(Closing) Thoughts on a Job Search

On April 5th, I’ll be starting a new job with a Boston tech company – Placester – that I’m super excited to join. But before turning the page on my search, I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on my experience while it’s still fresh. One of the cool things about being in People Ops and interviewing is you get to see what a range of companies are doing. You can incorporate aspects from the best experiences and use the less pleasant experiences as a cautionary tale and reminder to be vigilant.

The Best of the Best:

  • Were awesome communicators. Hiring involves coordinating a number of schedules and stakeholders. Delays, changes in the role and business needs can impact the process. All the while, you have candidates in the pipeline. The best teams kept me aware of what was going on in the process and where I stood – even when it wasn’t all positive information.
  • Gave lots of exposure. It’s particularly important for me to get a sense of culture and ensure to my philosophy aligns with the leadership team’s. The best candidate experiences for me involved meeting a cross-section of the company. It made me feel a greater sense of understanding what the demands of the role would entail and if I would be a fit for their goals.
  • Were transparent. Several companies were refreshingly open with me about both the appeal of the role and the challenges ahead. Often companies and candidates are reluctant to talk about failures or weaknesses (and what they learned from them); frank conversations are the exception. I find these talks most helpful for both sides, plus it builds a foundation of trust.
  • Were laser-focused. I loved the interviews where it was clear the team had a specific objective. Whether it was to assess competencies, flush out how I dealt with a situation, or get a feel for how I’d fit in the culture … I liked knowing that they were being really deliberate about what they wanted to know about me.

Detracted from the Experience:

  • No news. It’s frustrating to submit an application and never hear back; it’s infinitely worse when you invest real time interacting on the phone or in person, only to be ghosted. When candidates meet with your team, update them on their candidacy. You never know when your paths will cross again. One team went completely dark on me for a month after my final interview before asking me to consider joining. You can be sure my experience as a candidate impacted my decision.
  • Going in blind. There were a number of times where I found myself going into interviews with no idea who I was speaking with, how long I’d be there, or what the purpose of the meeting was. Letting candidates prepare means a more productive session for everyone. You can give an idea of the goals of the meeting without giving away all the questions and risking an over-rehearsed candidate.
  • Waste of time. You wouldn’t invest in marketing your product or service without expecting a specific result, but it still seems to happen when vetting candidates. Light questions to get to know the candidate and ease into the interview are fine, but make sure you maximize the value of the interview by talking about what the candidate has done or can bring to the role. Chances are, they want to talk shop. Let them – it benefits both parties.
  • Bashing employees. Nearly every company has something less-than-positive on Glassdoor. The reactions to semi-negative reviews varied widely amongst teams I interviewed with. A couple teams I spoke with were defensive and arrogant in a way that suggested little respect for employees or a lack of self awareness. I much preferred the discussions with teams that were realistic and expressed humility. It displayed they were open to feedback and interested in improving.

Overall, a lot of companies are doing a terrific job working with their candidates. I was able to meet a number of people I’d love to keep in touch with because of the quality of our conversations. None of the positive things above cost money to do outside of effort, but can really impact how candidates view you in the market. This was an awesome refresher for me but I’m definitely excited it’s over.

 

Retaining vs. Hiring – A Discussion on Salary

I was reading “Employees Who Stay In Companies Longer Than Two Years Get Paid 50% Less” in Forbes. One of the questions the author asks is: “Why are people who jump ship rewarded, when loyal employees are punished for their dedication?” While I think that implies intent to “punish” employees that I don’t believe is actually there, it does hit on a real question that has an impact on engagement and retention: “Are we over-prioritizing new hires in an unfair way? If so, why?”

The Greener Pastures Equation

Let me start by addressing why you are able to, often, command a higher salary by jumping ship. The company posting a job is feeling a very distinct pain in their organization that drove them to open a requisition. There is a sense of urgency to address it and a budget has been set for the role. Other employees are investing time they could be spending on another task in filling the requisition (your recruiting/hiring team) and/or potentially doubling up on their duties while the role is unfilled. This creates momentum behind the effort to add someone. So long as the role sits unfilled, it’s costing the company in some way. That’s an important motivating factor.

Early in the process, the recruiting team narrows in on people who match their target for skills, salary and start date. This is the company’s biggest leverage play – if you don’t fit, you aren’t moving on in the process. But once they find a candidate who fits, the leverage shifts a bit. It’s the candidate who decides the terms under which they’ll join the organization. The company must weigh the cost of continuing the search with being flexible in salary. It makes sense that this results in a higher level of compensation than an internal adjustment – a candidate isn’t often willing to assume the risk of a new organization without getting something in return.

