We all have an invisible bubble around us we like to call our “personal space.” If someone hovers inside too long, you feel uncomfortable. But everyone’s bubble size is different from culture to culture. Here’s what those bubbles look like around the world.
We all have an invisible bubble around us we like to call our “personal space.” If someone hovers inside too long, you feel uncomfortable. But everyone’s bubble size is different from culture to culture. Here’s what those bubbles look like around the world.
The CEO of a large Australian company called me to relay a particular strategy development problem his firm was facing, and ask for my advice. The company was an eager user of my “cascading choices” framework for strategy that I have used for decades and written about extensively, most prominently in the 2013 book I wrote, with friend and colleague A.G. Lafley, called Playing to Win.
My Australian friend explained that each of his five business unit presidents was using the Strategy Choice Cascade, and that all of them had gotten stuck in the same place. They had chosen a Winning Aspiration and had settled on a Where to Play choice. But all of them were stuck at the How to Win box.
It is no surprise, I told my friend, that they have gotten stuck. It is because they considered Where to Play without reference to How to Win.
I’ve heard variants of this over and over. Although I have always emphasized that these five choices have to link together and reinforce each other, hence the arrows flowing back and forth between the boxes, it has become clear to me that I haven’t done a good enough job of making this point, especially as it relates to the choices of Where to Play and How to Win.
The challenge here is that both are linked, and together they are the heart of strategy; without a great Where to Play and How to Win combination, you can’t possibly have a worthwhile strategy. Of course, Where to Play and How to Win has to link with and reinforce an inspiring Winning Aspiration. And Capabilities and Management Systems act as a reality check on the Where to Play and How to Win choice. If you can’t identify a set of Capabilities and Management Systems that you currently have, or can reasonably build, to make the Where to Play and How to Win choice come to fruition, it is a fantasy, not a strategy.
Many people ask me why Capabilities and Management Systems are part of strategy when they are really elements of execution. That is yet another manifestation of the widespread, artificial, and unhelpful attempt to distinguish between choices that are “strategic” and ones that are “executional” or “tactical.” Remember that, regardless of what name you give them, these choices are a critical part of the integrated set of five choices that are necessary to successfully guide the actions of an organization.
I had to tell my Australian friend that locking and loading on Where to Play choices, rather than setting the table for a great discussion of How to Win, actually makes it virtually impossible to have a productive consideration of How to Win. That is because no meaningful Where to Play choice exists outside the context of a particular How to Win plan. An infinite number of Where to Play choices are possible, and equally meritorious — before considering each’s How to Win. In other words, there aren’t inherently strong and weak Where to Play choices. They are only strong or weak in the context of a particular How to Win choice. Therefore, making lists of Where to Play choices before considering How to Win choices has zero value in strategy.
For example, Uber made a Where to Play choice that included China because it’s a huge and important market. But being huge and important didn’t make that choice inherently meritorious. It would have been meritorious only if there had been a clear How to Win as well — which it appears there never was. Microsoft made a Where to Play choice to get into smartphone hardware (with its acquisition of Nokia’s handset business) because it was a huge and growing market, seemingly adjacent to Microsoft’s own, but it had no useful conception of how that would be twinned with a How to Win — and it lost spectacularly. P&G made a Where to Play choice to get into the huge, profitable, and growing pharmaceutical business with the acquisition of Norwich Eaton, in 1982. While it performed decently in the business, it divested the business in 2009 because, in those nearly two decades, it came to realize that it could play but never win in that still-exciting Where to Play.
Moreover, no meaningful How to Win choice exists outside the context of a particular Where to Play. Despite what many think, there are not generically great ways to win — e.g., being a first mover or a fast follower or a branded player or a cost leader. All How to Win choices are useful, or not, depending on the Where to Play with which they are paired. A How to Win choice based on superior scale is not going to be useful if the Where to Play choice is to concentrate on a narrow niche — because that would undermine an attempted scale advantage.
Undoubtedly, Uber thought its How to Win — having a easy-to-use ride-hailing app for users twinned with a vehicle for making extra money for drivers — would work well in any Where to Play. But it didn’t work in the Where to Play of China. It turned out that Uber’s How to Win had a lot to do with building a first-mover advantage in markets like the U.S.; when Uber was a late entrant, the Where to Play wasn’t a simple extension, and it exited after losing convincingly to first mover Didi. Perhaps Microsoft felt that its How to Win of having strong corporate relationships and a huge installed base of software users would extend nicely into smartphones, but it most assuredly didn’t. As a Canadian, I can’t help but recall the many Canadian retailers with powerful How to Wins in Canada (Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, Jean Coutu) that simply didn’t translate to a Where to Play in the U.S. Perhaps there is some solace, however, in retailer Target’s disastrous attempt to extend its U.S. How to Win into the Canadian Where to Play — turnabout is, I guess, fair play.
The only productive, intelligent way to generate possibilities for strategy choice is to consider matched pairs of Where to Play and How to Win choices. Generate a variety of pairs and then ask about each:
- Can it be linked to an inspiring, attractive Winning Aspiration?
- Do we currently have, or can we reasonably build, the capabilities that would be necessary to win where we would play?
- Can we create the Management Systems that would need to be in place to support the building and maintenance of the necessary capabilities?
Those Where to Play and How to Win possibilities for which these questions can plausibly be answered in the affirmative should be taken forward for more consideration and exploration. For the great success stories of our time, the tight match of Where to Play and How to Win is immediately obvious. USAA sells insurance only to military personnel, veterans, and their families — and tailors its offerings brilliantly and tightly to the needs of those in that sphere, so much so that its customer satisfaction scores are off the charts. Vanguard sells index mutual funds/ETFs to customers who don’t believe that active management is helpful to the performance of their investments. With that tight Where to Play, it can win by working to achieve the lowest cost position in the business. Google wins by organizing the world’s information, but to do that it has to play across the broadest swath of search.
