Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Cheese and change

“You just can’t do right by some folks”, as my grandma used to say. Or would have done, had she not had an aversion to ‘down home’-isms and we’d lived in Alabama in the 1930s.

Tough times call for tough decisions, and inevitably some soul-searching. No business wants to manage change that reflects that perhaps things aren’t going so well; we all want to lead change that sees new people come in to an organisation, new clients won, new projects planned for. We want to hire, not fire. We want good times, and what’s more, we feel we deserve them.

Of course. But I am afraid that’s not what I need to talk to you about today. 

What I posted the other day about how to behave during organisational change struck a chord with a few people. I’d like to add to that piece about what I do when, despite making the very best effort, you get pushback, objections, challenges, threats, complaints, allegations, denial or downright stubbornness. Some people just can’t (or won’t) accept that they’re at risk. They rail and they protest. It’s to be expected; someone just moved their cheese*.

First thing to do- create some space by adjourning the meeting and agreeing a course of action. If they need to go home, that’s fine. Expecting them to walk back onto the ‘shop floor’ in a state of high emotion is both unrealistic and potentially risky. 

Take a deep breath and step back from the fire. I use the time to check what I’ve done and look at the process objectively. I make sure I have covered all angles, been compliant, and done the right thing as far as was realistic and practical. I consider how I’ve talked to them in comparison to their peers. I ask if I’ve been fair. Have I kept to my behavioural rules as far as possible? Have I been respectful?
Mostly, I ask how I’d have felt, faced with my approach, escalated stress levels, the loss of my job, and a potentially life-changing situation. Empathy helps you place their response into context.

If I can come through all that and face myself in the mirror both as an HR professional and human being, I will keep my CIPD membership card proudly in my purse at all times and my credibility intact.

I hope Grandma would be proud. 

*I still rate this as one of the most accessible and relevant business mentoring books around.

Monday, 26 March 2012

How to have real influence

The news is awash with allegations, promises and revelations about Peter Cruddas' claims that wealthy donors could give 'cash for access' to the Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet figures to further the interests of their businesses. It's all very interesting I am sure, and we'll watch as the story develops. However, in the interests of switchingoffthetelevisionsetgoingoutanddoingsomethinglessboringinstead*, I've been pondering how you might gain influence without stumping up £250,000 (allegedly.)

For me, it comes down to three things: visibility, credibility and knowledge.


Everyone's worked with someone who appears once in a while when things are going smoothly and flits about being busy. They tend to arrive with a fanfare, and set about establishing themselves as a person of influence - some all but state "Hey! I'm in charge here now!", and some even claim credit for success that's properly due to those who have been there every day, working away to see a great result. They're never around when things aren't going so well. They disappear.

 I call those people Bad Smells. They're invisible, they're about as welcome as a smack round the chops when they do make themselves known, and everyone can't wait until they're gone so they can get on with how they need to get the job done.

The key here is to be visible if you want to have influence. You have to be available, accessible and welcome engagement from your colleagues and clients. True influence depends on being around in good times and bad, and being equally engaged and committed in both.


I used to work with someome with whom conversations would regularly go something like this:

Me: "This is a problem. We need to look at our options to get it sorted."

Her: "Yeah, I know absolutely, definitely what we need to do here. I dealt with a identical situation in my last job ten years ago. Of course, that didn't work out so well, but it might be different here. That was public sector, this is private. I don't suppose the law or anything has changed. I think it's the same everywhere. Yeah. I have an idea of how to do this. I understand how this needs to work. I think. I doubt anyone would actually sue us if we got it wrong, anyway..."

She had zero credibility. Nobody trusted what she had to say, because she was so busy jumping in with an answer in an attempt to influence a course of action that she failed to research, consider or weigh up every situation on its own merits. She just wanted to help, but by not tapping in to resources and building a relationship in trust, she did herself a great disservice.

Being able to shout the loudest is not you being credible- you're just yelling. Passion does not equal volume.

Don't be a bully. Assertiveness is one thing, but imposing your will on others isn't influence: it's a dictatorship.


Here's the biggie. A brilliant understanding of one or two specialist areas will gain you greater influence in your organisation than a broad, sketchy, piecemeal awareness of dozens. Be an expert. If you don't know, state that, and agree to go and find out and report back. Then do it. You don't have to be a human version of Google, but demonstrating what you do know clearly and in ways others can connect to and comprehend easily will win you respect and crank up your influence level.

Influence used wisely and with a light touch is a marvel to behold.

Did this help a bit? It did? Oh no, You're welcome.

That'll be £250k, please.