It’s easy to forget in the overall equation that there is a very real cost (money and time) to candidates on the market. Candidates invest time sending resumes, networking, interviewing and researching – time that they could be spending on something else. They risk their current workplace finding out and need to prepare themselves for the emotional rollercoaster of pursuing jobs you like but don’t get. The search still isn’t guaranteed to result in an increase in salary. Heck, in many cases, the search doesn’t pay off in a meaningful way and the candidate abandons the search and sticks with their current company and hopes for an adjustment there.

The Devil You Know Equation

That header is hyperbolic, for sure, but let’s dig into the truth of it anyway. There is something to be said for any potential jobseeker staying in an organization they know and are comfortable in, instead of taking a risk on an unknown and ending up in a nightmare. I would argue that most people staying in a current job are actually getting something in return that has value to them. Maybe it’s the commute, benefits, work, pain of finding another job or their amazing co-workers. Each person assigns their own monetary value to that stability when deciding whether to go to market with their skill set; everyone’s risk tolerance is different.

So let’s talk about why it’s easier to get a 5% or 10% increase by leaving an organization than by staying – it all goes back to an organization feeling pain. When there is an open seat, work is just not getting accomplished. Progress is stifled. It comes up in leadership meetings and sometimes board meetings. Metrics are impacted and people are focused on fixing the issue ASAP. This gets a manager in with finance, where they can make a case for additional budget based on the current market rate for the role. And, voila, a role is open at a competitive rate.

A lot goes on in running a company, and it’s easier to focus on issues causing pain when you have limited bandwidth. A failed marketing campaign. A broken product feature. There is nothing more nefarious at play when new requisitions receive priority – it’s distinctly human. If you see a broken limb, you are more likely to go to the ER. Your high cholesterol could actually be a much bigger risk to your health, but you aren’t feeling it in the moment and we’re just not as good focusing on preventative measures, right?

Employees who are on board are performing a role. They may be feeling pain or the itch to hit the open market, but management isn’t feeling it, so management’s focus is elsewhere. After all, there is a process to look into salary regularly. It’s difficult and reactive to treat every single employee’s comp like a burning fire daily – you need to have some visibility into how changes as a whole will impact a business. But if there’s a lack of clear process and philosophy on compensation, you run the risk of employees wanting to leave.

The article I linked seemed to imply that companies keep salaries low because they can. I don’t think that’s the case. Compensation is really hard to balance and get right. I like to look at it like putting together a winning sports team. Your goal is to achieve great things, but you only have a certain pool of money to do so. Some companies have short term goals – they have a bunch to spend and need to succeed almost immediately. They’ll pay at the top of the market for other teams’ free agents and want “sure things”. Some others look long range and expect that if they are doing things correctly, they will lose people to free agency. But they focus on balancing it with bringing in the right free agents, retaining solid talent and drafting high-potentials that may be hit or miss (and may leave for another organization).

Neither is the wrong strategy, but it is felt differently on the employee level. Teams – and companies – are more apt to look at market data when a position is open and they need to compete with others to fill it. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to incorporate revisiting the market annually for non-open roles in a fiscally responsible way. But it’s neither practical nor prudent to pay at the top of the market for every role across the organization. And employees sticking around are receiving something worth trading off a higher salary for, or most wouldn’t be sticking around.

Wrapping in a Sentence (or Three) …

It’s a tough balancing act for both sides; each is trying to balance risk, short-term gains and long-term stability. The best companies straddle the line enough that there isn’t a steady stream of defections that impacts profitability; the best employees leave when they feel the mix of salary, growth and other benefits no longer matches their needs. It doesn’t, in and of itself, mean either side is wrong or disloyal for the tactics they’ve selected – it’s just sound business for both sides.

Employee Engagement – Addition by Subtraction

Employee engagement is a hot topic these days. New tools and technology platforms are being released to help companies monitor real-time engagement levels and make recommendations on how to improve. Companies are investing out the wazoo to make a meaningful impact with the hopes of driving recruitment, profits and productivity. And, yet, literature keeps being released indicating that Americans are not that engaged with their work.

I’ve struggled with how to keep engagement high in the tech industry. It’s really easy, in my opinion, in small organizations. Or in organizations that are innovating and doing really cool things. People organically feel they are making real contributions to something that matters to them. But as you get bigger, it gets harder. As you stop playing on the cutting edge, it gets harder. Why?

