companies such as Uber and Fox News, for example. One can certainly hope that organizations like these are outliers; exceptions rather than the rule. But the headlines are inescapable, and the specter of sexual harassment looms a bit larger than usual at the moment. And some employees are apparently nervous about how their private interactions with colleagues of the opposite sex—however harmless they might be—could be perceived.

Count construction worker Christopher Mauldin among the apprehensive.

“When a man and woman are left alone, outside parties can insinuate about what’s really going on,” Mauldin told the Times. “Sometimes false accusations create irreversible damages to reputations.”

Without a doubt, those on the wrong end of unfounded harassment allegations can pay a steep price. As do victims of actual sexual harassment.

Just ask Kathleen Raven, a science writer in the office of communications at Yale School of Medicine.

While telling the Times that she “considers herself to be progressive in many ways,” Raven says she no longer conducts closed-door or offsite meetings alone with men, because she has been sexually harassed in the past. Raven also says that she “tries to avoid being too friendly, to ensure she doesn’t give the wrong impression.”

Hannah Stackawitz, on the other hand, can’t imagine a professional life that doesn’t include taking solo meetings with men.

“I do it every day, honestly,” the Langhorne, Pa.-based healthcare consultant told the paper, adding that her husband has frequent one-on-one meetings with women as part of his job.

Employers and HR have a duty to ensure that male and female colleagues feel this comfortable working with each other.

However, not a lot of companies have been able to do so, according to Kim Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.

“Organizations are so concerned with their legal liabilities, but nobody’s really focused on how to reduce harassment and at the same time teach men and women to have working relationships with the opposite sex,” Elsesser told the Times.

This recent New York Times poll suggests that the problem Elsesser describes is a very real one. Stackawitz makes a very simple case for why fixing it is important.

“There’s no way that women or men can become their full and best selves,” she said in the Times piece, “by closing themselves off.”

The Battle for Work/Life Balance

Maybe there’s room to have a flourishing career and a fulfilling personal life after all?

It’s easy for many employees to feel like they’re forever losing ground in the work/life balance battle. But if a new survey from Menlo Park, Calif.-based Robert Half Management Resources is any indication, workers are finding ways to reconcile workplace demands with their responsibilities outside the office.

The poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults who currently work in office environments found more than half (52 percent) of these professionals saying they feel their work/life balance has improved from three years ago.

This number should come with a bit of a disclaimer, though, as younger employees seem to have been much more successful at finding professional and personal stability in that time. For example, respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 were more than twice as likely as those 55 or older to say their work/life balance has gotten better in the last three years.

These numbers make sense when you consider that familial duties—raising kids and caring for elderly parents, for example—generally take up more of our time as we get older, making it harder to juggle work and home life.

What’s a little more surprising, however, is the finding that it’s actually managers—who tend to be north of 30 and are typically expected to work long hours and assume more responsibilities—who are leading the way toward better work/life balance.

For instance, 54 percent of workers told Robert Half that their manager was “very supportive” of their efforts to achieve work/life balance. (This number spikes to 62 percent among employees between the ages of 18 and 34.) And, overall, 74 percent of respondents said their manager sets an “excellent” or “good” example in the work/life balance department.

“Employers and employees alike are emphasizing work/life balance,” says Tim Hird, executive director at Robert Half Management Resources, in a statement. “Managers can help by giving their teams more freedom over where and when they work, if possible, and providing greater autonomy. These efforts go a long way to improve job satisfaction and retention rates.”

Managers and HR leaders should also rely on the input of employees—all employees—to determine how to help workers achieve equilibrium in their lives, he says.

“Many companies view work/life balance as being particularly relevant to millennials, but employees of all generations are under pressure to meet both work and personal obligations,” says Hird. “Businesses should promote work/life balance initiatives broadly and make sure all staff have the opportunity to weigh in on the perks that will best help them meet their goals.”

How Does Bullying Affect Bystanders?

In case you needed further evidence of workplace bullying’s toxic and far-reaching effects …

In a new study, a University of North Texas professor finds that an office bully’s boorishness not only distresses the employee on the receiving end of such behavior, but is harmful to those who witness it as well.

Michele Medina, an adjunct professor in the department of management at UNT’s College of Business, studied how exposure to an in-office bully influences interpersonal attitudes, including employees’ expectations for how colleagues should treat one another. Medina also analyzed how individuals react internally to seeing a co-worker targeted by an office tormenter, and how witnesses’ empathy affects these factors.

“When people react to events emotionally, it has a direct influence on their attitude or how they behave,” says Medina, in a UNT statement. “And that can spill over into work.”

For the study, Medina enlisted 300 participants to serve as bystanders to office bullying. These observers watched a faux employee training video that showed either an actor berating a co-worker or a benign exchange between colleagues.

Their reactions “say a lot,” notes Medina.

For example, witnesses who observed peer-on-peer bullying report believing that they might become a target for bad treatment at work. Study participants also said they would often be inclined to disassociate from the bully, while those with higher levels of empathy would be more likely to relate to co-workers who had been bullied. In addition, witnesses of the same gender as victims of bullying behavior said they are less likely to identify with the perpetrator.

These conclusions do say a lot. And little of it bodes well for workplaces where bullies are present—and going unchecked.

“There’s a price to pay,” says Medina. “Kids who are bullies tend to grow up to be adults who are bullies. It doesn’t necessarily go away. Understanding how bullying affects everyone at work, and which employees are most likely to be affected, allows companies and organizations to address all aspects of workplace bullying properly.”

What’s Wrong with Workplace Culture

We’re all expected to be doing more with less these days (just like last year, and the year before that and … oh never mind). But a new survey of U.S. workers by American Express finds that today’s companies may not be doing enough to help their employees be more productive; in fact, their workplace cultures may actually be standing in the way.

Take jargon, for example (no really, please take it): 88 percent of U.S. workers admit to pretending to understand office jargon, even when they really have no idea what it means, according to Amex’s Get Business Done Survey. However, two-thirds (64 percent) say they use jargon words or phrases multiple times a week — as in, “Let’s table that and circle back when the deliverables have greater impactfulness.”

Then there are meetings: One third of the employees say they spend nearly 1,200 hours a year in meetings they would call “pointless.” As Sonny Corleone said in The Godfather, “No more meetings!” Or at least, no more meetings that run on for so long that attendees’ attention starts to flag — the survey finds that when this happens, employees’ “top distractions of choice” include thinking about running errands (43 percent), taking a vacation (32 percent), wondering “What were they thinking?” about coworkers’ wardrobes (29 percent) or inserting a witty joke to make the meeting more fun (27 percent).

Email is yet another factor, as employees in the survey admit to responding to work email at less-than-productive times of the day such as after 10 p.m. (36 percent), on vacations (36 percent), while out on dates (15 percent) and eve as late as 3 a.m. (19 percent). Nothing sad about that, right?

The survey also cites some non-culture-related distractions that impede productivity, such as social media (52 percent say it hinders their productivity) and current events (30 percent said they’re “glued to the news”).

While HR may not be able to do much about the last two items other than block access via the company network (possibly a futile move in this age of BYOD), it can certainly provide managers with some tips on structuring shorter meetings and communicating effectively in a  jargon-free manner. These moves may certainly “positively impact the organization’s ability to achieve maximum deliverables in a shortened timespan.”