*One for the '70s kids amongst us, there. Ah, nostalgia... it ain't what it used to be.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A cheery end of the day thing

These are VHR Peg People, lovingly made by hand by Tori Rosenbaum. Yes, she's my daughter, and yes, she makes me proud. So I thought I'd stick a smile on your faces and share the peggy love this evening.

Oh and yes, she does take commissions, thank you for asking! :-)

Dirty work, clean energy

FACT: Sometimes in HR you have to do the dirty work.

Yes, I am being simplistic, or even facetious. What I really mean is handling difficult situations that involve change, disruption or even letting people go. Often, they haven’t been created by you, but that are down to you to manage anyway. That's how HR works- and I am glad of it. Sorting out things we had no part in means we can be independent and impartial.

The first time you have to manage how you let people go, there’s a fair bit of resentment- “Why me?” This soon passes when as you remember that you know, it’s kind of your job, and down to you because you will make sure it's fair. Then comes the annoyance: the inner voice protests- “It should never have got this far!”. When you realise that well it has, so there, and you'd better just focus and crack on, you move on to avoidance- “There’s got to be a better way!” Sadly, by the time you’ve used the word ‘redundancies’, every other way has been generally exhausted. It takes a while to accept that bit.

At this point, the best you can do is to do your best.

It’s key to actively manage change in all organisations if you’re to keep staff on side and maintain HR’s position of trust.

Once you’ve defined a need for cost savings that include redundancies, it’s essential that you stay visible, accessible and on top of matters to retain the belief in your abilities that you need from others. 

Stay credible by being visible.
Think, Feel, Know- and why Feel is essential

When it comes to handling a dilemma or making decisions, some do it based on logic, processing the data they’ve been given and drawing a onclusion after a time. Others make a call based on how they feel about things.

Usually, it’s a process; we work through thinking about the data we’ve got, processing the facts, before we consider how we feel about it. Only then can we truly move in to knowing what we need to do, or what we need to happen.

But people are people, and they react in ways we can’t prescribe or predict. Everybody has a preferred style. Some cut straight to the chase and make a decision very quickly from a knowing state – this is often informed by ‘gut feeling’ or experience. Others spend so long working through how they feel about something that you almost have to drag a decision from them with forceps.

It’s hard sometimes for somebody who actively likes people to cut the emotional connection they feel and be a cold, hard thinker. I am struggling with this right now, and am unafraid to admit it. I think it's how I prioritise the people in this situation rather than the cold, hard facts that serves me well and means that every redundancy I have ever handled has ended in a handshake and a smile. I even once got swept up in a bear hug by the employee and thanked for doing a good job.

Often, when considering redundancies, HR people park their emotions and switch into thinking. It’s easy for some, but when you know the people involved, it’s a bad move.

I’m not saying that expressing sympathy or care is a magic bullet; when it comes to shedding jobs, you can’t make it perfect, but you can make it as collaborative and fair as you can.

Try as you might you cannot take away the impact of redundancy, but you can limit it and reassure those affected that it’s been done in the fairest and most honest manner. Obviously, there will be an emotional response- I’ve seen tears, anger, and crushing disappointment... but this passes as you allow them to express it and show them you’re not running scared. You’re not about to leave the room (unless they get physically violent, which thankfully is rarer than hen’s teeth.) You are focussed on them, not the next meeting or your phone; you really are with them, and will be as long as it takes to get them through the initial shock and upset. Trust me, this counts for a lot.

It’s not just a process – it’s lives

While there’s a procedure for managing redundancies, effectively helping someone through such a serious life changing event depends on your approach. It’s no use being wishy-washy and making vague promises you can’t keep about alternatives or redeployment just to keep the heat off you. It’s also useless to leave empathy at the door. Nobody likes a cold fish.

Having been through both a well-run and pretty poorly managed redundancy process myself, I worked out how I’d have liked to have been treated and defined how they sit within the technical process.

So here are the rules I try to stick to when handling one of the more unpleasant parts of an HR practitioner’s duties.

Care – Don’t assume that everyone will say or feel the same way. Just be human about things; allow them the chance to express themselves.

Don’t talk around the subject - People can generally handle getting bad news. They cope. They like the idea that they’re respected enough to be trusted to handle it ok. What they don’t like is you being vague and feeling they are being kept in the dark. Show them why you need to make the change. Be honest. Demonstrate that there’s really no other option, and so that’s why you have to meet to discuss it.

Remember you’re dealing with grownups – Don’t babysit. Use proper words, not jargon or dumbed-down language. They are adults, and they won’t thank you for patronising them when all they want is a little dignity in dark times. 

Talk talk - Encourage them to ask questions. Get them to seek out information rather than letting them make assumptions. Let them voice what they need to- but be careful not to grant permission for them blame you for the bigger problems that led you here.