In the rush to keep up with the Google’s of the world, I think companies have spent more time adding perks and benefits than anything else – I’ve certainly been guilty of thinking this way. The kicker is that data shows these sorts of additions don’t increase engagement. These ‘nice to have’s’ certainly are capable of bloating the budget and sticking around for a while, though. When I reflect on my two or three most engaged moments in the workforce, here are the commonalities (hint: they aren’t perk-related!):

  • I was given a huge piece of work with little direction on how to do it, but plenty of cover and support from my manager. (Autonomy)
  • It was clear to me and those around me that this work was my clear priority. People understood the consequences of a missed deadline. (Permission to say no to other things)
  • Financially, my needs were taken care of. I wasn’t rolling in dough, but I was making ends meet and able to save. (Self-explanatory)
  • The projects were impactful to the business. (Purpose)

So these last few months I’ve been thinking about ways to create a workplace where people are highly engaged with a limited budget. Maybe the problem in the US isn’t that we haven’t added the right thing to the mix, we just haven’t really figured out how to effectively remove what holds people back from connecting to their work. Here are some ideas:

Meetings. I hate when my weeks are carved up dashing to ineffectively-run meetings  where it’s not even clear that I’m needed. There are certainly incredibly valuable and productive ones, but they seemed to be in the minority many weeks. When I was most engaged in my work, I had permission to decline all but the most essential meetings. And guess what? The business kept running. People sought me out when they needed my opinions. And I had larger chunks of time to dedicate to my project (which resulted in both a happier me and better work).

If we want a more engaged workforce, let’s explore a new level of discipline with meetings. Scope out the agenda, attendees and time needed. Let’s understand the politics at play that tend to inflate the number of attendees, and also work on our communication channels so we aren’t leveraging time together strictly for status updates, and are instead using it for important discussions and decisions best made collaboratively.

Micromanagement. To have a workforce committed to their work and invested in our goals, we need to give them skin in the game. They need to know they can make an impact. Provided you’ve hired the right team, your people will want any given project to be successful and want to take ownership of it. As managers, we tend to get in the way of that happening (usually unintentionally). For one, we may have a similar, but not identical, idea of how to execute – we just don’t have the time to do it ourselves and decide to ‘delegate’. It becomes very easy to give someone an idea to execute and become overly prescriptive in how it’s accomplished. Unfortunately, this removes some of the more engaging aspects of a given project.

Give your team clear goals and objectives and flush out strategy to take on the project. Once you are clear about the end result, and understand their approach, try to remove yourself a bit from the situation and let them do their thing. Check in regularly. A helpful trick for me is to make sure I’m asking more open-ended questions than making statements in check-ins on the project. Framed well, your questions can help coach. If the project is too big to allow failure and you need to be really involved in it, consider explaining that upfront: “Hey guys – I like to give you autonomy, but the Board is watching this one closely, so we’ll need to do it a little differently. Just bear with me on this one.”

Busy work. Every time I rolled out a new process or initiative, there was a certain amount of ongoing work to support it. Before I knew it, it felt like my team spent more time caught in the weeds with maintenance work than doing forward-thinking projects. That’s tough to remedy, and I’m not sure I have the answer other than it’s worth periodically looking at where your team is spending their time and assessing if there are things that can be eliminated.

Look at the purpose of your organization and team. If something doesn’t tie up to that or the basic function of running a business, it should be a candidate for review. This may mean a shift to automation, or empowering others to do the task without leveraging your team, or deciding to drop a task altogether. Make sure your team has time to do more than just busy work. And contextualize the less glamorous parts of the job by tying it up to company purpose or goals. People want to use their brains and not be on autopilot all the time. As managers and leaders, it’s our job to strike the right balance.

I think all of the above can truly impact the engagement of your team and give you a leg up on recruitment and retention. None require a real financial investment, but do require a much harder shift in thinking and management. Frankly, adding a beer fridge or foosball table is much easier to sell and execute. And the difference is noticed immediately. But none of that will keep your employees coming back for more and producing at a highly-engaged level.

 

 

AI and HR – Friend or Foe?

Artificial intelligence has been on my mind a bit, as its implications on our workforce and society are staggering. Our economy is moving towards automation – first came the programmable tasks, drastically impacting our manual workforce; now AI is replacing other jobs – whether it’s fund managers (for investment portfolios) or answering questions in customer service chat windows. Heck, with the rise of Siri, Alexa and similar products – the technology is going out to consumers in a way never seen before.

Several years ago, I saw a presentation of IBM’s Watson and potential HR applications. I’ll admit, it scared me a bit. With an HR bot able to handle a large chunk of questions, and automation/self-service taking up other aspects, that means a lot fewer HR jobs out there as technology penetrates the market. I felt defensive of my profession, and that a bot was incapable of duplicating the experience of a live human.

Recently, I read “The Future Of Work: The Intersection Of Artificial Intelligence And Human Resources” in Forbes. It helped reframed the debate to me from either/or to a partnership or an if/then situation. I’ll be honest, I hate the majority of paperwork associated with my job. It’s brainless work that’s less impactful to the business and its people. It doesn’t energize or engage me, but it needs to get done to provide a great experience for employees. Similarly, there are a ton of simple questions that get asked fairly often.