It doesn’t matter whether the strategic question is to aim broadly or narrowly, or to pursue low costs or differentiation. What does matter is that the answers are a perfectly matched pair.
A few months ago, I was waxing poetic about plutonium, how to establish essential job functions, and quality-testing diet scrapple. What got into me?
Now, I’ve got a cautionary tale, in the form of a recent federal court opinion, to help you good folks navigate away from some of the Americans with Disabilities Act traps. Lest you like litigation and lawyer bills.
The case is called Slayton v. Sneaker Villa and you can find the court’s opinion here.
Here are the important facts:
- Ms. Slayton was a recruiter who took leave following a car accident.
- After two months, she asked to work from home for four more weeks, or until her doctor released her to return to work with no restrictions.
- Ms. Slayton’s request didn’t go over well at Sneaker Villa because the company was in a “critical time” and needed a recruiter out and about to, you know, recruit.
- So, Ms. Slayton offered another solution; that is, coming to the office part-time until she completed physical therapy.
- What happened next was unclear, except the parties agree that Ms. Slayton lost her job shortly thereafter.
Why didn’t the company get summary judgment on the plaintiff’s ADA claims?
So glad you asked, let’s turn to Judge Mitchell Goldberg from the Eastern District of PA for some answers. How about a little sum-sumpin on an employer mandating physical presence at work as an essential job function:
Consideration must be given to Defendant’s judgment that physical presence in the office was an essential function…A written job description “shall be considered evidence” of a job’s essential functions. Here, the written description for the Corporate Recruiter position does not speak directly to physical presence in the office…
Plaintiff maintains that she could have performed the true essential functions of her job at home, so long as she had access to a telephone and the Internet.
Because I must view the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, I conclude that a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether physical presence in the office was an essential job function.
And what about the plaintiff’s ability to travel? I mean, the defendant needed her to go to lots of job fairs and be the face of the company’s recruiting efforts. That may be a job requirement. But, essential? What do you say, Judge?
Defendant highlights that Plaintiff admitted during her deposition that she was advised during her interview process that the company was expanding, and that the position required travel both inside and outside the Philadelphia area for job fairs and recruitment initiatives.
Although the written job description of the Corporate Recruiter position does not list the ability to travel as one of the “Principle [sic] Duties and Responsibilities,” the “[a]bility to travel in all markets serviced by [Defendant]” is listed under the “Qualification/Skills & Knowledge Requirements” section of the position summary.
Importantly, courts have recognized that a “requirement” of a given position may be distinguished from the “essential function(s)” of that position for purposes of assessing the second element of a plaintiff’s prima facie case.
Plaintiff persuasively argues that despite her requests to do so, she never actually traveled to any job fairs during her time working for Defendant.
O for 2 so far for the employer. How about engaging in a good faith interactive dialogue to discuss reasonable accommodations with the plaintiff? Did the company get that right?
While providing Plaintiff with a two-month leave of absence “no questions asked” could certainly be viewed as an accommodation, when viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable fact finder could also conclude that Denise Lee did not necessarily engage in the interactive process with Plaintiff during the pair’s March 28 and April 1, 2013 email exchange (which arguably constituted separate and distinct requests for accommodation).
On this point, Lee’s testimony revealed the following:
Q: Had you decided on Saturday, March 30th, that most likely you were going to fire [Plaintiff]?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Is that possible?
- The lowest hanging fruit here is the ADA interactive dialogue. FFS, it can’t be in good faith if your mind is made up to fire the employee before the dialogue ends.
- This case highlights an important distinction between job requirements and essential job functions. So, go on and grab a job description. Make sure that all of the essential job functions are listed in the “essential job function” section, rather than the “requirements” section.
- You’ll find a number of cases on attendance at work and telecommuting. They are very fact specific. An employer’s judgment on the need for face time will go a long way, but not necessarily get you across the finish line. To get there, you need to practice what you preach. Be consistent and make sure that jobs requiring regular attendance elicit regular attendance. Then, if you get sued, you’ll have that. And, clutch your pearls too.
Image Credit: By Source, Fair use, Link
Something is rotten in the U.S. economy. Poor men without a college degree are disappearing from the labor force. The share of prime-age men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s.
The U.S.’s labor participation rate for this group of men is lower than every country in the OECD except for Israel (an outlier, because of the high number of non-working Orthodox Jewish men) and Italy (an economic omnishambles). Today, one in six prime-age men in America are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether—about 10 million men.
So, this is the 10-million-man question: Where did all these guys go?
According to a report from White House economists released last week, non-working prime-age men skew young, are less likely to be parents, are disproportionately black and less educated, and are concentrated in the South.
In the last few years, several writers and economists have suggested that many of them are in school, on disability, or in prison. More optimistically, some said that men are more likely to help their spouses with raising children and cleaning the house. But upon investigation, none of these answers fully explains the disappearance of prime-age men.
1) Are they in school?
This would be one of the most benign—or even hopeful—reasons for the drop in male participation. Alas, it doesn’t seem to explain much.
Since 1990, the number of men over the age of 25 enrolled in a post-secondary institution has increased slightly, from 2.5 million to about 3 million, most of which was an increase among people enrolled part-time. Overall, a jump of 500,000 accounts for just a fraction of the growth of non-working men. (If the male participation rate hadn’t changed since 1990, there would be about 3 million more men in the labor force.)
The men most likely to drop out of the labor force today are those who never started college. This is a remarkable shift. Fifty years ago, college graduates and high-school dropouts were similarly likely to work, as one can see in the graph below. Today a high-school graduate who has never gone to college is four times more likely to drop out of the labor force than he was in 1964.
Men between 25 and 54 are much better educated than they were in 1964. That fact alone should have predicted a rising participation rate, since college graduates are more likely to work. Instead, the least educated men are abandoning the work force more than ever. That is the real mystery.
2) Are they on disability?
This is another common explanation for the drop in male participation. But again it doesn’t explain more than a fraction of the phenomenon.
