An HR Reaction to the Viral Uber Sexism Blog

Forgive me for the rambling nature of this post – it’s a little bit of an exercise in venting.

If you haven’t seen it already, a former Uber employee blogged about her experience working for the company, including harassment, threats of termination and ridiculous politics. Frankly, I’m not surprised, but it still pisses me off. As a human. As a woman. As an HR professional.

I’m going to focus on the last one, though. Reading through comments and discussion on the blog post, I see versions of: “You can’t trust HR”, “HR is there to cover up management’s ass”, “Why did she think going to HR would help?” I hear this all the time when people are talking about the function. Hell, I’ve had people tell me in my work and personal life (paraphrased) “HR is awful. You don’t seem to suck. What’s the deal?” It makes me angry to see bad behavior reenforce these views because so many HR teams are worlds better than that.

I get it, really. Traditionally, HR has been a function to handle administrative functions and avert risk. In many organizations it rolls up to the CFO. I can’t help but wonder if running decisions through the filter of “which action will most benefit the organization’s bottom line?” for decades has had an impact on the function as a whole.* In organizations where values are a little blurry or not emphasized enough, of course HR decisions are going to play out towards the most financially prudent business move. This may mean ignoring bad behavior from an executive or high-performer (see: Uber). Or initiating a massive inquiry when word gets out and there are worries of lawsuits, loss of customers, or angry investors on the horizon (see: Uber).

I see the HR and People Ops function evolving into an advocacy team for all employees. Our job should be to reenforce values, improve communication, and maximize performance across the organization to hit business objectives. That means advocating for interns, individual contributors, managers and executives. That’s tough, for sure. And it’s far more nuanced than risk-mitigation or protecting management. Being an advocate for all means there are times you need to advocate for management (for example, a termination), fall in between (mediate a disagreement), or advocate for employees (dealing with a bad manager). None of that is cut and dry, but it sure makes it much easier to sleep at night!

While I’m an idealist, I have a healthy dose of realism in me. I know that a percentage of HR departments are still firmly entrenched in an outdated mindset. A complaint is filed and instead of investigating the perpetrator in power, the HR team goes through archived emails to find something on the person who filed the claim. Or someone suddenly stops moving forward in an organization. Or their performance reviews are impacted. You know … retaliation. Some of those companies are betting on that employees won’t go through the long, expensive process to prove that in court. This makes me absolutely livid.

There are also a good chunk of well-meaning HR departments that are also powerless to do anything in many situations. A complaint is filed and run up the chain. The HR team advises an investigation and/or immediate action taken. They lay out the ethical and legal reasons to do so, and the retention risks associated with ignoring the behavior. And are told to do nothing. That sucks too – for the employee and HR team.

Both behaviors result in the same shitty experience for an employee looking for help and stem from an executive team that fails to hold people to an ethical standard, including treating people with respect. In this case, Uber’s CEO failed to make standards of behavior both crystal clear and a priority that people were held accountable to. That trickles down through leadership and, before you know it, is the pervading culture of the organization. A frontline employee doesn’t usually come to an organization unafraid to sexually proposition a direct report, right?! New hires observe the climate and mimic what others are freely doing. The CEO needs to draw a firm line with his leadership team on acceptable behavior and ensure a fair and safe place to work with some ethical standard. Then that will become the norm.

On behalf of HR … I’m sorry to people who have worked in organizations like this. I’m sorry if you have learned to avoid HR at all costs. I get it. I hope some of the better teams out there can win you over. We work really hard to earn trust and advocate for you. We don’t get everything right, but please know that there are plenty of us in the field who get up every morning with a passion for creating a great experience for all employees and redefining the function entirely. Lastly, know that there are plenty of us in the HR field who were absolutely disgusted by what we read – just like you.

* I don’t think all CFO’s are this way, but with so much on their plates and being held accountable for the bottom line, there certainly is pressure to either look at things this way, or a lack of bandwidth to really focus on people. I’ve also met some CFO’s who really give people the energy and strategic, long-range thinking they deserve.

Article Reflection – “Why Bosses Should Stop Thinking of ‘A Players,’ ‘B Players’ and ‘C Players’”

Check out this article in the Wall Street Journal. The crux is that we may very well be doing a disservice to our teams (and companies, by extension), by separating our employees into A, B and C players. The writer does a much better job describing the why’s, so I highly recommend reading it, but a quick overview:

  • It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we’ve dropped someone in a bucket, they are going to have a really hard time switching to a new one. We give our A-players more support, opportunities and energy in development.
  • It fails to look at the entire picture. A-players may be receiving easier tasks, more support, or be under a better-functioning leader.
  • It feeds the assumption that A-players are great at everything and opens up doors for them that they may not be the right fit for. We’re better off identifying what people are good at.
  • Perhaps on a subconscious level, it feeds the egos of leaders: “If I’m in a leadership role, it must be because I’m an A-player.”

