I have an uncle who worked at auto plants his entire life. For the most part he never really discussed his job as he was more interested in sharing stories about his life outside of work. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have a conversation or two about life on the job. We did speak about his work, but his experience was decidedly more blue collar. There is one conversation that sticks out in my mind, it’s when the area he lived in was experiencing an unusually intense period of hot weather.
Now for anyone who has ever worked in a production facility, you will know that manufacturers generally tend not to air condition the plants unless it’s absolutely necessary to the process. (Hint: if you ever decide on working in the modern advanced manufacturing industry, make sure you choose an industry where the environment must be controlled. Wovens, electronics, some furniture manufacturing and complex machinery are examples where there is a HUGE investment in A/C to control the production process, otherwise you will suffer nearly intolerable heat in the summer months). So my uncle was ranting and raving that because it was so hot, he was given ice pops to hand out to the people on the line. I distinctly remember him going on about how it was common sense to shut down the plant when people are fainting from heat stroke, but he was told to give out ice pops. My usually soft spoken uncle was nearly ranting. He was insulted by this token gesture, and he was embarrassed that he had to serve his teams by giving them ice as the only solution to their misery.
Fast forward twenty years to another manufacturing employer in another part of the country. This employer is facing an unusually strong high season. The pleasantly positive business levels translated to crazy mandatory long hours for their teams resulting in higher than usual churn in their workforce. The answer? An ice cream social to “show appreciation”. What made this interaction different is the person who was telling me about it was the other side of the equation, it was the HR professional who worked for the company. They said in a bright and cheery voice about how they wanted to show appreciation and how they had so many people show up to the event and it really communicated how much the company cared for it’s people.
Now reality: Cold sweets are nice, but they simply do not measure up to the level of showing appreciation for your workforce that was needed in the aforementioned examples. Showing appreciation for your workforce includes the bigger issues like providing strong benefits, structuring your organization so that there is growth and flexibility to meet the needs and desires of employee’s careers and life. Yes, all companies need to make a profit and be competitive, but organizational structure built around the lives of the employees, truly sharing in the equity growth of their jobs, keeping them informed and even part of the decision making process every single day is the absolute best way to show an appreciation. It’s not to say that the ice pops and ice cream were not enjoyed by the employees who were dealing with the atypical strains of a non-standard work environment. I’m sure they felt appreciated, but it wasn’t the level that would really show true and deep appreciation. In the case of my uncle’s experience with Ice Pops, the gesture had the opposite effect. It was seen as insulting to the the critical needs of the staff.
So why bother with things like ice cream socials and ice pops? I think the real reason is simple, It’s all HR is allowed to do. We have to remember the role of the HR professional is to recruit, retain and enhance tallent. Many look at HR as the benefits people, and that’s true because as the underpinning systems of our culture get more and more complicated it takes more and more administrative efforts to manage these ever more complex structures. Spending all this time changes the perspective on what HR actually is. You would think that of the few centers of gravity in a company… the focal points of thoughts and structure, Human Resources would be two two or three, and possibly number one in some instances. This is not the case, HR is really only a focus of management when they don’t have positions filled or their is a compliance issue.
So let’s go back to our earlier example. If it’s 120 degrees in the plant and your teams of production workers are passing out. In an ideal world, HR would be empowered to unilaterally restructure the production times for the coolest parts of day. They would have the budget approvals to do short term investing in cooling vests and longer term capital investments in large scale temperature control systems. Being realistic I doubt that there is any organization in the world that lets HR have the final sign off on a production environment investment as large as environmental control. Even the less expensive solution of cooling vests can be seen as prohibitively expensive especially if your outfitting a large workforce with multiple vests each. This means HR has no ability to really insure that the workforce remains cool throughout the production day unless management is being generous. HR is simply not empowered to meet the needs of the staff, So what do they do? Solution: Ice Pops.
If HR is being realistic about this woefully inept response to the challenges then would be grumpy, frustrated, and complain. Unfortunately if HR professionals exhibit this attitude then they would make their job exponentially harder. So a culture of ‘everything is just great’ seems to have become embedded in the HR offices the world over. In short, HR has become the Pollyanna of the business world at least as their public face to vendors and their own internal teams. It’s different when you get HR pro’s together as a group by themselves, but that could be a great subject of another post. HR is not foolish, in fact, in many cases they are brilliant Professional Individual Contributors. They work behind the scenes to change the macro situation positively. Unfortunately for the most part they are only going to get consideration when there is a critical HR need that directly affects immediate business operations and it’s beyond HR’s ability to control. Otherwise the answer from management to nearly every request that isn’t a token gesture is going to be “No”. So what’s an HR professional to do? They do what every PIC does, they take what they can get and make the most of it. Maybe it’s an employee BBQ or ice pops, or casual fridays, and then add a smile and some overly positive commentary to try and increase the impact of the symbolic gesture and diffuse the reality of the situation.
I think the challenge here is a variant on stockholm syndrome. If over time you are forced to only talk about the positive, to only see the positive.. Not just when the boss walks by, but in every interaction with every single person you are responsible for engaging with (and if your HR, that’s everyone). I think that’s when you start to see the world very differently. You go from providing ice pops as your only alternative to really believing that ice pops are a great idea for a 120 degree production floor employee’s moral. It’s a scary thought but would explain some of the more odd interactions i’ve had with HR professionals when meeting them in their corporate environment.
The more I think about this the more I feel for the plight of the HR professional. They are in a no-win situation where everything they do has to be a celebration and a success by everyone. Maybe instead of a brochure or some pens as my leave behind on my next visit with an HR professional i’ll bring them a gift certificate to Baskin Robbins. That way they will really know I appreciate them.