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Hiring, Motivation, and Retention in the 21st Century

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May/June 2002 - Volume 81, Number 3

by Hunter Lott

It used to be so much easier. Easier to manage people. Easier to run a business. Back in the 20th century we just carried around a big bat. The bat was fear of firing or cutting pay. And the bat used to work! We’d say, "You’d better get to work or I’ll just fire you." Now employees respond with, "No big deal, I was going to quit anyway" or "I was unemployed when I got this job" or "I’m going to sue."

The 21st-Century Hurricane Work Model

The old work model was a pyramid. There were lots of employees at the bottom. They worked hard, climbed the corporate ladder until they became the Big Boss. Or, employees could stop along the way, find a job they really liked and were competent at, do that job for 33 years, retire, and the company would take care of them for the rest of their lives. This old employment contract is now broken. It’s really been broken for quite a while, but the recent events surrounding Enron have brought the issues of blind loyalty to a boss or a company to the forefront again. For the most part, the old employee/employer relationship is gone. This isn’t bad; it’s just different. The new work model is a hurricane. The work atmosphere is constantly moving, constantly changing. The customer drives it. The old model rewarded obedience and loyalty. The hurricane work model rewards change, constant learning, the power of relationships, technology, behavior, and speed. As managers we must not only get better at managing results through people but also must do it in record time. SPEED, SPEED and SPEED! This is what differentiates the last century from this one. The speed demands we have as consumers have a direct effect upon the corporate climate that exists.
Two recent personal experiences illustrate the speed issue.
I decided to buy a new Palm Pilot because I was tired of the hassle and weight of my laptop when traveling. I went online at Palm late at night to order. The Web store would not let me order the special package that was advertised. Palm’s site said to call the 24/7-customer service hotline with any problems. I called Tuesday night, and by 10 a.m. Thursday I had my order. When you stop and think about that, it is amazing. Yet these encounters between business and customer happen thousands of times each day at an even faster pace.
Here’s a different example. I called a local sub shop with an order for 15 sandwiches for a luncheon meeting, and they told me they would be ready in an hour. I arrived on time; they took my money and told me my order would be right out. Forty minutes later, I again asked about my order, and the employee indicated it was my problem, not his. "We had four big orders all come in at the same time. I can’t tell you when it will be done." I was not happy. A woman who had been waiting longer than I had said, "Don’t feel bad, I called in my order yesterday!" When I finally arrived at the meeting, I told everyone about the lousy service and the rude behavior.
When it goes wrong, we have little patience and usually have many other choices and the power to spend our time and money elsewhere. Ask Montgomery Ward, Xerox, Polaroid, United Airlines, Amazon, Southwest Airlines, Lands’ End and Nordstrom about the importance of behavior and speed.

Hiring for Behavior
Whether or not you agree with the current assessments of our economic future, good employees have been, and will continue to be, hard to find. In the new economy, interviewing and hiring the right people will be critical. But most of us consider interviewing an interruption of our day. We often resort to just hiring a warm body and hoping for the best. Some of us got married this way. The reality is, you’re not going to fix the person or change them later. The standard "Tell me about yourself…" type questions no longer serve us well. They don’t get at the behavior issues and leave us legally vulnerable. Plan on hiring for behavior and training for performance. It is much easier to manage/fix a performance problem than it is to manage/fix a behavior problem.
Hire for behavior. Evaluate for behavior. Fire for behavior. Remember "attitude" is not measurable. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Put behavior in your job descriptions and in your evaluations and hold employees accountable for their own behavior. As managers/owners we need to communicate behavior standards to our employees. The following definition works for managers, being vague enough to allow for company/supervisor differences and strong enough to say the company will not tolerate whining, moaning, or bad-mouthing at work:
Maintain a positive work atmosphere by behaving and communicating in a manner so that you get along with customers, clients, co-workers and management.
To be successful in the hiring process, first you have to know what you want. Think of the person who, currently or in the past, was best matched for the position you are now trying to fill. List the behavior characteristics that made them so good. Now develop questions that go after those proven behavior traits. The most beneficial but underused is the situational question. Develop questions that start with, "Describe a time when…Give me an example of…What would you do if…?" You don’t spend more time interviewing —you just make sure the time you spend is quality time, finding the best matched person for the job.