I think, like most people in HR-related fields, I’ve spoken in terms of A-players. For one, it’s almost like a common lingo – everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. But also, it just make sense to me. You want the best people on your teams, you want to coach people up who can be coached up, and you want to exit under-performers and replace them with really solid talent. Easy peasy! But maybe I’m not doing right by an organization or its people by blindly accepting this approach. So let’s look at the workplace from the alternate perspective.

Moneyball – The Baseball Analogy

I’m a big baseball fan and found myself completely blown away by the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball approach as it started impacting the product they put on the field. For those who aren’t baseball (or Brad Pitt) enthusiasts, basically the A’s were a poor team that needed to figure out how to win. The majority of teams out there took the approach of trying to assemble the best collection of A-Players to fill their roster. This worked great for teams with deep pockets, but how could a small market team potentially compete?

Billy Beane, the General Manager, had to learn how to build a team differently. Leaning heavily on stats, he’d find players who most teams viewed as “average”, but were actually exceptional in certain situations or with specific skills, and acceptable in other areas. For example, instead of looking at batting average, he’d look at how often people got on base (baserunner = runs … it doesn’t matter how they get there). Because most teams weren’t looking at this, he was also able to exploit a lower demand and get these players very affordably.

His managers learned how to play people – people many other teams would categorize as “C-Players” – when the situations they were exceptional in arose. Maybe someone was better against lefties with runners on. Or maybe a relief pitcher performed best in the 8th inning on two days of rest. Beane’s staff took the time to understand what every person on his roster was exceptional at, and deployed them in those circumstances – quite successfully. The legwork to understand at this level of detail was much more time intensive. But the team consistently competed against teams with bigger talents and deeper pockets. This would seem to be anecdotal validation to understanding what people are good at and using them appropriately. It’s easier to see the weaknesses, but are your “underperformers” always bad across the board? Maybe they are exceptional at something or aren’t being assigned the right work?

My Experience as an Employee

There are things I’m really great at. There are things I’m satisfactory at. There are things I stink at. I am sure multiple managers and co-workers of mine would swear to you that I’m an A-Player and I knock everything out of the park. But I’m equally sure there are managers and co-workers who would say I’ve dropped the ball and am definitely not an A-Player.

I don’t think the reason for that is is simple as “I’m great!” or “I stink!”. There are the types of work I’ve been assigned, my bandwidth at the time, what else was going on in my life, and how I was managed throughout the work. It’s easy for me to see that in myself and even in my team. But it’s much harder to avoid falling into the trap of sometimes thinking someone is an underperformer without actually looking at them and their work situation objectively. C-Players can be A-Players in a different work circumstance (and vice versa!).

 

Going Forward

People can absolutely be underperformers across the board – even the Oakland A’s released players. Maybe a different way of looking at the situation is seeing what skills and qualities your company needs and what skills your people have. If someone isn’t exceptional in specific area or enough areas for your business needs, then it’s worth addressing. At least that forces you to look at the skills of all your players, see if they can be put in a situation at your company to be exceptional, and make decisions after that.

If we as companies spend more time deploying our staff on the things they are best at, perhaps we can get better performance and higher engagement. From a competitive standpoint, there may be some value to building a company full of generally-good people who each are exceptional at a couple of very specific things. If you are strategic about how you fill those exceptional things across the board, I wonder if the Moneyball philosophy could work in business as well.

Transparency and Salaries

Some former co-workers emailed and touched on the idea of salary transparency. My initial emotional reaction to this has always been “uh oh”. That doesn’t mean I’m against it, but it does acknowledge that there is a huge amount of risk to rolling something like this out without the right forethought, culture and strategy.

When you talk about an organization focused on transparency – whether it’s with company performance, finances or salaries – the goal is to show people that you have nothing to hide because you truly believe you are being fair and you have a sound strategy. Transparency also functions as the check/balance/accountability system to address any issues. But that removes the human element and our cultural biases from the equation. And we are all human bringing our own experiences to the mix.

