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Action Tips and Tools to Becoming an Employer of Choice in a Down Economy

Posted by NEHRA  October 26, 2009 09:00 AM

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Becoming what is known as an, “Employer of Choice” (EOC) has always been a challenge – some times more than others. This is one of those times!

Scarce financial and human resources in almost every organization, skiddish customers, volatile markets, returns lower than they have ever been in many sectors and people out of work for much too long. As stated in a recent Newsweek article, “The Premature Exit:Moving to fight inflation too soon” by Barrett Sheridan from the magazine issue dated Oct 5, 2009, “...right now, factories are sitting idle, warehouses are full, and laid-off workers are so discouraged by the job hunt, they're spending more time in front of daytime soaps than Monster.com.”

Is becoming an EOC as easy as having positions that need to be filled? In the minds of many people, probably. But any good HR professional knows that one of the most important strategic business decisions that an organization can make is deciding who to hire. Finding people who are excited, enthused, and possess the talent and understanding to offer a valuable contribution to the enterprise, is critical for long term economic viability. We want the best, not those who may be looking for a good place to hide out until the recession really recedes.

An EOC attracts people through its leadership, culture, success in the marketplace, HR and business practices. These characteristics collectively provide the ingredients that engage and retain people, through optimizing their talent and challenging their capabilities.

The subject of becoming an EOC can be very complex and is too lenghy of an issue to fully present here. However, in this article I offer a brief outline of three tips and tools that I presented at the NEHRA Conference “Becoming an Employer of Choice - Best Practices that Drive Bottom Line Results” in the spring. The tips and tools are intended to offer a few ideas of “how-to” engage employees, and initiate the dialogue and actions to fashion your organization as an EOC in this economy – or to add strength to its current condition.

The principle distinction of an EOC is its culture. To fashion an EOC, we need to know and develop the culture of the enterprise. And now the first question is, “What the heck, really, is culture?”

The answer to this question for many of us is much like the method outlined by Justice Potter Stewart, in the landmark trial in 1964, Jacobellis v. Ohio on the definition of what constitutes obscenity:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

In our consulting and training activities at Work Systems Affiliates International, Inc. (WSA) we have used two good practical definitions to guide us in defining culture. The first is from the well known book by Edgar Schein, “Organizational Culture and Leadership” in which he defines organizational culture as:
“A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

A more cogent definition comes from Deal and Kennedy, in “Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life,” in which they defined organizational culture as:
“… the way things get done around here.”

As we all know personally, organizational culture really does have a particular feel to it. And in the NEHRA presentation, participants were asked if culture can be formed by design, or grown organically. Of course this is a trick question because the answer is, “yes!” If we don’t create the culture we want, we are stuck with the culture we get – and one will surely form, whether we guide it or not.

After reviewing the above sources and others you may know of regarding organizational culture, here are three tips and some tools to aid you in becoming clearer about the culture in your organization, as you go about influencing or re-shaping it:

Tip #1: Get employees thinking about what’s possible, not what is.

Through surveys, focus groups or one-on-one conversations, ask people from all levels how your organization fairs in the characteristics most often associated with an EOC:
- Work environment
- Work/Family life balance
- Learning orientation
- Employee compensation
- Non-traditional benefits

Although their responses are very important, the follow up question is, “What might the future hold for an organization without these EOC characteristics?” An even more impactful question to ask is, “What might the future hold for our organization if we were to do nothing to enhance/strengthen these characteristics?”

This is a quick, subtle and powerful way to get at the expectations people have about the future of the enterprise. A universal rule: expectations - drawn from our previous experiences, interpretation of the present and our perspective about the future – go hand in hand with actions. We all know that performance of an organization is what matters and is the result of all of the actions taken by individuals – they do add up!

If people are thinking about what the organization is not, or about what it was in the past, they will create what they are thinking about. (Actions follow expectations.) This inquiry is a way to produce dialogue about a possible future that is NOT a re-creation of the past. (Even if the past was pretty good, we know we can’t go back. Just ask your Mom!) The past is not the future.

Tip #2: Use a blueprint to collect and visualize the organizations condition.

The results of Tip 1 typically produce cognitive dissonance. That is, people begin to think about how the future will be if nothing changes (status quo), and the future that is possible if they become engaged in shaping it – the dissonance creates an uncomfortable feeling, which motivates people to act.

A blueprint is a tool we have found to be a useful way to collect and visualize two divergent or conflicting organizational conditions.

A simplified method of blueprinting is to use a flip chart and on the left side describe the current state of the enterprise in terms of each of the 5 characteristics most often associated with an EOC listed above in Tip 1. On the right describe the future state that is possible for the organization, in each characteristic.*

Once you get alignment on the two ends, the next step is to create an Action Plan that will move the organization from the current state on the left, to the future state on the right. This blueprint can be discussed and elaborated on in multiple discussions, throughout the organization.

Be careful of two conditions: Do not try to cure world hunger. Make the actions doable given the current resources and commitments. The other is to think through the implications or unintended consequences. That is, as a result of the Action Plan, what will happen they may not be as favorable as you might want? (Some of you may be familiar with a tool we use at WSA, the “Implications Wheel” which has great application here.)

*An additional step is to list on the right side, how the organization will be in the future, if no action is taken to achieve/or strengthen the EOC characteristics. Then outline the future people would rather create.

Tip #3: Make the distinction between obstacles and objections.

Changes in an organization provoke a certain amount of resistance. In order to work proactively with resistance, it helps to separate obstacles from objections, and to recognize the different type of activities required to address each.

Obstacles and objections sound somewhat similar but they come from very different sources. Lumping these two types of restraining forces together clouds the issue, can divert valuable resources and prevent effective action.

Differentiating between these reactions and responding appropriately can help you get “unstuck” in developing or implementing the Action Plan, and enhances the possibility for forward progress.

Obstacles are essentially issues that are beyond an individual’s control. We call them, “Can’t Do’s” such as:
“I do not have the authorization to …”
“I do not have the resources to …”
“The current equipment cannot …”
“I have not been trained to…”

Objections are within an individual’s control and are the, “Won’t Do’s” such as:
“I don’t see why I need to …”
“I don’t think it will work if I do that…”
“It’s not my job to…”
“I see unintended consequences if I…”

With the distinction made between obstacles and objections, the next step is to create a, “Prevention Checklist” in which you can outline practical solutions or actions designed to prevent persistent problems/obstacles from derailing our efforts.

In conclusion, the ability to attract and retain top talent will continue to be a vital component to achieving your organizations goals, reinforcing your value proposition with your customers, and creating long term viability.

As stated above, at WSA we believe that one of the most important strategic business decisions an organization can make (and one that HR has a direct impact on!) is deciding who to hire. Attracting and retaining excited, enthusiastic, talented people who are “ready-for-action” will certainly put your organization in a superior position now, as well as post-recession.

Every enterprise is looking for ways to at least maintain their current level of activity and provide some organizational improvements that are easy, low cost and effective. I hope that the suggestions outlined here have provided you with a couple of ideas that you can implement.

Author Biography:

Paul Plotczyk is the President of Work Systems Affiliates International Inc. (WSA), and has over 25 years of experience in organizational and cultural change, supported by direct management experience. He is an expert on organizational change and has written extensively on the subject, and can be reached via email at paulp@wsa-intl.com for more information or other articles by the author.

(NOTE: This article is drawn from a presentation by the author at NEHRA’s Conference Program in May 2009, “Becoming an Employer of Choice - Best Practices that Drive Bottom Line Results.”)

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