Before I got distracted, I was writing about my priorities, having taken up the reins of HR at a commercial SME that’s never have organic HR before.
I began with the data and, I’m happy to say, it’s certainly transformed my understanding of the business, wrangling the chaotic filing cabinet of personal files into something resembling order. Some gaps have been filled. Many are still there. But at least, now, someone can see the gaps.
Data certainly puts the “resources” into HR. Doing the job properly, though, means not losing sight of the “human”. And my second priority is to talk, privately, to every employee.
This is a less simple process than it might sound. For a start, about a third of our employees are field-based, some of them a very long way indeed from my usual desk. Over two weeks in, and I’m perhaps a fifth of the way through, with the pace slowing rapidly as my calendar fills. Like many things, though, it’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey, because the more people I speak to the better my understanding of the organization, its people and their needs becomes.
It may seem obvious to say, but people do like to talk. If I had one message for managers of any discipline who are worried that their people aren’t engaged, are stressed out or are suffering low morale, I’d say: talk to them. And not in the “just-in-passing-would-you-like-a-cup-of-tea” way, but schedule time in your diary to step away from your desks, go somewhere quiet (yes, with a cuppa, if that’s your thing) and see how they’re doing.
This, I need to emphasize, is not the time for a performance appraisal. At least, not theirs. But it helps to have an idea of what you’re going to ask them before your sit down. So I’ll share my default list of questions and why I ask them:
- “What are you working on today?”
As the new guy, I’ve been modifying this one to “What do you do, exactly?” but if you’re their manager, this probably isn’t a good start to a conversation. But it will be a chance to see what they’re prioritizing, and is likely to give you a first insight into how stressed and/or busy they are right now. Resist the urge to tell them to change what they’re doing. It’s not a performance appraisal, OK?
- “Is your work giving you what you want, right now?”
People find purpose at work: problem-solving, being part of a team, learning, working towards a clear goal… these are all good things that work gives us. But work should also give us freedom to pursue other, non-work things that help us through the bad times. It’s a good idea to know, as their manager, what it is they’re looking for.
- “What do you like about working here?”
Most people have something they like. It might be the people, the work, the sense of accomplishment, the access to free tea and coffee or something else. But this conversation is a good time to get them to not only reveal something more about their motivation but also to remind them about that thing, too. If the answer is “nothing”, then a longer conversation is called for.
- “What do you NOT like about working here?”
It’s funny how often that question will start with someone saying “nothing, really…” but don’t interrupt. Because if you leave a little silence dangling, the next word out of their mouth will be, “…but…” This isn’t about trying to give everyone everything they want. But it is about looking for common themes. I’ve lost count, now, of the number of people who’ve told me we need a proper break room.
- “If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?”
Sometimes, you’ll just get the answer to question four repeated, here. But often you’ll get something else: not something they don’t like, per se, but something that has been on their mind that, perhaps, someone they know has but they don’t. Health insurance, perhaps. Or a Christmas party. Or a bonus scheme. Or… Again, the object is to look for common themes in what you’re told, because here’s a thing:
People do like to talk. Did I say that already? Ah, but then I meant: they like to talk to their manager and share their problems in the hope of a solution. This time, I mean: they like to talk to their colleagues about their problems, with no expectation of change. Griping. Whingeing. Moaning. Gossiping. But this can work to your advantage, because if just one person gripes about something and anyone else agrees, then eventually – if you talk – you’ll find out about it.
And as I said about data: it’s about seeing the gaps that tell you where action is needed.
Having said all of that, it sounds like every conversation is a dedicated intelligence-gathering exercise, I know. So let me make a final point before I go, because taking your people away from their jobs, just for a little while, to chat is about more than just pumping them for information. It’s about giving them permission to take a breather: and about taking one yourself.
An opportunity to step away from the grind – whether you’re ploughing through emails, making sales calls, manning a till or handling a JCB – is always welcome. So when you do talk like this with your people, don’t treat it like a job interview, trying to extract as much information as possible in the shortest possible time. Treat it like a conversation between friends. Leave space. Let some silence in…
 Which is HR grown without phosphates or artificial pesticides… or possibly is HR that contains carbon, if you’re of a scientific inclination.