The first time I looked at payroll files in a job, I was surprised to see what some people were making. In my head, I compared their performance to the money, to their peers’ salaries and to my salary. But I knew it was part of the job and I’d have an opportunity to influence compensation based on performance. But that’s not easy for everyone to do in a productive way. So why would anyone open up the books? Can it work? I think so in some places. I think these are the pieces you need in place for it to potentially be successful.

Leaders who communicate well. This is a multi-prong requirement. First, you need leaders who can communicate the why’s behind the switch – both to current employees and to candidates. Most people won’t have experience with knowing their peers’ salaries and probably will feel a little nervous about the concept. Your leaders need to be able to sell the benefits and the reasons behind the philosophy. After roll-out, be very cognizant to take note of the good its done or things you were able to fix because of the switch. You can use these as examples explaining the value you policy has to the organization to future candidates.

Secondarily, you inevitably will have more people coming to you asking about why their salary is less than someone else’s in a similar or identical role. Or a high performer asking why they are paid equal to an average performer. Your leaders will need to be capable of having very frank discussions with their teams on performance – where people are strong, weak and how they can improve to hit their salary goals.

A solid formula or philosophy on pay. This is beneficial everywhere, but there is room for more employee discontent when compensation is fully disclosed to all parties within the organization. Expect you will need to answer “why” a lot. In most organizations, it’s just “why aren’t I paid more?”. In your organization, it’ll be “why is Joanie paid ‘x’ and Andrew paid ‘y’?”

I’ve seen case studies on companies that incorporate position, tenure, performance, management and location into a formula that spits out a salary. While everyone may not be happy with the end result, it is completely understood why people receive the compensation they do. Other companies base comp entirely on market data. You may approach it however works best for your organization, but be sure you have iron-clad reasons behind the “why’s”. Use the transition to salary transparency to audit the fairness of your pay structure and address any inconsistencies. Opening up the books and having a system is probably the best lever to pull to address salary gaps you didn’t intend to create (i.e. gender differences).

Transparency (and accountability) within the organization. Trust your team to know your company goals, strategy, priorities and finances. Communicate why those decisions were made and what you hope accomplish with them. Share what other teams are doing and what their KPIs are, then share the results. Broadcast the wins and acknowledge contributions. Talk about your investments in people (compensation, benefits, perks, etc). Be open about the market rate for different roles. When your team can see the big picture and understand what everyone is doing to hit goals, it’s easier to put compensation into perspective.

Wrap up. You likely already trust your leadership, HR and finance teams with salary information, so there’s little reason others can’t learn to function productively with it if given the same visibility. But also be ready to help people through the transition by answering their questions honestly. In HR and Finance, you go in expecting you’ll know this information. Others never had that expectation and it can be a longer adjustment.

 

I think the upside to transparency is always better than siloing information – whether in pay or other areas of the organization. However, it’s also much harder and requires a much more deliberate communication strategy with leaders people trust. If you don’t have that in place, the downsides can be much worse than the status quo. Companies have become more open with some aspects of their organizations … it’s interesting to think about if salary transparency is the next wall to fall.

Super Bowl Sunday – Lessons to Apply to your Culture

Bill Belichick is known for going outside of the football world to draw inspiration for how the team is run. Whether it’s drawing from the military, grilling coaches from other sports, or playing an inspirational move – if there is an edge to be gained, he is open-minded. What can we learn from how the New England Patriots are run and apply in our companies?

Have a singular goal in mind

The New England Patriots are notorious for having one goal in mind: winning the Super Bowl. It is a big goal, but achievable. Every single person in the organization can tie their purpose to that goal. Whether it’s preseason workouts, staying late to review scout tape, working the salary cap or throwing on the pads late in the season after a sloppy tackling performance. On an employee-level, it gives a perfect filter for every single member of the organization to use for decisions. “Will this help us win the Super Bowl?” If the answer is “no”, they just don’t do it.

This singular focus is something companies aim for, but very few achieve because it’s really, really hard. First, pick a manageable time horizon; unless it’s a really purposeful goal that is easy for people to get behind (“we’re changing the world!”), you will have a hard time getting alignment if your end date is measured in years, not months. Give people ownership of their part of achieving the goals.Let them do their jobs. This creates shared purpose.

Talk about your goal all the time. If things don’t tie up to it, ask if those other things are worth the effort or pulling effort away from the most important thing. And lastly, if you hit your goal, celebrate it. Talk about all the little things that got you there. Highlight the adversity you overcame to hit it. Talk about your MVPs. Maybe even throw a parade … with confetti. And duckboats.

