There's No Whining in HR

Whining or playing the victim won't get HR professionals the respect or influence they seek, said former GE CEO Jack Welch, who opened the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management. Others offered advice on the risks of social networking and the tips to get the C-suites' attention.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
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Against a backdrop of recessionary fear and anxiety, massive layoffs and huge uncertainty over dwindling pensions and retirement funds, former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch pulled no punches welcoming about 7,000 HR practitioners to the 61st Annual Society for Human Resource Management's Annual Conference and Exposition in New Orleans.

In his characteristic acerbic, blunt style, Welch sternly rebuked any HR professional who fails to take advantage of these times to prove the function's worth.

"You can't be a 'sluggo' anymore," he commanded to a smattering of nervous laughter.

In a question-and-answer approach to the conference's opening keynote on June 28 TV journalist Claire Shipman asked what tough-love advice Welch, now columnist, author and MIT professor, had for his audience.

"Do not be a victim," Welch said. "Do not be a player in a game that isn't [working for you]. I see too many HR people who whine about their place in the company" without doing anything to fix it.

"Get to a place where you have impact," he said. "If you have strength, you can make a difference.

"I ask you, how many of you work in companies where the CHRO and the CFO are on equal footing," he asked. Though some hands went up, Welch quickly purveyed the room and leaned forward. "Damn it," he said emphatically. "Not enough!"

Why aren't there more CEOs like Welch who "get" the importance of HR? Shipman asked, reading from Twitter and e-mail submissions to the Q&A. "What can we do to effect this?"

Welch didn't hesitate. "Deliver," he said. "Deliver, deliver. Over-deliver. Make your boss smarter than the question. Give top managers the stuff they've never thought of.

"Get out of the parties and birthdays and enrollment forms," he scolded. "Remember, HR is important in good times; HR is identified in hard times. This recession is sharper and more intense than any of us could have imagined, and in the course of it, the HR function got exposed. The tide went out and some of you were left standing naked.

"You weren't letting people know where they stand," he said. Layoffs were happening with inadequate explanation and now trust needs to be re-established between HR and the workforce and between HR and the CEO. Tend to "your rigors of evaluations. Make sure people who are being cut know why they're being cut."

Doing that requires intense communication, Welch said. "Communicate like hell. Talk to everyone. Get out on the floor. Make sure you're communicating so people understand the direction your business is going in -- good or bad -- and make them feel the excitement in their blood for your company's promise of the future, not just the pain of today. If people think you're there to organize next week's picnic, you will not succeed.

"A time of crisis is a time of change, but you have to have a culture of creativity. If you're talking about change, make sure people know how that change will affect them.

"And have the guts to change your CEO" if he or she doesn't understand the value of HR, he said, adding that rethinking compensation and bonus systems to "guide the behavior you want" and making sure compensation is rewarding long-term success, not short-term, will be crucial during the economic rebuilding that is sure to come.

Welch was also there to announce his new educational venture, the Jack Welch Management Institute, a set of online courses soon to be introduced nationwide. The "first course," he said, "will be on human resources -- because I feel HR drives the whole thing."

But trust and communication, and helping employees face up to the business realities of the day, he reiterated, will be key. "You don't need a damn cheerleader," he said, "when the damn thing is leaking."

Prior to Welch's presentation, new SHRM Board Chair Robb E. Van Cleave ushered in his organization's new leadership and delivered a call to arms to HR professionals to stay ahead of the "seismic shift" of their profession in these recessionary times.

"This is HR's time," he said, because the burning issues facing HR professionals -- healthcare, benefits, retirement, workplace flexibility, labor, etc. -- "are the same issues facing CEOs, CIOs, even the president of the United States.

"These issues alone give us a vital role in the boardroom, the congressional hearing room and on the shop floor."

"This is our time and this is our mission," he said. "There have been dramatic changes in the world and they're being met by dramatic advances in the best that HR has to offer. These aren't just the nation's and the world's issues. These are our issues and they cry out for renewal."

What Do Workers Want?

What should HR leaders being doing now to help their organizations' employees cope with these tough times? That's what HRE Staff Writer Jared Shelly asked attendees during the convention. Here's what they had to say.

Recession not Reducing Job Satisfaction

Despite the economic downturn -- or perhaps because of it -- job satisfaction is on the rise, according to the 2009 Job Satisfaction Survey, one of a number of studies and awards released by SHRM during the conference.

The majority of employees (58 percent) believe that the economic downturn has not had any effect on their job satisfaction. More than 40 percent of respondents said they are "very satisfied" with their jobs and 45 percent categorized themselves as "somewhat satisfied."

Almost three quarters (72 percent) of HR professionals and 63 percent of employees place job security as the top item in their "very important" aspects of job satisfaction. For HR professionals, benefits came in second at 69 percent, followed by communication between employees and senior management (66 percent), opportunities to use skills and abilities (62 percent) and management recognition of employee job performance (61 percent).