There’s not much doubt that Social Security Disability Insurance takes people out of the workforce, often by inelegant design. In order to qualify for disability payments, people typically have to prove that they cannot work full-time. SSDI critics say this policy sidelines many people who might otherwise be able to contribute to the economy.
But how many people does SSDI really remove? From 1967 to 2014, the share of prime-age men getting disability insurance rose from 1 percent to 3 percent. There is little chance that this increase is entirely the result of several million fraudulent attempts to get money without working. But even if it were, SSDI would still only explain about one-quarter of the decline in the male participation rate over that time. There are many good reasons to reform disability insurance. But it’s not the singular driving force behind the decline of working men.
3) Do stay-at-home dads account for the change?
This is an easy one: no.
First, married men are more likely to work than non-married men. Second, fathers have stayed in the workforce more than non-fathers. Third, more than 75 percent of prime-age men not in the workforce do not have a working spouse. Fourth, time-use surveys of non-working men have found that they are less likely to be caring for household members than working men. They do, however, watch more than twice as much television.
4) Are they in prison?
This question requires the most complicated answer. Technically, the 1.1 million prime-age men in prison aren’t hurting the participation rate among men, because they aren’t being counted as participants or non-participants. The government omits prisoners before it makes labor-force calculations.
But that’s not even close to the full story. The more meaningful and troubling statistic is that about 9 million prime-age men have been incarcerated. “These men are substantially more likely to experience joblessness after they are released from prison,” the White House economists reported, “and in many states [they] are legally barred from a significant number of jobs.”
There have been several attempts to measure the cost of prison on subsequent employment. A 2010 analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts found that incarceration reduced the average work time of a typical 45-year-old man by 19 percent. Another study estimated that people who go to prison are 30 percent less likely to subsequently find a job than a non-incarcerated person of their age.
There is no question that it’s harder to find a job after somebody gets out of prison. But even if one makes the most aggressive assumptions about the cost of incarceration to unemployment, America’s prison and ex-prison population only explains a fraction of the disappearing male workforce.
It is conceivable that, by degrees, each of these variables is eating away at prime-age male participation rates. Men who leave prison during a time of historic incarceration have had a hard time finding steady work; some men have turned to disability payments to disengage from a workforce that offered poor pay; some adults have returned to school; and a few (perhaps very few) fathers are staying home while their spouses work.
But behind all of these trends, there is a larger story: the decline of sectors dominated by male workers. In 1954, the highwater mark for male participation, the manufacturing and construction sectors accounted for nearly 40 percent of all jobs. Now, after the long decline of manufacturing and the end of the housing bubble, they account for just 13 percent. These are jobs that men without a college degree can count on, and they're much rarer than they used to be. The White House report notes that "when the share of state employment attributable to construction, mining and to a lesser extent manufacturing are higher, more prime-age men participate in the labor force.” In other words, men are more likely to work in areas where the state directly subsidizes employment in male-heavy occupations.
But the private sector is shifting toward work that has historically been done by women. There are four occupations expected to add more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade: personal care aides, home health aides, medical secretaries, and marketing specialists. All of them currently have more female workers than male. "Some of the decline in work among young men is a mismatch between aspirations and identity," Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University, told me last year. "Taking a job as a health technician has the connotation as a feminized job. The growth has been in jobs that have been considered women’s jobs—education, health, government."
Perhaps the United States needs some sort of massive national building project to put these men back to work in jobs that they would be proud and willing to do. The promises of Donald Trump to the contrary, the United States is not poised to bring back manufacturing jobs.
But what about construction jobs?
Several weeks ago, Conor Sen, a portfolio manager and a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote a widely shared essay predicting that housing would become the dominant economic story of the next five years. Sen worried that it would be hard to find enough workers (mostly men, since construction employment is about 90 percent male) to build the requisite number of houses. After all, construction skews young and less educated, and the U.S. is getting older and more educated. "If we had to find 500,000 construction workers tomorrow, from a math standpoint it would be impossible," he wrote. "The slack isn’t there.”
But the slack is there. Millions of able-bodied men have dropped out of the labor force, mostly because they have stopped looking for work. Many of them badly need to leave their neighborhoods in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the Deep South, where the rate of non-working men often hovers around 40 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs more affordable housing construction, particularly in its richest and most populous metro areas.
The White House report lists several ways to raise the employment level of male workers, like criminal justice reform and removing occupational licenses. But here is a bolder plan: A state-and-federally funded voucher program that moves men from economically stricken areas toward metros in need of construction workers.
This plan would require heroic (and heretofore unprecedented) participation from all levels of government. Metropolitan areas might have to rezone neighborhoods to provide for more low-income housing, and the GOP Congress would have to agree to what is essentially a multi-billion dollar stimulus package, which it has repeatedly said it will never do.
Although abrupt moves can be especially socially disruptive for families with young children, the non-working male population skews young, single, and childless. They are already unmoored, untethered from the economy. In this case, encouraging men to dislocate might move them closer to a job and social network that would bring them meaning and community, above and beyond the obvious benefits of a steady paycheck. This could be a way to bring millions of men back from the brink.
A rotor for the i-DCD drive motor, using rare earth metal-free magnets. (credit: Honda)
Honda said on Tuesday that it had created the first commercial hybrid-electric vehicle motor without using any heavy rare earth metals. (Rare earth metals are often divided into “heavy” and “light” categories.) Working with the expertise of Daido Steel Co., Honda’s new motor will appear in this year’s Honda Freed, a hybrid minivan sold in Japan.
Rare earth metals are essential to making a plethora of items, including smartphones, laptops, missiles, and electric cars. Unfortunately, that group of elements are at risk of shortage, and many of them are mined predominantly in China, adding a special political flavor to ensuring a global supply for industry. In 2009, Reuters reported that Toyota, maker of the popular hybrid-electric Prius, risked suffering at the hands of a rare earth metal shortage. And in 2010, China temporarily banned exports of rare earth metals to Japan during a standoff over territory.