Lift the lid, release the pressure – they have to release what they are feeling, and better that they do it in a quiet room with you than back in the crowded workplace or even online. They’ll work through this negative state and with the right support they will soon come to realise that they have a responsibility to move on from it and take positive action.

It’s ok to feel anxious – Anxiety over a situation motivates and helps us focus on an answer to the problem. By looking at the risk, we naturally find a way to manage it. It’s self-preservation, and it can be a marvellous thing. 

To thine own self be true - Being genuine doesn’t take any more time or effort than being disingenuous or hard-faced. In amongst your efforts to keep the impact on them in mind, bringing a little empathy helps them remember that you’re human too. They may know you well. They will wonder why they are faced with someone they’ve grown to trust and like is being so cold towards them. They may misread this and allow it to create paranoia or a sense of victimisation or unfairness. In their hearts, they know that nobody likes these conversations, but by being yourself, keeping things fair, listening to them and being supportive, you can help retain the humanity that makes such a huge difference in these situations. 

Let them see the light- recognising that they’ve done great work before helps them remember that there’s reason to feel great about themselves, and positive about the future. Don’t be afraid to thank them for doing a great job to date- it helps them realise that they have skills and abilities that are attractive to other employers, and that perhaps change could be an opportunity for them after all. 

Keep your promises – first up, don’t make any you don’t know for certain you’ll be able to keep. But if you tell them you’ll get a letter summarising a meeting in the post to them, tell them when it’ll be sent- and do it. 

Keep talking - Don’t allow things to stagnate through inaction. Don’t let days and days pass with no contact. Check in regularly and make sure they are doing ok. Be available. Be accessible. Don’t be ‘too busy’- it may not be all you have to think about, but it’s sure as heck all they can think about. Make sure they understand what’s happening and what’s next. Offer as much support as is practicable. Don’t overcommit yourself, particularly if you are the sole HR professional in a team and you are consulting with 20 people on this. Seek outside help for them too- outplacement support is a specific skill and not all HR practitioners are au fait with the best way to help those affected. A small investment in a day’s support for your people can make all the difference to their employment prospects in future- and how they speak about your company after they leave.

I make no promises that sticking to the above makes you resistant to the emotional effects running a redundancy process can have, or that it’ll guard against all eventualities, but it keeps everyone's energy as 'clean' as it can be, and usually delivers the best result - so I reckon it’s a pretty decent set of rules to keep in mind.

As toolkits for dirty jobs go, it’s a pretty effective one to have at your disposal.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Risk... and how a Tiger can help

It's a fact that business has to manage risk, be risk averse, take calculated risks, reduce risk, negate risk- try as you might, risk is everywhere,and can't be ignored.

We've been working with three companies recently who have all recognised risks in their business, and called us in to help handle it.

After 2 years of working hard to prevent downsizing, Company 1 are feeling the effects of the economic downturn and need to reduce the size of one team by 2 members. We've been engaged to manage a redundancy process, ensuring fairness, accuracy, compliance with the law and open communication in order to counter the risk of identifying the wrong candidates, leaving the Company open to loss of skills, accusations of unfairness or even a subsequent complaint or legal action. It's a hard thing to do in any business; we are mindful at all times that this process directly affects lives. The fact is that by the time the word 'Redundancy' is out there, some pretty tough choices have already been taken. You may not always be able to retain staff but you must work to make it as fair as possible, and offer as much support to all affected as is realistic.

Company 2 has just hired 3 new staff and needs employment contracts to ensure that things get off to the right start. Happy to help, we said. We listened to the details, and in just a short time and for a very reasonable rate, we have delivered contracts that meet the business' and employees' needs.

Company 3 has some 160 staff, over 120 of whom work on large construction sites. There's been a growing awareness about the suty of care they hold for the health of their people. They have recognised that there is too high a risk of work-related illness and injury leading to days off and longterm sickness absence, costing the business time and money, and making employees unhappy. Obviously, there's also a risk that bad practice or ignoring issues could lead to grievances being raised or even legal action, so there's a need to protect both empoyees and the business.

They called us in to run a survey to assess the overall health of the business and identify any emerging patterns of ill-health or injury. We've now analysed the findings and made ten strong recommendations for ways to improve the situation and reduce the risks. We have worked to deliver great quality information and ideas that will inform their policies and safe systems of work- and the best part is that we've trained their staff to run the programme fully in-house in future, meaning they now possess a whole new set of skills and will save money on using an external provider for the surveys and analysis.

We've helped all three businesses to negate, reduce and manage risk, and added a little more into the mix too with our unique approach. We've had some great feedback from all and look forward to continuing these working relationships into the coming years.

We call that a good month!

So if the risk factor is something you want to address in your business, give us a call. We'll always be happy to help.