De-Humanizing Your "Human" Resources
In a recent web article, David Ossip, the CEO of Ceridian, writes:
“(E)very six months at Ceridian we perform a broad employee engagement survey of all employees. HR works with each department and does several employee reach-outs to drive employee participation in the survey. After the survey results are tabulated, HR reviews the results with the senior executives to identify and develop programs for the areas that are the most important for the employees. The programs that we develop are specific (i.e., explicitly address items identified by the survey), actionable (vs. vague or general commitments) and measurable. It’s important that we be able to determine our progress as we work towards our engagement targets.”
Let me stipulate that I have no reason to believe that Mr. Ossip is anything other than an excellent CEO or that his company isn’t top shelf. And when a CEO writes an article for public consumption, it should be viewed as marketing copy and not soul-baring. But he does offer advice, so I’m merely commenting on a couple of problems I have with that advice, which should be taken with several grains—make that pounds—of salt.
According to the company’s home page, Ceridian is “a global human capital management technology company.” Thinking of humans as something akin to factories or intellectual property or drill presses is a deeply flawed concept. In recent years we’ve gotten more sophisticated about it, magnanimously acknowledging that people bring more to the job than just the sweat of their brow. That bit of conceptual progress is captured in the concept of “human capital,” which leads us to the more elevated goals of human capital management—HCM—or, if you’re really sophisticated, increasing the return on human capital employed.
Now, it’s hardly surprising that Ossip takes a rationalist view of engagement. If you’re in the “human capital management technology” business and you’ve got a bunch of human capital that is good at slinging ones and zeroes, then, as the saying goes, “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.” (Or, if you prefer, “If all you’ve got is a code-writing hammer, then every problem’s a nail.”)
The fundamental problem with such an approach is the following tacit assumption that is more than a bit on the condescending side: “If we could just get those lumps of carbon-based capital assets to understand how they contribute—theoretically, at least—to the well-being of the enterprise, then the business would be better off.”
Condescension is a mode of communication to which human capital assets are well-attuned, so let me try this to get my point across:
You want to help your people do a better job? Good for you! You want the folks who show up each day to perform their cute little tasks at their cute little jobs to be happier and more content? Way to go!! If they were just able to understand how much better things would work if they knew how thorough and rigorous your engagement project plan was...how all of the rows and columns on your spreadsheets were laid out with such nice hospital corners...how all of those rows and columns look so good when copy-pasted onto a PowerPoint slide and projected at board meetings!!! I know, I know...those precious little snowflakes just don’t know what it’s like to subsist in the rarefied atmosphere of those board rooms!!!! But doesn’t it all become worth it, though, when you see the looks on their faces as they’re handed those Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for a job well done?!?!?!”
Enough of the condescension. (I’m beginning to annoy myself with it.) Let me suggest a different way of looking at things.
1. Those “human resources” are fully-formed adults, just like you.
2. They want the same things you do: to be paid a meaningful wage for doing meaningful work.
3. The only sense in which you are above them is on an org chart; that’s it.
4. Above all, they want to feel that you understand #s 1-3 above, which is to say, they want respect.
By reducing the engagement challenge to project management when it is really more a matter of institutional soulcraft, you run the risk of taking unearned comfort in the illusion of rigor: “This must be valid. There are many numbers, and many of those numbers have several decimal places!”
You also run a serious—and ironic—risk of causing them to dis-engage by treating them as resources or capital assets as opposed to important contributors—just like you and the other people you would impress with those spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides and hospital corners. One more risk: by putting HR so squarely and explicitly at the center of things ("HR reviews the results with the senior executives to identify and develop programs for the areas that are the most important for the employees.") you can make it too easy for people in non-HR roles to see engagement as just another task on their to-do list, one put there by—cue ominous bassoons—Human Resource Professionals.
I’m sorry if I’ve annoyed you by being so blunt, but I just can’t help myself, since, well...you're so darn cute when you get angry!