Simplify the task at hand

Belichick and his staff articulate their game plans very simply and specifically. While some teams may say things like “win in the trenches” or “score four touchdowns”, the Patriots staff chooses three to four really specific things that they think will give them the edge to win against their specific opponent. They do this for every single game. That may be “score first”, or “allow no yards after catch” or “stay in your lanes” (with a particularly shifty running back). But it is specific and measurable.

There is a lot of work required to filter down to the most important tasks to focus your efforts on to win. The higher level goals are much easier. So why bother? Breaking things into digestible parts serves a few purposes. It gives the players simple things to focus on – it gives them a job, so to speak. They don’t need to do everything, they just need to do these things to win. And because they know what others are doing, they don’t need to worry about the overall plan – just their role. You hear “Do your job!” all around the Patriots. This laser-like focus ensures you have the effort where you want it, and team accountability if you don’t hit your goals.

Fill your team with people who buy in

The Patriots have a very specific philosophy: winning above all else. That means individuals needs to buy into the system entirely or the entire system falls apart. It may mean a Pro Bowl player accepts a part time role. Or a defensive player sticks with the play call instead of taking a chance on an interception or sack because individual play makes the whole weaker.

The team has had to cut ties with players – both drafted and brought in – who weren’t able to buy into the team-first, all-business, no distraction culture because they weren’t fitting in and were undermining something very important to the organization. Similarly, they’ve brought in players known as trouble-makers or partiers who are now poster children for “The Patriot Way”. The difference isn’t talent. The difference is fitting into a culture and way of doing things to hit the goal.

Everyone has been in an organization with individuals playing by different rules than the vast majority. I suppose it can work, but it also undermines your strategy, culture and the heights your team can reach. With everyone after a team goal with a shared code on how to achieve things, you can weather the inevitable challenges without rocking your foundation to the core.

Have strong leaders … and know they aren’t always the people in charge

Your leaders are the people who buy into what you are doing, how you are doing it, why you are doing it and yell it from the rooftop and live it daily. They behave in a way you want all of your team to. This is different and distinct from people in leadership positions. The latter are your managers, directors and executives.

It is critically important that those in leadership positions also have leadership qualities. Most organizations elevate their highest performers. I would argue that it’s more important to elevate your leaders and invest in them. Yes, Tom Brady has long been one of the best players on the team, but you hear countless stories from people coming into the organization and realizing how hard he works and how much he buys into what the team is doing. That is what makes him a leader. If your top performer sees the value of running hills in the hot summer sun to improve conditioning, it’s really hard for anyone to complain too loudly and be accepted within the organization. There are plenty of teams around the league who have quarterbacks expected to lead a team, who utterly lack in leadership qualities.

Similarly, Matthew Slater has long been a captain for the Patriots. For those unfamiliar with the team, Slater plays a small, but critical role on special teams. While many would view such a role as a “demotion”, he has bought into his ability to help win the field position game, contribute to winning and dedicated himself fully to the role. Players follow his lead, despite the fact he’s not making the most money or in the flashiest role. You have these people in your organization. Retain them. Invest in them. Use them to help align your team and reinforce your message.

I’m going to get back to watching the parade, but thanks for indulging my fanaticism today!

The Hard Stuff – Terming Someone

I was talking with a friend the other day about a termination she had to do that she wasn’t looking forward to. Everyone with some semblance of a heart hates terminating people. It’s difficult. There is risk to it. It’s delicate. It sucks for everyone in the room. And, thankfully, it’s not something most people get a whole lot of “practice” doing – but that makes it even harder to get right. You should lean heavily on your legal/HR team, but here are a few tips I’ve shared with managers in the past.

Do: Make sure it’s not a total surprise.

When any manager has ever come to me about a performance-related termination, I ask what conversations they’ve had with the person and if/how they’ve followed up. This isn’t strictly for a paperwork-related, cover-your-ass reason. It’s more strategic and long-range than that.

If we as organizations want peak performance from our teams, our people need to be clear on expectations, if they’re meeting them, and how specifically to improve. It’s a manager’s job to drive performance and I feel strongly that there is some ethical responsibility for managers to put in a good faith effort to get everyone on their team where they need to be if there’s even a chance things can rebound. It certainly doesn’t always work out, but I think the investment is deserved.

Have the performance conversation(s), even though they are hard – you would expect the same level of candor from your manager. Give real time feedback. Follow up with an email summarizing to reenforce and create clarity on goals, strategies and timelines you talked about in the meeting. You would be shocked at the number of performance conversations where the manager emerges feeling they have delivered a ‘tough’ message, while the employee feels like they were just given some helpful development suggestions and has no idea, whatsoever, of the gravity of the situation. That is setting everyone up for a worse situation.

