The fraud of discretionary effort

When I write about employee engagement, I tend to hear the same response, “it’s about driving performance”. Normally inferring that this is how HR can demonstrate that it is “adding value” and “being commercial”.

Which is nice….

Let’s take a far-reaching view of return on (human) capital. You take employees, you pay them nothing and you make them work every single day of their lives.

That’s slavery. But it is one hell of a return on investment.

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that the supporters of employee engagement are in any way advocating bonded labour, I merely raise it as a starting reference point of what we mean when we talk about “adding value” through human capital.

Pretty much any employee engagement plan talks about discretionary effort. What is discretionary effort? Essentially it’s about asking people to give more than the financial expectation we have placed upon our working relationship.

So here’s the thing.

Let’s imagine we’re in the queue to get an ice-cream. We may smile, joke or even chat up the vendor hoping to get an additional scoop. But ultimately if we pay for two and get three, then we’re happy. If we pay for two and get one, we complain.

But what if we pay for two and get two? Well that’s the expectation. Isn’t it?

If we believe we are paying fairly for work, then what we pay should equal the return that we get. Shouldn’t it?  When we set out to recruit, we say “this is what we want you to do, this is how we want you to behave and this is what we are going to pay you”.

And then when someone joins we say, “Surprise! That’s just the minimum expectation. We actually expect you to do a whole lot more or we’ll term you disengaged. And nobody round here wants to be in the disengaged box…..”

That’s paying for two scoops and being disappointed that you didn’t get three.

If you want to measure something, measure how much potential value your organisation is destroying in the people who it employed to do the job. My guess is you’re paying them already for “discretionary effort” and what you’re not getting it, you’re blaming them.

Employee engagement, the drive for discretionary effort is simply a way of placing the responsibility on employees for the failure of the organisation to have fair expectations for fair reward.

Or to put it simply;

If you’re not getting what you paid for deal with it,

If you want more, pay more,

And never expect to get something for free.

The great engagement swindle

I’ve written before about employee engagement, but its a subject that can’t take enough kickings.

I’ll put it simply, employee engagement is the biggest corporate swindle since Asil Nadir thought, “no-one will notice”.

Let’s be clear:

Engagement does not pay the bills.
Engagement won’t cover your medical costs when you take a fall.
Engagement won’t keep the heating on in your retirement.
Engagement doesn’t make you healthy or happy or even a better lover.

Engagement doesn’t even have a standard meaning, definition or measure. It’s a fabrication.

The biggest con about employee engagement? The goal is to drive commercial success, whilst dressing it up as employee welfare. Look at any purveyor of employee engagement services and they will talk about driving business performance.

Employee engagement doesn’t replace talking to people, caring for people, listening to people. It doesn’t replace paying people well, investing in their benefits and providing a decent pension scheme.

Do things right as an organisation, treat people well, don’t treat them like fodder and you’ll be surprised how much they’ll do for you. Not because they’re engaged, but because they want to.

How about we measured leadership engagement instead? How engaged is your leadership team with employees? How well do they know them? When was the last time they had a human to human conversation with someone in the organisation they didn’t know?

Employee engagement is the classic example of human resources forgetting about humans and focussing on resources. It’s bad mumbo jumbo dressed up as science.

Employee engagement is an idea that’s long over stayed it’s welcome. Let’s kill this vacuous, malevolent concept once and for all.

Why I work in HR

I don’t believe that anyone should hate what they do. I don’t think anyone should come home from work at the end of the day and, just like the day before and the day before that, feel dejected, desperate or despondent about their working life.

I don’t believe that anyone should feel afraid or intimidated, should fear their work, their colleagues or their boss. I don’t believe anyone’s health, welfare or security should be placed in jeopardy by their need to earn money.

I believe work should be a place where people can come and be themselves, whatever their religion, gender, sexuality or any other “defining characteristic”. I believe work should be a place where you are judged on what you contribute, not who you are.

I believe work should be meaningful, even when it’s repetitive. That everyone can find their own purpose in what they do. I believe in empowerment, trust and shared responsibility. I believe that work should be rewarding, for everyone.

I believe in fairness and equity. That differences in compensation and reward should be justified and that everyone should have the chance to progress if they have the desire, capability and opportunity. I believe that the success of the enterprise should be enjoyed by all.

I believe work can and should be better. And simply, despite the distractions, the snide comments and the jokes. That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I work in HR.

Why do you do your job?

5 HR mindsets for the future (and right now)

1) Adaptability – HR has been built on creating fixed structure and immobility. That’s where we used to add value, but no more. The frustration that we hear in a lot of organisations is that the world is demanding more flexibility and yet the profession is slow to catch up. We need to be more adaptable, able to turn our hands to anything and make decisions based on the immediate circumstances that face us, to help our businesses move forward.

2) Tech Savvy – I can’t repeat this too many times; if you don’t understand technology then you’re going to find yourself obsolete pretty damn quickly. It isn’t a case of being an expert, although having some coding experience in your team is never going to hurt. Our experience as human beings is increasingly influenced by technology, so if you want to be in HR you need to understand that experience.

3) Commerciality – Before I lose you….I’m not talking about the stupid linear relationship that most people draw when they talk about HR and commercial reality. I’m talking about the big global issues that you need to understand to help your organisation navigate the next ten or twenty years. Demographics, pension legislation, immigration and emigration, skills and education. Changes in FX rates, inflation and interest rates. You’re on top of them right?

4) Creativity – If we are going to adaptable, tech savvy and commercial then we sure as hell need to be creative too. We too often look down our noses at creativity and view pragmatism as the holy grail of HR. Remind me the last time you went to a party and talked to your friends or family about this amazing piece of pragmatism. Then ask yourself the same question about creativity. It matters.

5) Connectivity – Our ability to see inter connections, relationships, to look inside and out and see how things relate, to understand the impact of one element of practice on another is critical. Our ability to think systematically and understand that neither our organisations nor our practice can operate in isolation. We need to be the organisational glue, not the institutional porridge.