The Japanese automaker bristled at that turn of events. Although Honda told Reuters that it started looking into ways to reduce rare earth metal use a decade ago, the recent risk of shortage and the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles spurred the company to look more seriously into ways to "avoid resource-related risks and diversify channels of procurement,” according to a Honda press release.
Most large organizations today are looking for leaders who can easily and effectively move between countries and cultures, taking on expat assignments, understanding disparate markets, and managing diverse teams. Where can they find such talent?
My advice is to look to a group of people I call “global cosmopolitans”— highly educated, multilingual professionals who have already lived, worked, and studied for extensive periods outside their home regions. Whether their international exposure started in their childhood or later, as a result of relocation for education or work, my experience and research confirms that these people often possess five key characteristics that leave them better equipped to tackle complex challenges than their less-global peers:
- They consider change as normal, positive, and a source of opportunity.
- They rely on creative, outsider thinking and adaptation to confront new situations.
- They are able to reinvent themselves and experiment with new identities as they move into new settings.
- They become experts at the subtle and emotional aspects of transition.
- They easily learn and use new ways of thinking, taking risks that lead to self-efficacy.
Global cosmopolitans don’t need training in cultural competence. They have already developed an awareness of their own cultural worldview, a positive attitude toward cultural differences, knowledge of different cultural practices and the ability to understand and communicate with people whose backgrounds differ from their own.
How can organizations find these individuals and keep them engaged?
You and Your Team Series
Managing Across Cultures
- Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
- Andy Molinsky and Melissa Hahn
- Pamela Hinds
Identify. Conventional CVs may not reveal the depth of experience accrued in early mobility. Find out who in your organization or applicant pool has lived abroad and take the time to ask about and listen to the story of their journey. Prompt them to assess and discuss the knowledge and skills they acquired through those experiences. You might even help them identify some strengths they didn’t even know they had. Even when international activity is listed on a resume, you’ll want to explore the exact nature of the personal and professional experience.
For example, having worked in China tells only a part of the story. You need to understand what the person did there. Did he launch a business or turn a struggling initiative around? What was the nature and depth of the contact she had with the culture and the people? Did the person travel there, live and work alone there, or manage a team and family there?
Retain. Global cosmopolitans can feel misunderstood and poorly managed. They will be loyal to an organization that provides them with opportunities to use and be recognized for their multicultural skills, but they have a low tolerance for boredom. So give them work that keeps them intellectually stimulated and feeling appreciated – for example, frequent rotation into new and different expat assignments or leadership roles on cross-cultural teams. As they become more senior and choose to settle down in one place, you might also consider asking them to serve as a bridge and translator between headquarters and subsidiaries, relaying demands from above while validating local competence and managing potential conflict.
Remember to think creatively: for global cosmopolitans assigned to HQ, managing a virtual cross-cultural team, taking frequent business trips or presenting at international conferences can help to keep them engaged. As you see what they can do, also look at roles not obviously related to culture in which they might thrive. Their skills can be extremely valuable during any period of change or crisis.
When we see two people meet, we can often predict what happens next: a handshake, a hug, or maybe even a kiss. Our ability to anticipate actions is thanks to intuitions born out of a lifetime of experiences.
Machines, on the other hand, have trouble making use of complex knowledge like that. Computer systems that predict actions would open up new possibilities ranging from robots that can better navigate human environments, to emergency response systems that predict falls, to Google Glass-style headsets that feed you suggestions for what to do in different situations.
This week researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have made an important new breakthrough in predictive vision, developing an algorithm that can anticipate interactions more accurately than ever before.
Trained on YouTube videos and TV shows such as “The Office” and “Desperate Housewives,” the system can predict whether two individuals will hug, kiss, shake hands or slap five. In a second scenario, it could also anticipate what object is likely to appear in a video five seconds later.
While human greetings may seem like arbitrary actions to predict, the task served as a more easily controllable test case for the researchers to study.
“Humans automatically learn to anticipate actions through experience, which is what made us interested in trying to imbue computers with the same sort of common sense,” says CSAIL PhD student Carl Vondrick, who is first author on a related paper that he will present this week at the International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR). “We wanted to show that just by watching large amounts of video, computers can gain enough knowledge to consistently make predictions about their surroundings.”
Vondrick’s co-authors include MIT Professor Antonio Torralba and former postdoc Hamed Pirsiavash, now a professor at the University of Maryland.
How it works
Past attempts at predictive computer-vision have generally taken one of two approaches.
The first method is to look at an image’s individual pixels and use that knowledge to create a photorealistic “future” image, pixel by pixel — a task that Vondrick describes as “difficult for a professional painter, much less an algorithm.” The second is to have humans label the scene for the computer in advance, which is impractical for being able to predict actions on a large scale.
The CSAIL team instead created an algorithm that can predict “visual representations,” which are basically freeze-frames showing different versions of what the scene might look like.
“Rather than saying that one pixel value is blue, the next one is red, and so on, visual representations reveal information about the larger image, such as a certain collection of pixels that represents a human face,” Vondrick says.
The team’s algorithm employs techniques from deep-learning, a field of artificial intelligence that uses systems called “neural networks” to teach computers to pore over massive amounts of data to find patterns on their own.
Each of the algorithm’s networks predicts a representation is automatically classified as one of the four actions — in this case, a hug, handshake, high-five, or kiss. The system then merges those actions into one that it uses as its prediction. For example, three networks might predict a kiss, while another might use the fact that another person has entered the frame as a rationale for predicting a hug instead.
“A video isn’t like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book where you can see all of the potential paths,” says Vondrick. “The future is inherently ambiguous, so it’s exciting to challenge ourselves to develop a system that uses these representations to anticipate all of the possibilities.”
How it did
After training the algorithm on 600 hours of unlabeled video, the team tested it on new videos showing both actions and objects.
When shown a video of people who are one second away from performing one of the four actions, the algorithm correctly predicted the action more than 43 percent of the time, which compares to existing algorithms that could only do 36 percent of the time.
