Relationship matters

Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.

Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.

Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.

(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).

Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.

So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?

The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.

Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.

I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.

Rethinking brand

The passing years have seen countless arguments about the distinctions (or lack of them) between consumer, corporate and employer brands. From my early days of working with branding, nearly twenty years ago, to now a lot of the same conversations and debates have persisted.

Are they the same?
Who should own them?
Are marketing and HR broadly the same thing?

I’ve written before about a lot of the differences, but on the question of brand I think there is a really interesting development;

Particularly that consumer brands are becoming more like employer brands.

It is a curious thing, because over the last couple of decades, the mantra has been that employer brands couldn’t exist on their own and they needed to instead be incorporated in to the consumer offering. Marketing teams swept down to envelop all before them and to start to focus on how they could sell jobs – in the same way that they wanted to sell toasters.

But, of course, what those of us knew who had spent time working in employer branding, was that you weren’t trying to persuade, you were trying to explain. You were aiming to build trust, mutuality of respect and joint exploration of value.

In other words, you weren’t interested directly in the sale, but the relationship.

As trust in companies has fallen, as advertising has become less about show and more about connect – marketing departments have had to realign their approach to their brand be more individually focused. You can see the plethora of articles on the topic.

Which of course is the heart of good talent management and good talent acquisition.

But like some weird 80s hangover from drinking the marketing Kool Aid, too many HR people are professing alignment without really understanding the what, the how and the why. I suspect it goes back to the deep hearted roots of wanting to appear commercial, simply by agreeing.

We shouldn’t be afraid of what we know, we shouldn’t be afraid of what we can contribute and bring. What makes any company a good employer will be different to what makes it a good commercial “partner”. There will be overlap, sure, but to conflate the two is dangerous for both.

There are countless examples of amazing consumer brands that are horrible employers and “challenged” consumer brands that are great employers (I’ve worked for some of them!). Put simply, the motivations, aspirations and expectations that we have as consumers are different to those that we have as employees.

That’s why they are, and never will, be the same.

5 interview questions that you’re asking (but probably shouldn’t)

1) Where would you like to be in five/ten years’ time?

Nothing says, “tell me a bag of lies” like this question. Given the chance to answer honestly, most of us would probably say, “on a beach, having won the lottery, without the need to work for any other sucker, ever again”. Instead we say, “I’d like to think my career would have progressed, that I’ve taken on more responsibility and I’m well respected by my colleagues” or if we think we are uniquely funny, “sat on the other side of this table”. *Groan*

Possible alternative question: How do you see this role fitting in to your overall career? What else would you like to do/achieve in your life?

2) If I were to ask your current colleagues what they thought about you, what would they say?

If you really want to know, why don’t you ask them? Because if you ask me, I’m going to tell you that I’m a good team player, I’m well respected and that I have a good sense of humour. In addition, my mother also loves me – but you don’t need to know that either. I get what we are trying to do with this question, but if you’re a sociopathic lunatic, singularly hated by your peers, you’re not going to say that. Are you?

Possible alternative question: How do you go about getting feedback from others? What have you learnt?

3) What are your weaknesses/areas for development?

The Catch 22 question which begs the obvious answer – “I’m a perfectionist”. Are you? Or have you just rehearsed the most clichéd response to the most cliched question ever? Again we’re just asking for a lot of hot air and nonsense, which will give us very little to differentiate the candidates with. If you’re really interested in finding out, try asking them what they’re currently working to improve and how. Try answering perfectionism to that one….

Possible alternative question: What are you working on improving at the moment? What would you like to be better at?

4) How do you handle conflict in the work place?

Let’s go Pinocchio! Are you the ostrich that buries their head in the sand? Or the sewer rat that likes to undermine colleagues in a silent but deadly manner? You’re going to tell me now that I’ve asked the question, aren’t you? You were just waiting for the opportunity to spill your guts on the darkest aspects of your psyche and here is the moment, right now, in the middle of an interview, in front of people who you want to impress. Where else could be more perfect?

Possible alternative question: When have you experienced a situation where there has been conflict between colleagues at work? How did you feel about it? Why?

5) Why did you apply for this specific role?

I have to admit to being guilty of variations on this one (I’m not perfect, ask my mum), but really what on earth am I expecting to learn that would help me differentiate between two candidates? What evidence could I possibly elicit that would be helpful to me in making a choice on who to recruit? This is a classic example of recruiter vanity – I want you to tell me how wonderful we are, how we are the company for you….tell me you love me.

Possible alternative question: Which aspects of this job are particularly appealing to you? Which elements would be the biggest stretch? Why?

Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.