Keep in mind that your entire team is always monitoring you. You do not want your highest performers self-selecting out of the organization because they have witnessed and now fear a surprise termination. Even if performers agree 100% with the decision to let someone go, they will be monitoring the fairness of the process and how you treat someone on the way out.

Don’t: Say how hard this is for you to do. Or cry.

Ever. Some suggest never apologizing or admitting fault to avoid putting the company in more legal risk. That’s probably true, but not what drives this recommendation.

Research has indicated that job loss profoundly impacts people. Yes, even if you cut a big severance check and eliminate that initial financial concern. Think about it. In the US, one of the first questions we ask people is: “What do you do?” For better or worse, our jobs are a huge part of our identities. When you lose part of your identity, it can absolutely send you reeling.

I will admit that I don’t sleep well (or at all) before terminations. I get sick to my stomach for days. I usually need to go for a walk to rid myself of the shakes before and after. Most people have some level of emotional and physical response. But when you sit across from someone you are letting go, keep in mind what they are facing:

  • Income instability
  • Telling people they’ve been let go/have no job (over and over and over …)
  • Shame
  • Loss of purpose/identity is in any way tied to their job
  • Loss of relationships and interaction with co-workers
  • Loss of confidence
  • Logistics of getting their stuff and getting home
  • Shock
  • Having to explain job loss in search for new job
  • A million other things

This is a life changing event that, truthfully, some people never fully recover from. Nothing you are dealing with is in any way comparable to what they are facing. Crying or sharing how difficult this has been for you isn’t appropriate and won’t make them feel better. In fact, it could exacerbate and escalate the situation. Instead, the compassionate thing to do is to be empathetic in the room, listen to them (within reason) and try and remove or mitigate as many challenges as makes sense. If you don’t think you can hold it together, talk with HR about other options or approaches.

Do: Give reasons why you’ve made the decision to let them go.

Managers are really surprised to hear this from me. Several years ago, I was working with an HR consultant/mentor who strongly influenced my philosophy on terminations. She essentially said to me: “If people don’t understand why they are being let go, they are left to fill in the blanks themselves, they get more angry and you are at more legal risk.” When something bad happens, we cannot help but ask why it’s happening to us. For me, understanding the why helps me process, even if I disagree.

This isn’t to suggest that the termination is a time to get into the minutia of your decisions or lay it on thick. It’s not. Concentrate on two to three high level reasons why you are letting someone go that you’ve discussed with them in the recent past. Try to avoid focusing on the more emotionally-charged or subjective ones, if possible. For example, if the issues were treatment of peers, attendance and missing deadlines, focus on the later two.

For each reason, I like to have a very specific and simple example to share with them if, and only if, they ask. Depending on the tone of the conversation, it may even be appropriate to answer simple clarifying questions. However, once the discussion turns into a debate, it’s time to respectfully and calmly refocus on the reality that the decision has been made for multiple reasons and is final.

When companies hire people, I think there is an underlying agreement that both parties will do their best to make things work. This drives my desire to try and be specific about where that agreement fell apart.

Do: Summarize the conversation at a really high level.

It’s more likely than not that the terminated employee’s head will be spinning as soon as it’s clear they are being let go. They may not hear or process a thing you share with them after that moment as they start to think about all the repercussions. Account for this in your process. I prefer to send employees home with all the information we talked about.

This includes:

  • What’s going to happen with their benefits; what and when they need to do anything about them.
  • If there is any agreement, encouragement to review with an attorney and outline a timeline for questions and execution of the agreement.
  • What their last check will cover. If applicable, if and when they will receive any bonuses due to them (it’s interesting how a $100 commission check can be the difference between someone feeling like they were treated fairly or not).
  • If you don’t intend to fight unemployment, state that and help direct them to the right resources.
  • If they have stuff at the office, their options to get it all back.
  • Appreciation for their contributions and regrets it didn’t work out.

I typically don’t cover the reasons why in the termination letter. Rather, I focus on simplifying and clarifying a really difficult process.

Wrap up.

There is a lot to think about when going into a termination. I believe that in an HR role my job is to hold both employees (through performance and behavior) and managers (through their responsibility to coach, provide clear expectations and treat their teams fairly) accountable. The termination process is walking a fine line in a highly-charged situation when that social contract falls apart. Try to treat the impacted employee with empathy and kindness, no matter how crazy they drove you. The organization is watching closely. And, really, it’s just the right thing to do.