In a second study, the algorithm was shown a frame from a video and asked to predict what object will appear five seconds later. For example, seeing someone open a microwave might suggest the future presence of a coffee mug. The algorithm predicted the object in the frame 30 percent more accurately than baseline measures, though the researchers caution that it still only has an average precision of 11 percent.
It’s worth noting that even humans make mistakes on these tasks: for example, human subjects were only able to correctly predict the action 71 percent of the time.
“There’s a lot of subtlety to understanding and forecasting human interactions,” says Vondrick. “We hope to be able to work off of this example to be able to soon predict even more complex tasks.”
While the algorithms aren’t yet accurate enough for practical applications, Vondrick says that future versions could be used for everything from robots that develop better action plans to security cameras that can alert emergency responders when someone who has fallen or gotten injured.
“I’m excited to see how much better the algorithms get if we can feed them a lifetime’s worth of videos,” says Vondrick. “We might see some significant improvements that would get us closer to using predictive-vision in real-world situations.”
The work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, along with a Google faculty research award for Torralba and a Google PhD fellowship for Vondrick.
Imposing order on the morass of people analytics: HR execs are being bombarded with sales pitches for people analytics that promise to improve every aspect of workforce management from recruiting to what HubSpot’s execs so charmingly called “graduation.” But how do you weave this rather bewildering assortment of digital tools together in a way that is aligned with and supports your talent and corporate strategies?
Jean Paul Isson and Jesse S. Harriot, respectively VP of business intelligence and predictive analytics and former chief knowledge officer at Monster Worldwide, take a good shot at answering that big-picture question in their new book, People Analytics in the Era of Big Data. The authors encapsulate their approach in a framework that organizes people analytics into 7 “pillars” that are broadly based on the responsibilities of the HR function: workforce planning; sourcing; acquisition/hiring; onboarding, culture fit, and engagement; performance assessment and development; churn and retention; and wellness, health, and safety. “The ultimate goal of this framework,” they write, “is to focus your organization’s attention on those areas that are keys to talent analytics success and will lead to greatest return on investment.”
As you might expect, a comprehensive overview of people analytics leads to a pretty thick and sometimes dense book. But the authors ground the pillars in practice using case studies and interviews. One of them describes how Société de Transport de Montréal, the city’s public transport agency, which serves 2.5 million riders per day, is implementing and using people analytics. It is featured in the excerpt below.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from People Analytics in the Era of Big Data: Changing the Way You Attract, Acquire, Develop, and Retain Talent by Jean Paul Isson and Jesse S. Harriott. Copyright © 2016 by Jean Paul Isson and Jesse S. Harriott. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.
Interview with Christophe Paris, Human Resources Business Intelligence Manager, Société de Transport de Montréal
by Jean Paul Isson and Jess S. Harriott
Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), or the Montreal Transit Corporation, is a public transport agency that operates transit bus and rapid transit services in Montreal, Canada. STM has more than 9,500 employees with an average daily ridership of 2.5 million passengers.
JP Isson had the opportunity to interview Christophe Paris and his team members Josée Gauvreau and Cedric Lepine to discuss how they have been leveraging data analytics in human resources management, such as workforce planning at STM.
Isson: Why did STM decide to invest in workforce planning analytics?
Paris and team: It all started a few years ago when our CEO came to us with a specific set of business questions, including:
- What is the business value of the human resources department?
- Are we making the right business decisions?
- How many employees we will need in the future to deliver optimal service to our customers?
- What critical roles will we need in the future?
- Can we predict our employees’ turnover?
We then realized that we didn’t have enough insights to answer his questions. And this was really the overarching point from which our People Analytics journey started. We knew that we absolutely had to look into our databases to find out what talent data or information we had available, and we started analyzing and interpreting our employee data. That was the starting point of our People Analytics.
Isson: What type of analytics did you use, and what were the beneﬁts for your company?
Paris and team: We started to build HR dashboards, HR key performance indicators (KPIs), and HR scorecards. We also started doing some deep-dive analyses of our employees by occupational category, by experience, by profile, and by skill set. The analysis by critical roles was important because there are some critical roles that pertain to really hard-to-fill positions and some that do not. So having that segmentation approach helped us to prioritize based on our company’s business goals and the market conditions.
We were able to provide a diagnosis of our employee population and start addressing questions such as:
- Where is our talent mix?
- At what stage is our talent in the overall talent life cycle?
- When will our employees leave for retirement?
- How will our talent behave in the future? (Will they leave? Change jobs? Continue working despite retirement?)
- When will they formally leave?
- How many will leave at the retirement time? How many will formally retire in the next 3, 5, or 10 years?
To answer the aforementioned questions, we were lucky enough to have a lot of employee data and information from the get-go. It was information that we collected and used to report on and communicate for legal purposes and transparency.
We started by looking at some correlations analyses. We were wondering if there was a significant correlation relationship between some of our employee data and our key business challenges. We then explored hundreds of variables and found out that the number of kilometers traveled was highly correlated with the number of resources. And the correlation was pretty high, about 96 percent.
We explored the relationship between the variation in the amount of employee overtime and the number of kilometers traveled by a bus or subway driver, and found that there was a strong correlation. Based on the correlation, we then built a predictive model. This helped us to determine how many people we needed to deliver service and keep our level of productivity and customer satisfaction high. The model helped us to determine how many resources we would need by occupational category, skill set, and experience.
The findings also provided our senior management team with actionable insights for their strategic planning, and were of tremendous value for our overall workforce planning. They also helped us with our recruitment strategies, as we were able to identify how many new employees we needed in the future for each functional group, as well as:
- How many employees we would need to replace due to retirement.
- How many employees we would need to add due to our service expansion (when servicing more territory and more people).
- How many resources we would need due to macroeconomic conditions and company business plan.
The overall correlations and predictive model were driven by the exploration of 10 major factors, such as overall spend, the number of drivers, the number of resources, the number of customers who commute, the overall traffic patterns, and so forth.