"Although employees say the weak economy has no negative impact on job satisfaction, the recession is the reason why job security is the top ranked factor to workplace satisfaction," said O'Neil.

Social Networking Worries

Based on the number of attendees and the questions they had, it seems the risks of social networking are hitting a nerve with HR practitioners.

Joseph Beachboard, an employment lawyer and shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in Torrance, Calif., began the session, Google Me! (Unless I Don't Like What You Find), with some telling examples of ways in which the Web has hurt people in the workplace.

One woman "Twittered her way out of a job" she had just been hired for, he said, by announcing on her online site that she was expecting to dislike the work, while a bank intern was fired after telling his employer he needed time off for a family emergency -- only to post a photo on his site showing him partying, with drink in hand, in Halloween drag that same day.

Though both workers lost their subsequent legal fights against their companies, their cases "highlight the conflict between what applicants and employees expect not to be used against them and the potential that exists for liability on the parts of both employer and employee."

"You have to be very careful when using the Internet to screen applicants," he said, citing the Fair Credit Reporting Act and numerous anti-discrimination statutes that prohibit employers from taking employment actions based on personal histories or medical conditions, family responsibilities, or past or present bankruptcies, and even gender-identity crises.

"In all cases, ask this key question: 'Does the employer's legitimate business need to access information override the employee's expectations of privacy?' " he asked. "There's a lot of really valuable information out there, but it comes with great risk."

To curb the damage done to companies' reputations by workers identifying their employers on MySpace and Facebook pages, Beachboard recommended HR practitioners create social-networking policies, "even if you're not collecting this information now and even if you're not going to access these things."

The policies, he said, should be very clear and very specific about what is allowed and what is not. 

Because LinkedIn is fast becoming an accepted business-networking tool, for instance, "you can create a policy that states, 'We ask that you not list where you work on social-networking sites, but it's OK on business sites.' "

Among the questions posed at the session were those about companies' rights to ask employees for passwords, about the best scenarios for requesting access to employees' sites and about which jobs would be sensitive enough to warrant such requests.

One attendee asked how best to monitor managers who might be taking illegal action against employees based on their networking sites. There was general acknowledgement by the crowd and by Beachboard of the difficulty and newness of such a challenge.

"This is all very new and happening very fast," said Beachboard. "There's a very new world out there and it's only going to get more intense.

"Keep a close eye on what's going to develop because technology isn't slowing down. But remember, you're the driver." As rule maker and enforcer, he said, "you're in charge."

Getting on the Radar

During a session entitled Developing a Strategic Mindset: How to Become a Trusted Strategic Advisor, James E. Lukaszewski, chairman and president of The Lukaszewski Group in White Plains, N.Y., outlined steps HR practitioners can take to contribute to their businesses' strategic goals.

To be accepted by C-suite leaders, Lukaszewski said, HR needs to change what it does and how it does it.

Thanks to laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, he said, the role of the C-leader has seriously changed. Whereas before they would spend their time making business decisions, he said, today they're spending 40 percent of their time on soft, non-operating issues.

"Now, more things are going up to the CEO than ever before," he said. "If something's contentious, it winds up on the boss' desk ... ."

CEOs, he said, want advice on the spot. "Bosses need to manage their businesses in real time."

Lukaszewski also emphasized the importance of candor, which he defined as "truth with an attitude."

"One of the biggest problems leaders have at every level is isolation," he said. "That's why they need people who can be candid."

HR practitioners need to communicate information that matters from the bosses' perspective, Lukaszewski said.

"The most important question I asked is, 'Why does this matter?' If you want to add value to the conversation, talk about things the boss already doesn't know.

"If your boss takes out their BlackBerry and starts checking for messages, it's because you're talking about yesterday," he said.

Schneider Wins Losey Award

During the conference, SHRM also announced it would award the $50,000 Michael R. Losey Human Resource Research Award to Benjamin Schneider, senior research fellow at Valtera Corp. in La Jolla, Calif., and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Maryland.

The author of 10 books and 130 articles during the past 40 years, Schneider is an industry leader in service quality.

"Dr. Schneider is in a league of his own," said O'Neil. "He is a master of explaining complex topics to management teams and showing them how research findings can make substantial improvements in their operations."

Schneider was nominated by Milton D. Hakel, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, who said the award-winner's research on customer service value chain was something that "management gurus have preached about ... for years."

"He was the first mover in service-quality research," O'Neill said, "and that put him at the head of the line for the Losey Award."

Executive Presence

When Michelle took the stage to speak to an audience of about 200 people, her speech rambled a bit, she seemed to lean back away from the audience and shuffle her feet while speaking. She could certainly have done a better job of invoking executive presence.

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Enter Dianna Booher.