If we had an HR bot embedded in HipChat at Buildium, what would have been the impact?

  • I could have programmed reminders for deadlines, nominations and surveys to go out at specific times of the month or year. This would remove the possibility of me or my team sending it too late because of bandwidth issues.
  • We could have programmed the bot to answer questions about benefit eligibility and enrollment, rollover, time off, holidays, raises, perks and payroll. People would get these real time versus waiting for an email response or for someone in HR to be available to answer.
  • My Ops folks could have programmed answers about security codes, requesting travel, expense reports, ordering equipment, company events, etc.
  • Onboarding reminders, check-ins and surveys could have been automated. After a week, we could remind you to review the interview process on Glassdoor. After three months, we could ask you to review the company.

There is a defensive way of thinking about that … it costs a job on my team. We budgeted plenty of time each quarter for responsive tasks. Many of these would be replaced by a bot. However, because there was so much time allotted to customer service (our employees), many larger projects or initiatives never got launched because there wasn’t enough time. Others ran late because reminders or the process was manual.

If we had a bot able to handle even 50% of these tasks and questions, we could have kept our performance management process regular and innovative. We could have spent more time on figuring out career development and finding a learning platform that supported employee and business needs. We could have scaled some of the personal touches we had to eliminate because we just didn’t have enough time. We could have not missed opportunities for feedback. Training and onboarding could have been markedly improved!

Progressive companies will still want that work done, so the HR profession will endure and free up more time for professionals to focus on the big things. In this case, it likely would have drastically increased the productivity of my team in meaningful work. Their engagement and job satisfaction would have been higher. I see two downsides. One: Those drop-in interactions when people have a question are a great way to check in with how people are doing. HR needs to foster great relationships throughout the organization to be effective. Two: Companies that don’t see HR or People Ops as strategic will use it to cut costs.

I think I land in a place where I think bots could help increase the efficacy of the function, and increase the time spent on meaningful and potentially innovative work. HR will need to be more deliberate about finding other ways to have informal interactions with their employees. Personally, if it helps free up my time to think about and experiment with better approaches to improving the workplace, I’m all for it.

“The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?'” Applied to Performance Management

I recently read a great article in The New York Times called “The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’“. The gist is that businesses need more people asking questions . Doing so may help us be innovative and solve problems better. I’ve been spending some time (on my couch, obviously) thinking about performance management. Almost universally-hated, people are finally taking a closer look at the system and solutions. This seems like a great system to attack the problem.

Why do we do performance management (in its current form)?

  • To help inform compensation decisions
  • To promote and coach growth
  • To address performance issues
  • To give feedback regularly
  • Because we’re supposed to do it
  • It helps “rank” employees
  • To “document” issues (HR made us do it!)
  • To review goals and progress

Why do people hate it so freagin’ much (in its current form)?

  • It takes too much time
  • Too much negative feedback
  • It’s demoralizing
  • Ratings or stack rankings (when used) suck for all involved
  • It’s not the full picture – often there isn’t input from those closest to performance
  • Comp decisions tend to overly-emphasize the most recent quarter’s successes and failures
  • The process isn’t a balanced two-way exchange of feedback
  • Feedback isn’t delivered in a timely manner – it’s coming way too late
  • Annual, in particular, is really tough
  • It seems like the review is structured to justify the compensation change to the employee
  • Pressure on managers to use the review to justify compensation changes they may not agree with

What if we … ?

  • Tied compensation to market data and trusted managers to put people within a market-based range depending on performance?
  • Looked at compensation more frequently?
  • Decoupled compensation and performance conversations?
  • Pay people a lower base plus regular discretionary bonuses based on performance or completion of projects?
    • What if this pushed under performers to self-select out?
  • Tied reviews to projects or initiatives wrapping up instead of to a quarter or annual schedule?
  • Let employees drive the process and ask for general or specific feedback when they want?
  • Focused on utilizing people’s strengths, versus calling out negatives?
  • Actively coached weaknesses?
  • Had regular, informal career coaching?
  • Judged managers/leaders by how much they helped their employees grow and develop?
  • Had managers receive coaching and feedback from their teams regularly?
  • Did away with the manager altogether and relied on peers and mentors to provide feedback?

It’s encouraging that some tech companies seem to be looking at the problem of performance management (and connected issues) differently and are building tools for a different type of solution. Similarly, it’s awesome to see companies looking at the data and impact of the “old” way of doing things, and using that data to drive changes. Adobe’s switch to Check-ins being a rather high-profile example.

What are your thoughts on performance management? Or, rather, what are your questions surrounding it?