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.

Information is energy, not power

How does your organisation treat information? I mean proper information, the stuff that makes a difference.

The organisational response to feedback about their information flow is normally one of two things, to instigate more formal information sharing platforms, to berate management for not cascading the content of the already existing platforms.

Meanwhile, the real information flow in the organisation doesn’t change. Because it isn’t a process, it’s culture.

We all know the phrase, “knowledge is power” but the reality is that in far too many of our organisations information is being used as such by a large proportion of our people.

It strikes me the leader’s job is to use information as energy and not as power. We are there to disseminate the appropriate information at the right time to aid performance but also to retain information, to shield people if that information would hinder performance.

And that’s a fine balance.

I don’t buy the idea that total absolute information flow is the organisational gold standard. The demands to know everything is a simple means of recognising that information is seen as power within your business.

We all know that organisations produce ridiculous amounts of data and also, particularly in these fluid times, the agenda can change repeatedly. Sometimes it just isn’t helpful to know.

Culturally advanced organisations know when to share and when not to share. Likewise, people in culturally advanced organisations recognise what they need to know and what they don’t.

And that’s where we need to aim.

The outsourcing myth

Outsourcing has hung around our profession for a while. And it is easy to see why it’s an attractive proposition for a number of reasons:

  • For the CFO it removes headcount and overhead
  • For the HRD it allows the focus to shift to strategy
  • For the CEO it provides consistent service and support

Which in many senses is an organisational wet dream.

And whilst many organisations have moved away from the third-party outsource, they are, instead, setting up internal service models to provide HR services back in to the main organization. The insourced, outsource, if you’d like.

I’ve never quite been able to get my head around this. The arguments are simple and yet at the same time completely contradictory to the demands that I hear from line managers, employees and CEOs whenever I talk to them.

  • We want someone there to support us, someone who understands our business
  • We want to be treated like human beings, not part of a process
  • We want HR to be closer to the business

The simple process of moving HR services in to a separate organization, in to a separate location and away from the rest of the organization is directly in conflict with every single opinion trend that there is. Yet still we persist.

For most employees, the only contact they have with HR is on a transactional basis. The way in which we are perceived is based on this and the data that we need to understand our organization comes through these interactions. It just makes no sense whatsoever.

Rather than pushing away the bits of HR that seem like an inconvenience, we should be looking to drive service excellence. Rather than pushing it out in to some shed in the middle of a godforsaken town with “low labour costs” (for this read high unemployment), we should be pulling this in to our core.

Outsourcing has a beautifully convenient appeal. But as a wise person said, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”.

Government doesn’t make bad employers

Before the election I was asked to write a piece for HR Magazine laying out my dream policy. The sad fact is that whichever party had come to power the idea of providing free cheese and wine to HR Directors was never really going to get any traction. We can but dream. But, if you’re really interested, you can see the series of articles here.

Since the election, I’m hearing a lot of noise from left leaning, liberal, tree hugging, social media loving types, highlighting the risk to the world of work and employee rights from a right of centre government. And whilst it isn’t surprising (we all know the pantomime lines after all) it does seem to neglect the power that organisations have themselves to create good work and a good working environment.

There seems to be a perspective on organisations that “if you allow them to do it, then they will” which I find patronising and naïve in equal measure. The fact is, that lots of us work incredibly hard year in and year out to make work better AND make profit. That doesn’t mean that we always get it right and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t dodgy employers out there either.

The irony is that the same people who preach trusting employees in the workplace, reducing policies and procedures and placing the emphasis on adult to adult relationships seem to change their tune when it comes to CEOs and their relationship with Government. Employees should be treated like grown ups, but companies? Heaven forbid.

I’ve been involved in the Good Recruitment Campaign, a brilliant initiative from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation supported by many, many large employers who want to ensure high standards in recruitment. I’ve also been involved in the superb Learning to Work initiative from CIPD, which also has many, many high-profile businesses working to help reduce youth unemployment and connect the unemployed with opportunities in their businesses. These are just two, I could go on.

Beside these organised initiatives, there is also good practice going on in organisations up and down the country. Leadership and management teams that are trying to run their organisations well and responsibly and also provide shareholder return. After all, we all benefit from successful companies.

We have it in our power to be either good or bad employers, to treat people well or to treat them badly, to be supportive or attritional in our working relationships. No-one makes us do anything and ultimately we have the choice. The Government doesn’t have to set the agenda for HR, we can set it for ourselves. Instead of whinging and whining about matters beyond our control, let’s get back in to our businesses and make the argument for doing the right thing, regardless of who is or isn’t in power.