Careless talk

There is a lot to feel grumpy about at the current time and as a rule I try to look on the positive side – because when things simply get too overwhelming it rarely pays to search out more bad news. One thing that I do struggle with on a regular basis is the intentional use of exaggerated language in the reporting of the current situation – even by some of the most respected of organisations.

A case in point is an article I was reading yesterday which talked about the number of coronavirus cases “soaring” in the workplace after the Christmas period. This assertion was then used as the basis for the delivery of a whole series of opinions and beliefs which clearly were the journalist’s own. A quick look at the source data showed that the number was exactly the same as in November, there had just been a temporary decrease over the few weeks over Christmas. Perhaps because more people were on leave or there were closures and shut downs?

The point I want to make isn’t about cases in the workplace, but that the language used and the selective use of data that would lead most people to believe that this was a significant problem and therefore the subsequent beliefs were based on the solid use of empirical evidence. In many ways, the imprecise use of language in this context is of little consequence, other than my annoyance. But when we extend this into the workplace we run the risk of making decisions that have implications for peoples lives.

It isn’t unusual to hear phrases such as, “everybody is up in arms”, or “we’ve been inundated by” or, “nobody likes” (the list isn’t exhaustive, feel free to add your own favourites). Normally followed by a suggestion of an action that needs to be taken…RIGHT NOW! A simple enquiry of, “Everyone?”, “Inundated?” or “Nobody?” is sufficient to start a conversation that leads to better understanding. Who exactly has a problem? What size is it? How many people are really impacted? What is the basis for proportionality?

There will be those that tell you this is the reason we need better data and analytics in the profession and of course this is entirely true. But equally important is the way we describe and interpret them. The way in which we present that data to others and the inference we choose to put upon it. Language is hugely important in work, we can use it as a force for positive change but to do so requires as much thought as any set of data that we share. Being lazy and careless with language simply isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable in the world of work, it really shouldn’t be in journalism either – but perhaps their motivation isn’t to help understanding and build knowledge, whereas ours certainly should be.

In praise of the grafter

If you managed your career through advice on Linkedin, you’d believe that aligning you work with your purpose, throwing everything out the window on a regular basis, always remaining agile and disruptive were the key to success. Trust me, they really aren’t.

Whilst there is no single key, there are so my situational and environmental factors, the biggest thing that will get you ahead in your job and in life is hard work. Nothing fancier than that. Before I’m beaten over the head with the imperial overlord arguments, let’s be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean getting up at 4am, burning the midnight oil or being taken advantage of, it just means giving everything you’ve got in the time that you have.

Given a choice between a lazy genius and an average grafter, I’d staff my team with the latter – no question. And my advice to any young person going into the workplace is to get your head down, work hard and opportunities will come and find you in time. Because ultimately, when push comes to shove and you need something done, you always look for the grafter.

And the difference between the grafters and the lazy, is that a lazy person will always end the day thinking they’ve worked hard, whereas a grafter knows they have (and probably thinks they could have done more). The lazy are generally more interested in how they feel about their work , the grafter is interested in how others feel about their work. It comes down to the psychology that drives the work ethic.

Get your head down, put in the hard yards, seize opportunities, demonstrate your value. Then you can build everything else that is important to you in terms of meaning on top of that, it really is that simple. Unless, of course, your end goal in life is to have a career in providing unsolicited, unqualified advice to the many on Linkedin, accompanied by motivational quotes.

In which case, ignore everything I’ve said.

Lifelong learning

I wrote recently about the perils of organisations delegating responsibility to employees under the guise of empowerment and “individual choice”. Effectively placing every individual at jeopardy to changes in the economy, society and the organisations that they work for. The continued, pernicious rise of neoliberalism in the workplace.

Don’t have enough pension to retire? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the healthcare provision to cover your operation? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the skills to make you employable? That’s what you chose.

And it is this last point that I really want to focus on today. Because on one hand I hear organisations constantly talk about particular skill sets being short in supply and then at the same time I see those same organisations making people redundant. Of course, I’m not talking about the impact of Covid-19 here, which has placed so many organisations in exceptional circumstances, this is a pattern that has been ongoing for as long as I’ve been in business.

The simple answer is retraining, a concept that often invokes images of Government schemes and interventions routed in the decline of industrial cities. No mining? Don’t worry we can retrain you as a call centre operative. But of course, retraining and reskilling doesn’t have to be after an employee has ceased to be of “economic value”, in fact I’d argue that it should be significantly before then. If organisations are making people redundant because they don’t have the skills that they need for the future, that’s a failure of the organisation, not the individual.

This is where organisations need to be intervening for the good of their workforce, their communities and for society as a whole. And this is also why individualism once again falls down. You can’t expect any one employee to be able to predict the decline of their particular skill set, or indeed the speed of that decline. Because they simply don’t have the data required. But organisations do.

That’s why we need to see retraining, reskilling and lifelong learning as a fundamental part of the psychological contract, a key tenet of the leadership philosophy of our organisations. It is why the HR profession should spend as much time focusing on internally meeting future skills requirements as it does on identifying the gaps. It is why we need to make careers for life a viable option for anyone who wants it and not look down our nose at those who choose to be a one company employee.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can hear me and others talking about it on Monday 16 November at 10am as part of the CBI@10 series. You can find out more here.

Recruiters admitting failure

I’ve previously written about the role of recruiters in the current climate. I absolutely appreciate that for hard pushed recruitment teams, dealing with the volume of applicants that you get in a recession is tough. As people try to get a job, any job, you find yourself dealing with more and more applicants who simply don’t have the experience or knowledge that you need. It is a super tough job, but not half as tough as that of the unemployed.

I’ve seen numerous posts and Linkedin statuses complaining about the use of unnecessary qualifications for selection. I’ve got a long and proven track record of suggesting this is blunt thinking, even in the best of times. And of course that remains to this day – education is not a meritocracy. It never has been. But before I get distracted and start beating my truly old and battered drum, I want to talk about something else.

“We advise you to apply early, because due to volume of applicants we may close this advert early”

I cannot tell you, in how many ways this makes me want to scream. But I’m going to try, because it is raining and I appear to have nothing better to do for the next few minutes.

The vast majority of recruiters and resources will tell you that their job is to find “the best talent” for XYZ Corporation. They will tell you that the main attraction to their job is when they find a truly brilliant hire. I genuinely believe they believe this, however, if they ever use the line above they are admitting that these assertions are a sham. They are only interested in filling a seat and making their own lives easier. A more accurate statement would be, “the best fit from the people who can be bothered to apply”.

In some ways, I’m not against this latter assertion. It is honest, in reality it is what most recruiters do and whilst there is increasingly a level of active search, the goal is more to find an acceptable bum on seat, rather than to find the best talent. However, and it is a big HOWEVER, by closing down a role early, you are absolutely signalling that to the candidate pool. The logic is, “I’m saying this explicitly so the best candidates will apply quicker”, the reality is that you’re reducing your chance of finding the best person or people.

And of course, particularly in early careers recruitment, this also builds in a massive bias towards those candidates with pushy parents, school teachers or mentors and disadvantages those who might come to the recruitment process later or not recognise the importance of acting sooner rather than later.

It is a process that introduces another, non job related, bias filled selection criteria – SPEED.

Life is hard enough for job seekers at the moment, and whilst I really do understand the pressures on the recruitment teams (I used to recruit 18,000 Christmas temps each year) I implore you to put this in Room 101 with the other stupid recruitment practices. If you want to know more about those, you can read them here.