HR’s Turd Sandwich: Open Up, It’s Yum Time.

jasonseiden Jason Seiden

Sometimes, it’s just your turn to take a bite of the turd sandwich.

In Michelle Rafter’s article on the challenges facing HR today over at Workforce Recruiting, with regards to managing a contingent workforce, she includes this gem: “Everything HR does to drive employee engagement is [being] thrown on its head.”

Well, it’s about friggin’ time.

I know people are worried about the economy. I know HR is trying to turn lemons into lemonade, for both the short- and long-term good of organizations everywhere. As someone who’s done quite a bit of looking into generational differences in the workplace, I also know that slicing the workforce into demographic tranches is a popular strategy for coming up with customized solutions.

Just remember that slicing things into tranches—think mortgages—is what got us into this financial mess in the first place… Know what I mean?

No?

Then let me be totally plain: the idea that the ambiguity recently introduced into your workforce planning might be mitigated by commonalities derived from the dates of people’s birth is not strategy, it’s astrology. HR: step up!

Here are 5 prescriptions to get you started, HR departments, at getting out of the current economic jam alive:

1. Forget the macro-trends. If you weren’t an ace in geometry or statistics classes—possibly the last times in your life you were graded on your ability to spot trends—then don’t expect to be an ace today. Unless you are conceptually gifted, macro-trends will become available to you only when someone uses them to sell you something. If thinking is not your strong suit, then don’t think. Do. Act. Substitute speed for smarts and leverage your CEO for direction and guidance.

2. Equitable, not equal. How many times have I run into a roadblock trying to sell into HR because the four people in the room wanted to figure out how to make my program equal for every constituency in the entire organization? Excuse me?! The average American family has 2.37 people in it—if the US had an HR department designing furniture, we’d all have dining sets with 2.37 chairs… until next year, when we’d have to all upgrade to a new set with 2.41 chairs. Look, HR, equal is a myth, especially in a diverse world. You can’t avoid the mess. Help people expect mess. Deal with it quickly. And all the while, emphasize equitable treatment for all.

3. Get out of line. HR’s insistence on turning everything into a consistent process has long caused P&L owners to groan. Life is messy! (See #2.) Sometimes, the person you need to help capture revenues or contain costs needs a title or salary that doesn’t fit into HR’s Plan. HR, bend the bureaucracy to support the needs of the people; don’t bend the people to conform to the bureaucracy! And if that creates more work for you, well… what a good time for job security!

4. Manage by career stage, not generation. Generational stereotypes are confuddled by what I call DEPT C: demographics, environment, politics, technology, and career stage. (For example, take environment: a favorite way to define generations is to look at the environment they grew up in, and classify them by shared experience. Gen Y, it is said, is the post- 9/11 generation. (Now I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Gen X and the Boomers didn’t exactly sleep in on 9/11. We were ALL affected by that event; every generation’s perspective changed on that day, not just Gen Y’s.) Of these complicating factors, the last one is the most predictable. People pass through three phases during their careers—functional, social, and political—and slicing them accordingly eliminates the tension between meritocratic and seniority-based rewards.

5. Get personal. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the science of hiring for fit is coming online right at the same time that companies are going virtual and hiring is becoming more project-based. What’s HR to do? Try building networks. Personal networks. With potential employees, vendors, competitors, bosses… everyone. Strategic HR moving forward will not be about finding systems, it will be about finding people.

Good luck, HR. I know you didn’t ask for this mess… but let’s see what you can do with it!