After about a minute of coaching from the author and executive presence expert, Michelle -- a conference attendee and willing participant in Booher's little exercise -- took the stage again to say the same few sentences as before. This time she waited a few seconds before starting her speech, her eyes -- at one point or another -- seemed to engage people in all parts of the room, and she moved fluidly and deliberately around the stage.

After the exercise, the audience said that Michelle seemed more confident, sure of herself and comfortable. Executive presence.

"I didn't tell her to look more confident," says Booher during her session titled Creating Executive Presence: Communicate with Confidence in the C-Suite. An increased perception of confidence is just a byproduct of Booher's advice.

Booher offered some helpful tips and suggestions, noting that observers create their perception of executives in four ways: 

* What you see visibly (clothes, posture, how someone carries themselves etc.)

* Voice and vocal quality

* Ability to speak and react when not given time to prepare

* Character and morality

An easy way to increase executive presence is by getting better at thinking on their feet. If an HR executive is in a meeting with C-level company leaders, for example, and they are asked a question that they are completely unprepared for, they could either give what might be a bumbling, poorly thought out answer or simply follow Booher's SEER method -- Summary, Elaborate, Example and Restate.

First offer a summary of your message, then elaborate on why your plan or idea would work, offer an example and finally restate your position.

Booher then offered tips on how to answer a few different types of questions commonly asked of executives in the workplace. One was the hypothetical question, to which Booher offers some frank advice: "Never respond to a hypothetical question."

Instead, she says, deal with the issue behind the question because getting bogged down in the details of a hypothetical plays right into the hands of the person asking the question.

"They have an agenda," she says, noting that someone asking a hypothetical is ready to shoot down any answer you might have.

Perhaps the most important tip Booher offered was how to deal with "the hostile question." The easiest way is to restate the question without the "hot word."

She gave the example of a CEO asking an HR executive why there have been "ridiculous delays" in shipping at their company. In restating the question, she simply left out the word "ridiculous." Doing so helps to add calm to the situation.

HR leaders may also be faced with the "long-winded question" where the asker rambles on and on before getting to the point. Her strategy is to slowly walk toward the person or slowly walk away from the person. When she reaches them or reaches the other side of the room, they always seem to figure out a way to wrap up.

"80 or 90 percent of the time they just stop," she says. "They just feel everyone is looking at them and feel the pressure to speed up and wind down."

Urgency is the Issue

Harvard Business School professor John Kotter has eight steps to creating effective change in a business, but these days, companies can't even get past No. 1 -- increasing their sense of urgency.

"Where people stumble most is urgency," says Kotter, speaking to hundreds of attendees at one of the conference's general sessions. "When they don't get that right, everything doesn't work no matter how dedicated they are."

But wait, isn't the economic downturn creating a sense of urgency since workers putting in long hours and trying to create new and innovative ways to turn a profit?

Not exactly says Kotter.

He says the downturn has created a "false urgency" in the many organizations with employees going at a frenetic pace that drains energy from the organization.

"[The false urgency is], in some ways, more dangerous because it drains energy, leaves people exhausted and ultimately burned out," he says.

True urgency, he says, comes from ensuring workers are more efficient and taking "junk off the calendar" by focusing on the most important aspects of making change.

To illustrate his idea of true urgency, he showed the crowd a video made by the founder of a business-leadership organization in Bangalore, India. In it, Indians repeat the phrase, "I am one of the billion," meaning that they are one of the billion people that will strive to make real change in India and propel the country into the future.

The video brings Kotter to tears -- even though he says he's viewed it more than 20 times.

Emergency Preparedness at 30 Rock

Fiona M. Kennedy is used to walking from the 52nd floor to the ground level -- she does it every three months. But when the emergency response manager for NBC Universal runs a fire drill and forces high-level executives to walk down those 52 flights, they aren't always pleased -- and they aren't afraid to let her know.

"It may be a pain ... and I get horrible e-mails from people [who think it's unnecessary to practice an evacuation four times a year], but you're saving their life," says Kennedy, whose session was entitled Emergency Preparedness: Real-World Planning without the BS.

One of the most important aspects of any emergency preparedness plan is to get buy-in from the top.

"If they see the CEO walking down 52 floors, they'll walk down 52 floors, not hide in the women's bathroom until it's over," she says.

When creating an emergency-preparedness plan, Kennedy's string of recommendations include storing important business documents at an offsite location, make sure every employee is included in the evacuation plan and ensuring all employees have a "go bag" -- a parcel containing vital items that should be taken in an evacuation, so they don't have to spend time figuring out what to bring.

She also stressed the importance of keeping up relationships with local fire and police officials, as well as insurance agents and any maintenance workers.

"Make sure your relationship is really solid so they answer your phone calls when something really bad happens," says Kennedy.

Perhaps the most alarming news that Kennedy delivered about catastrophes was the OSHA statistic that 25 percent of businesses fail after suffering a fire or earthquake.

"How quickly your company can return to business depends on how prepared you are today," she says.

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