What Does That Mean?

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

It’s always been harder for Staff to earn respect from an organization than it is for Line. The very language of business, the way everything is measured and communicated is in terms of money. People who are in a Line position work in the business of the business and as such, they are in a position to increase the organization’s profitability.

Staff’s problem is that, by and large, Staff is a cost and rarely a source of revenue or profit. There are usually three kinds of Staff: Legal, Information Technology, and Human Resources. As litigation has grown into a major business, Legal has become a necessary defender of the business. IT used to be a cost and a mystery. No one in the business could really understand what computerization could do and the IT Staff members were nerds, thus dense about explaining it. But now virtually everyone in the world has a cell phone and some additional form of computer. So, more or less, IT is something that people use all the time and even if they don’t know how it works, they know what it does for them and how lost they and their organization would be without it.

But Human Resources, it seems to me is still floundering in terms of earning respect from other Staff as well as Line. One of the most basic reasons was that as the economy grew in the 1990’s to become world-wide and extremely competitive; people were viewed primarily as a cost rather than an asset. In order to get profits up and costs down, the result was huge layoffs and off-shoring of jobs.

Making people happy or satisfied, committed or engaged, became far less important than cutting costs and making money. That trend has lessened in the last few years but we are still very far away from People are our most important asset.

I believe a second basic reason HR still hasn’t earned “A seat at the table”, is because most people in HR have no sense that their job also involves adding to the profitability of the business. If people are not seen as vital assets by the organization, than increasing measurements of how people feel is irrelevant to the business. Human Resources rarely realize the critical measurements to the organization are written in black or red ink.

Most people, especially those in Human Resources, often turn to Training as a means to solve problems. But the effect of most Training efforts on a P&L statement is negligible. That really matters; but if you do not think in terms of a business outcome, you don’t know that.

In fact, what does Training do? Does it provide answers to core problems? In general, no it doesn’t. What it does do is open the door to greater awareness. But even that, I’ve learned, is unusually not enough.

Most of us remember when Empowerment was the Training Course everyone was required to take. In meetings you could hear empower more frequently than any other politically correct term. I was consulting to a Fortune 100 company where a team had worked for almost a year to create their version of Empowerment training. Their 3-hole binder was filled with almost 400 pages of descriptions of empowerment and exercises to practice it. It took every person a day a week for 6 weeks to finish the course.

What nonsense that was! Empowerment is simple. It means you are expected to see what could be made better and do it. You can be empowered or you can empower or delegate that power to others. Empowerment simply means: Keep Your Eyes Open; See What Needs Doing; Do It.

Did the HR team feel they did a great job? Produced a major report? Sure. But they lost sight of the fact that the simple concept of empowerment is lost in the complexity of almost 400 pages and six weeks.

Worse than that, a Fortune 100 company is huge, it has many levels and gazillion managers to make sure people are not screwing up. In other words, employees have lots of experience in receiving orders and following them. So the bulk of employees treated the whole concept of being empowered with skepticism and fear and fled from the “freedom of autonomy.”

In this case the basic problem was people are always smart enough to use the words they’re supposed to say, but people with no experience at all in making their own decisions and acting on them have no idea at all of what’s involved and don’t get what you’re talking about.

But they will give the course top marks because they liked the instructor and no one at all from HR will go out into the field to observe whether or not training has resulted in more empowerment or delegation in the work place.

Lastly, HR people, generally speaking, do not feel it’s their responsibility to understand the business, its strategy, and increase its profits. I was on several financial boards for over a decade and came to admire the head HR person of one of the businesses. She was smart and impressive.

At one board meeting she presented a little experiment she and some others in her office had tried. The business had two call centers and turnover in both was at least 50% a year which is enormously expensive. She took several of her employees with her to one of the call centers and all they did, she said, was chat with each person in the center for 10 to 15 minutes.

The result was amazing. In the following month not a single person in that call center had left. Not one! After the meeting I took her aside, congratulated her on this achievement and added, You know if you had told the board how much money you saved that would have been even more terrific. She looked at me and said, But how could I have done that?

I didn’t say anything. But I thought, Just forget it.

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