Speed Kills
Recent Supreme Court decisions have been a mixed bag for employers. The court has handed down pro-employer rulings on the Americans With Disabilities Act definitions and Family Medical Leave Act notification. They ruled against employers in weakening the benefits of binding arbitration. The EEOC (www.eeoc.gov) reported $300 million in litigation/ settlements last year. But courts and government agencies don’t get companies in trouble. Bad management gets companies in trouble. Yes, sometimes companies find themselves in a situation that is not fair, and it is frustrating to realize it may be more fiscally responsible just to settle. But when we read the headlines and then the details of most of these cases, we can only come away with the question, "What was management thinking?" The answer is, they weren’t thinking—only reacting to the demand of speed. Thinking does take time. Many upper level decision-makers are quick to write off employment practice issues as not having a direct effect on the bottom line. You had better believe the $47 million judgment at Rent-A-Center for sex discrimination hurts. As it should. Pain is a great motivator. But it’s after the fact. Management’s defense of itself at Enron with the line "They just didn’t get it" is destined to be a future bit for Saturday Night Live. Don’t be in such a hurry to get things done that you don’t take the time to consider all decisions from a HR point of view.

Retention
If the numbers from the Census Bureau and other groups are correct, the phenomenal growth rate of the 55 to 64-year-old age group over the next ten years will have a dramatic effect on all of us. Retention of employees becomes critical. If starting in 2011, someone retires every few seconds, we may run out of employees. At the very least we may be looking at a talent shortage to meet the behavior and speed demands of the next 20 years and beyond. How much of your operation’s procedures are written down? If a few key people were to quit or retire on the same day, what effect would that have on your operation? Do one or more employees currently "hold you hostage"? OK…so what do employees want?


Motivation in the 21st Century
Curiously enough, with the other dramatic changes around us, the basic motivators stay the same. What attracts and keeps good people in the 21st century are the same issues that have been preached about for the last 40 years. Want to understand the motivation of any employee? Ask and answer these two questions: "What is being rewarded?" " What is their motivation for change?" If the only time you talk with an employee is when something goes wrong, what message is being sent? If you suspend an employee without pay for an absenteeism violation, what message is being sent?
Yes, we have a few new twists. With speed becoming so predominate an issue at work, time can be more important than money to many employees. Ten years ago I started talking about no-fault absenteeism systems (where employees get a block of time/money to manage on their own and management gets out of the babysitting business), and managers thought I was crazy. Use time to attract and keep employees. Add a vacation day for a job especially well-done. Start out with more vacation in the first place. Even time off without pay can be a reward in some work environments.
Don’t make the issue of motivation complicated. It’s not. It is hard work, however, and you’ve got to pay attention. The book First, Break All the Rules by authors Buckingham and Coffman should be mandatory reading for any and all managers. In analyzing a Gallup study of over 80,000 employees in over 400 companies, the authors are left with 12 critical questions that separate great companies from the not so great Great is defined by bottom-line financial and HR results. And—surprise, surprise—it’s the people or the soft skills of the frontline supervisor that are the telling factor. I’m not going to give out all 12 because it’s important that every manager read this book, but I will tell you the first question is, "Do I know what is expected of me at work?"

Bottom Line

The work atmosphere in the 21st century is dramatically different with an emphasis on behavior and speed. The employees demand a workplace that surrounds them with good people in a learning environment, clearly communicates expectations, and holds everyone from the top on down accountable. Is your company ready for the productivity and harmony challenges of the future?


Hunter Lott is a partner in HCAP, a business development consulting firm based in Kansas City. He is also the owner of HRonCall and specializes in employment-practice/ training for small, growing businesses. He can be reached at hire2fire@aol.com.



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