We then created a second predictive model called the “retirement predictive model,” which we built to help us to anticipate when our employees will leave for retirement. This model helped us to identify which of our employees were candidates for retirement and who exactly will leave on their retirement date. It also helped us identify employees who are more likely to continue working for an additional three to six years.
In the upcoming year, we will have nearly 2,000 people qualifying for retirement, so as an operational business, it is paramount for us to anticipate which employees will leave and when. With this in mind, we built a model for each category of occupation, from managers and support and maintenance staffs to bus and subway drivers and auto mechanics. The key learning from these models was that there is no single, one-size-fits-all People Analytics model. We needed to go local — by category of occupation, critical roles, and experience.
Additionally, there is about a 20 to 30 percent group of employees who, even if they qualify for retirement, can and will still continue to work three to five years later. To understand this employee segment, we were able to build retirement curves and models to anticipate what is coming and get ready by putting proactive strategies in place to mitigate the risk.
Isson: Did you use any speciﬁc tools to build your models?
Paris and team: The beauty of this project was that everything we leveraged was from our internal HRIS [human resources information system] and Microsoft Excel spreadsheet data. So, for a company like STM that is very operational and business driven, having a fast turnaround and leveraging low-cost software was very well received. It also helped us to quickly showcase the value; for instance, our employee retirement predictive model immediately helped us to anticipate and plan for the future.
The power of the models we developed was based on the fact that we could analyze data at a category level, as well as an employee level. This enabled us to develop macro and micro strategies when approaching our employees, and talent acquisition and retention strategies. It also enables us to understand our workforce planning from employee segments to the individual level.
Isson: Were you able to provide employee retirement break-downs by vertical?
Paris and team: We are now able to provide future employee retirement ﬁgures by occupation, by location, and by skill set. We can predict and indicate which employees might leave in the next three, four, or ﬁve years. This helps the business to ﬁgure out how to best bridge the resource gap and continue delivering high-quality service without impacting operations.
We were able to deliver solid, easy-to-understand data, and we challenged the old adage about HR not being data driven. We are gradually changing that every day with the work we do. We were able to wow our customers, which is great, and we did this by building up our data intelligence and sharing it with senior management, as well as with all our hiring managers to ensure they have all the insights they need to proactively take action. This helped us to anticipate what trends are coming, how many resources we will need to hire, train, and onboard, and, more importantly, to become true strategic business partners within the company.
Isson: What would be your advice to someone new to work-force planning analytics?
Paris and team: It’s paramount to understand the top business questions the company aims to address. For our company, it was retirement planning and workforce planning. It is imperative to keep your business question in mind when you build HR scorecards or dashboards so the business value can be easily connected to the data.
From the data perspective, you have to look at what you already have available; for instance, what data is easily accessible, available, and good? Data integrity, data visualization, and storytelling using this information should be front and center, as it will be the way you communicate the findings and success criteria for your analysis. You have to wow your customers, both internal and external. And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to share all pieces of data you’ve found. You have to keep it simple, make it easy to understand, and just keep to the most relevant data that helps you to convey the message and key findings. And, most of all, keep in mind that workforce planning analytics is a journey; it takes baby steps and is a matter of testing, learning, and sharing. Your input and insights will provide the business with valuable foresight, helping the organization anticipate talent behavior and help your HR team to become real strategic business partners.
A cost-benefit analysis of virtual shareholders’ meetings: As much fun as Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ weekend seems, you have to wonder why the 5,300 or so annual shareholders’ meetings held in the United States haven’t gone virtual. Actually, 90 companies did in 2015, according to NYT's Deal Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, including Intel, GoPro, SeaWorld Entertainment, PayPal, Fitbit and Yelp.
“Not one shareholder showed up to Intel’s shareholders’ meeting last week. In person, at least,” writes Solomon in an NYT “DealBook” column. “Instead, Intel’s annual meeting was entirely virtual. There was no in-person gathering site, the questions were submitted in advance, and management and the board made all of their presentations online.”
Solomon, who also teaches law at UC Berkeley, goes on to list the many advantages of virtual shareholders’ meetings. Lower costs, higher attendance, more accurate tracking — to say nothing of the opportunity to better “manage troublesome shareholders and their often uncomfortable questions,” and eliminate protests and PR debacles.
Sounds good, right? Not so fast, says Solomon. He thinks the in-person interaction of the traditional shareholders’ meeting is the only chance shareholders have to engage management — and put execs on the spot. “And in difficult situations, the repeated resistance of shareholders can make a difference,” he writes. He also suggests that such meetings are a chance to win over investors and build brands — a finding that Warren Buffett would surely second.
So Solomon gives virtual shareholders’ meetings a thumbs down, even though there seems to be no reason why virtual shareholders’ meetings couldn’t be designed in ways that enhance both attendance and participation. The problem, of course, is that management must want both.
The robotic workforce is here and now: There’s been a lot written about workers being displaced by robots, but a lot of what’s written is written in the future tense. Suddenly, however, the future — which is typically portrayed as dystopian — seems more like the present.
For instance, Apple supplier Foxconn reportedly already replaced 60,000 workers with robots, according a story by Mandy Zuo in the South China Morning Post. “The Foxconn factory has reduced its employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000, thanks to the introduction of robots. It has tasted success in reduction of labour costs,” said a government spokesperson in the province of Jiangsu.
(Update: Reports about Foxconn replacing 60,000 workers appear to be mistaken, per more recent stories.)
Meanwhile, in Crain’s Chicago Business, Micah Maidenberg reports, “This year, Wendy's might roll out customer-facing ordering kiosks in as many as 6,000 stores around the U.S., while McDonald's and Panera Bread are experimenting with them.”
Finally, in Fast Company, Sean Captain writes about Siemens spider bots, which work autonomously in teams to learn and complete tasks in and out of factories. “The spiders know their capabilities and limitations,” explains Captain. “Each is fitted with three gyroscopes and accelerometers, plus actuators in the legs that measure force — all in order to determine the spider's position and how it is moving from one spot to the next. The team can even figure out how to cover for a robot if it breaks down or its battery dies.”
