ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - June 2000

Issue Highlight - Safe Return Doubtful
--- Much of the attention in human resources seems to be about how to recruit and retain good people. The conventional wisdom is to offer people the possibility of big benefits and instant wealth.

In This Issue...
The Real World at MTV
New American Revolution
Basic Training
Bringing Values to Life

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Diary of a Shutdown

Safe Return Doubtful

-- Much of the attention in human resources seems to be about how to recruit and retain good people. The conventional wisdom is to offer people the possibility of big benefits and instant wealth. Inflated salaries and stock options are the tools of choice. Granted this inducement has lost some of its glamour as the stock market has been in decline, but the thinking about what attracts good people still runs that direction. Some companies are now even offering "staying bonuses." We have become so doubtful about the inherent keeping power of our organizations that we think we have to offer incentives for people just to stay put. I have always been aware of our personal fear of abandonment, but now it has reached institutional proportions.

-- The same mentality exists in our thinking about how to induce people to learn. When we offer training programs, we make them as palatable as possible. You can learn long distance, anytime, anywhere, online, in the comfort of your own home or your car and you can learn in bite-sized segments.

-- If we are bold enough to demand people actually attend a learning workshop with other people, we do everything we can to make it attractive. No travel required. Three day programs are condensed to one day, and we tell you exactly what you will learn, how it will improve your performance and how the skills are portable, so they will build your career wherever free agency might take you. We offer the programs on nights and weekends so the time comes from your personal life and not your job, letting you know that we understand where your priorities lie.

-- Whether we are recruiting for employment or for training, the strategy seems the same: Beg, make it convenient and undemanding and promise the moon.

-- A friend of mine, Ken Murphy, introduced me to the story of Ernest Shackleton. Murphy is an executive with Phillip Morris and uses the story as a metaphor for what his company is facing. In 1915, in England, Sir Ernest Shackleton had a similar recruiting and retention problem that faces us today. Shackleton was planning a long voyage to cross the Antarctic overland from west to east. He was undercapitalized, leaving as the First World War was brewing and offering a workplace of difficult and challenging proportions. Shackleton has recently become a popular icon because of his determination and will that saved the lives of his crew when their ship became icebound early in the voyage. What I am more interested in here, however, is not his heroics on the ice, but the faith and realism embodied in his recruitment strategy.

-- He advertised for his open positions with the following inducements:

Join an Antarctic Expedition! We promise you:

Low Pay
Poor climate
Safe Return Doubtful

Shackleton believed that it would be a privilege to be part of his adventure. His advertising got results; 5,000 people applied for the trip. Even though the economic climate in 1915 was different, I think he was on to something. Shackleton, in essence, took the stance that the way to recruit and retain people was by making demands on them, not by spoon feeding their sense of entitlement and materialism.

Recruiting Good People
We should take this stance seriously. If we want to create a workplace of accountability and collective responsibility, we need to contract very differently at the first moment of recruitment. Instead of nurturing entitlement and self-interest, we might confront it with a recruiting offer something like this:

-- Join our organization and become part of a place where:
* You are expected to care primarily for the well-being of the institution and the larger society. We have no mentoring program, modest benefits and no organized way of planning your career.

*Our purpose is to do something important and worthwhile, even if we don't make the pages of Wired, Fast Company and Red Herring. Life is not a fashion show and we are not role models. Quick growth is overrated. Besides, who would want to go through life wired, in fast company and in pursuit of red herrings?

* The realistic chances of getting rich quickly are actually quite slim. Only a few players in our industry will really prosper, so come to work for a place where the experience of each day is a reward in itself, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

* Safe return doubtful. Our company is a risky place to be. The work is hard, the relationships are volatile and the management keeps changing its mind. Signs of imminent improvement are hard to find.

-- This kind of promise will attract adventurers with a heart. It defines the meaning of accountability and offers some emotional integrity. People cannot be bought with an unsustainable promise. Based on this offer, the ones that do show up will be the ones you want to build a business with.

Retaining Good People
People stay in an organization that respects their freedom and cares about their learning. Our training efforts would change radically for the better if we solicited participation with an offer similar to the recruiting promise. It might look something like this:

-- Attend our training program under these conditions:

* Participate in a long-term learning commitment. This program requires time, depth and personal engagement. Nothing of real and lasting value can be achieved in a few hours, at a distance and on the run.

* Our purpose is to change our thinking and consider the possibility of creating meaning and a future that is different from the past. No immediately applicable skills, tools or techniques will be offered. You will not leave this program with a list of action plans, which are usually created to be forgotten. You have all the skills and tools you need. The task is to understand why we are so reluctant to act on what we know.

* It is up to you, not the trainers or presenters, to make this experience relevant. You will not be asked to evaluate the presenters, only to evaluate the quality of your own participation. No PowerPoint slides will be used, the handouts and overhead transparency will be scarce, confusing and hard to read. The struggle to find meaning out of what the world presents to you is how learning occurs.

* Come by choice. If others want you to attend, stay home. If your boss thinks this experience would be good for you, refuse it. You know what you want and need to learn, go somewhere when and where you can find it. The years of being an anxious and good child are over. Besides, the food is mediocre, the chairs are uncomfortable and the location inconvenient.

* Again, safe return doubtful.

The Point
These offers, while a little extreme, are more likely to create a world based on freedom and responsibility. They also describe life as it usually turns out to be. Plus, when we approach recruiting and retaining as a marketing and selling task, we devalue ourselves. When we treat employment as something people have to be talked into, we are converting our own doubts into institutional practice.

-- It is the same with training. It should never be something that people are obligated to attend. The seat of learning is a privilege and people should not occupy it if they do not value it. We give value to our training efforts when we place a high price on them, not when we invite people with an apology for the interruption we are causing in their lives.


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