It’s interesting that companies seem to be looking for excuses for replacing people with robots. Foxconn’s move is linked to the safety of Chinese workers, and in the U.S. quick-service restaurant sector, it’s all about those draconian minimum wages. In any case, if the job apocalypse is closer than we thought, it may be that more execs need to be considering a near-term plan for employing the fast-growing robotic workforce.
At many companies, sales generation activities have become disconnected from the operational activities required to fulfill that demand — resulting in conflicting objectives and foregone business opportunities. Bringing the supply-and-demand sides of an enterprise together can represent a significant opportunity for efficiency and value creation.
On May 12, 2016, Professor Theodore Stank, co-author of “Integrating Supply and Demand” from MIT SMR’s Summer 2015 issue, joined contributing editor Steven Paul to present his research on how some companies have bridged the perennial divide between demand generation and the supply chain in a way that maximizes the value to their customers and to themselves.
The webinar covered, through real-life examples, the five stages for successful supply and demand integration:
- Develop a relevant value focus
- Share knowledge across the organization
- Allocate resources strategically
- Learn to walk the talk
- Balance capacity and demand
How can I use takt time in computing labor cost?
Sometimes the searches that lead here give us interesting questions.
While simple on the surface, this question takes us in all kinds of interesting directions.
Actually the simplest answer is this: You can’t. Not from takt time alone.
Takt time is an expression of your customer’s requirement, leveled over the time you are producing the product or service. It says nothing about your ability to meet that requirement, nor does it say anything about the people, space or equipment required to do it.
Cycle time comes in many flavors, but ultimately it tells you how much time – people time, equipment time, transportation time – is required for one unit of production.
Takt time and cycle time together can help you determine the required capacity to meet the customer’s demand, however they don’t give you the entire story.
In the simplest scenario, we have a leveled production line with nothing but manual operations (or the machine operations are trivially short compared to the takt time).
If I were to measure the time required for each person on the line to perform their work on one unit of the product or service and add them up, then I have the total work required. This should be close to the time it would take one person to do the job from beginning to end.
Let’s say it takes 360 minutes of work to assemble the product.
If the takt time says I need a unit of output every 36 minutes, then I can do some simple math.
How long do I have to complete the next unit? 36 minutes. (the takt time)
How long does it take to complete one full unit? 360 minutes (the total manual cycle time)
(How long does it take) / (How long do I have) = how many people you need
360 minutes of total cycle time / 36 minutes takt time = 10 people.
But this isn’t your labor cost because that assumes the work can be perfectly balanced, and everything goes perfectly smoothly. Show me a factory like that… anywhere. They don’t exist.
So you need a bit more.
Planned Cycle Time (a.k.a. Operational Takt Time and “Actual Takt”)
How much more? That requires really understanding the sources of variation in your process. The more variation there is, the more extra people (and other stuff) you will need to absorb it.
If we don’t know, we can start (for experimental purposes) by planning to run the line about 15% faster than the takt time. Now we get a new calculation.
85% of the takt time = 0.85 x 36 minutes = ~31 minutes. (I am rounding)
Now we re-calculate the people required with the new number:
360 minutes required / 31 minutes available = 11.6 people which rounds to 12 people.
Those two extra people are the cost of uncontrolled variation. You need them to ensure you actually complete the required number of units every day.
“But that cost is too high.”
Getting to Cost
12 people is the result of math, simple division that any 3rd grader can do. If you don’t like the answer, there are two possible solutions.
- Decide that 360 / 30 = something other than 11.6 (12). (or don’t do the math at all and just “decide” how many people are “appropriate” – perhaps based on some kind of load factor. This, in fact, is a pretty common approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well for some reason.
- Work to improve your process and reduce the cycle time or the variation.
Some people suggest slowing down the process, but this doesn’t change your labor cost per unit. It only alters your output. It still requires 360 minutes of work to do one unit of assembly (plus the variation). Actually, unless you slow down by an increment of the cycle time, it will increase your labor cost per unit because you have to round up to get the people you actually need, and/or work overtime to make up the production shortfall that the variation is causing.
So, realistically, we have to look at option #2 above.
This becomes a challenge – a reason to work on improving the process.
Really Getting to Cost
Challenge: We need to get this output with 10 people.
Now we have something we can work with. We can do some more simple math and determine a couple of levers we can pull.
We can reverse the equation and solve for the target cycle time:
10 people x 30 minute planned cycle time-per-unit = 300 minutes total cycle time.
Thus, if we can get the total cycle time down to 300 minutes from 360, then the math suggests we can do this with 10 people:
300 minutes required / 30 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.
But maybe we can work on the variation as well. Remember, we added a 15% pad by reducing the customer takt time of 36 minutes to a planned cycle time (or operational takt time, same thing, different words) of 30 minutes. Question: What sources of instability can we reduce so we can use a planned cycle time of 33 minutes rather than 30?
Then (after we reduce the variation) we can slow down the process a bit, and we could get by with a smaller reduction in the total cycle time:
330 minutes required / 33 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.
(See how this is different than just slowing it down? If you don’t do anything about the variation first, all you are doing is kicking in overtime or shorting production.)
So which way to go?
We don’t know.
First we need to really study the current process and understand why it takes 360 minutes, and where the variation is coming from. Likely some other alternatives will show themselves when we do that.
Then we can take that information, and establish an initial target condition, and get to work.
- You can’t use takt time alone to determine your labor cost. Your labor cost per unit is driven by the total manual cycle time and the process variation.
- With that information, you can determine the total labor you need on the line with the takt time.
- None of this should be considered an unalterable given. Rather, it should be a starting point for meeting the challenge.
And finally, if you just use this to reduce your total headcount in your operation, you will, at best, only see a fraction of the “savings” show up on your bottom line. You need to take a holistic approach and use these tools to grow your business rather than cut your costs. That is, in reality, the only way they actually reach anywhere near their potential.
Fed from The Lean Thinker.
Copyright © 2015, Mark Rosenthal
In the name of employee wellness, and in response to insurance company demands, corporations are offering well-being initiatives with financial incentives. Complete this cholesterol screening, say, and you’ll get $100 added to your paycheck; participate in some number of wellness programs, and you’ll receive another bonus. In this quest to increase employee wellness, however, organizations are often unwittingly making things worse. Is it any surprise that initial studies on wellness programs are showing they don’t lead to any visible results?
At best, these initiatives are nothing more than lip service or PR. But at worst, they actually cause more stress. Having to jump through hoops, do cholesterol blood tests, and fill out well-being questionnaires is just one way that these programs can add yet more to-dos to an already full schedule. As one employee shared with me, “I feel like my workplace wants me to take care of my wellness yet pressures me with such tight deadlines that I barely have time to eat lunch at my desk. I know it would be good for me to attend, but I also feel anxious when my manager and colleagues frown at me leaving my desk to go stretch. What’s more, at the end of the day I feel guilty because I didn’t take care of my well-being and attend the yoga class.” Well-being becomes not a needed break from the pressures of work but just one more job requirement.
When you look at the data, employers seem to be missing the point. It is not by obligating employees to participate in these kinds of classes or screenings that well-being will improve, nor is it by providing material perks; a revealing study showed that employees actually prefer a happier workplace to a fatter paycheck anyway.
So what leads to employee happiness? A workplace characterized by humanity. An organizational culture characterized by forgiveness, kindness, trust, respect, and inspiration. Hundreds of studies conducted by pioneers of positive organizational psychology, including Jane Dutton and Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan and Adam Grant at Wharton, demonstrate that a culture characterized by a positive work culture leads to improved employee loyalty, engagement, performance, creativity, and productivity. Given that about three-quarters of the U.S. workforce is disengaged at work — and the high cost of employee turnover — it’s about time organizations start paying attention to the data.
Research suggests that the most powerful way leaders can improve employee well-being is not through programs and initiatives but through day-to-day actions. For example, data from a large study run by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute shows that having a harsh boss is linked to heart problems in employees. On the other side of the coin, research demonstrates that leaders who are inspiring, empathic, and supportive have more loyal and engaged employees. So checking in with employees about their families once in a while may help more than offering a mindfulness class at lunchtime.
Leaders set the tone for their organization, and their behavior determines whether interactions in their organization are characterized by trust, forgiveness, understanding, empathy, generosity, and respect. For example, one Fortune 500 corporation in the Bay Area has a system in place whereby the CEO is immediately informed if an employee comes down with a major illness or has experienced a personal tragedy. Within 15 minutes, no matter how busy he is, the CEO makes time to call that person and offer his support.
We have forgotten that organizations are first and foremost places of human interaction, not just transaction. Research shows that our greatest need after food and shelter is social connection — positive social relationships with others. If we create work environments characterized by these kinds of positive and supportive interactions, we create organizations that thrive. Organizations with very low turnover. Organizations that inspire. And organizations that enjoy superior results for employees and employers alike.
This is not to say that leaders and managers should be too “soft,” nor does this mean that an organization becomes a place that is too “nice.” You can still lead powerfully, you can still exert authority, you can still influence, and you can still communicate frankly while remaining courteous, empathic, and understanding. Rather than adding more and more wellness initiatives and material perks, employers can actually do something much simpler — not to mention cost-effective — that will have much greater results. By creating a values-based culture characterized by humanity, they can create an organization with true workplace well-being.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is on quite a run, from Google’s AlphaGo, which earlier this year defeated Go world champion Lee Sedol four games to one, to Amazon’s Echo, the voice-activated digital assistant.
The trend is heating up the sales field as well, enabling entirely new ways of selling. Purchasing, for example, is moving to automated bots, with 15%–20% of total spend already sourced through e-platforms. By 2020 customers will manage 85% of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human. Leading companies are experimenting with what these technologies can do for them, typically around transactional processes at early stages of the customer journey.
For example, AI applications can take over the time-consuming tasks of initiating contact with a sales lead and then qualifying, following up, and sustaining the lead. Amelia, the “cognitive agent” developed by IPsoft, can parse natural language to understand customers’ questions, handling up to 27,000 conversations simultaneously and in multiple languages. And because “she” is connected to all the relevant systems, Amelia delivers results faster than a human operator. Of course, there will be occasions when even AI is stumped, but Amelia is smart enough to recognize when to involve a human agent.
Sponsored by AccentureThe technologies and processes that are transforming companies.
As we learned from researching our book, Sales Growth, companies that have pioneered the use of AI in sales rave about the impact, which includes an increase in leads and appointments of more than 50%, cost reductions of 40%–60%, and call time reductions of 60%–70%. Add to that the value created by having human reps spend more of their time closing deals, and the appeal of AI grows even more.
Clearly, AI is bringing big changes. But what do they mean for sales — and the people who do it? We see two big implications.
The Sales Role Is Going to Change Completely
The “death of a salesman” is an overplayed trope, but the road ahead does mean significant changes for how sales work is done. The changes are primarily focused on automating activities rather than individual jobs, but the scale of those changes is likely to profoundly disrupt what sales people do.
We analyzed McKinsey Global Institute data on the “automatability” of 2,000 different workplace activities, comparing job requirements to the current capabilities of leading-edge technology. We found that 40% of time spent on sales work activities can be automated by adapting current technologies. If the technologies that process and understand natural language reach the median level of human performance, this number will rise to 47%.
Pity the parts salesperson, an occupation where 85% of all activities have the potential to be automated with today’s technology. Gathering customer or product information to determine customer needs, processing sales or other transactions, taking product orders from customers, and preparing sales or other contracts collectively account for approximately three-quarters of a parts salesperson’s time — and all can be automated. On the other hand, most of a sales manager’s activities, which involve strategic decision making and employee supervision and coaching, cannot be automated.
Sales People Will Need to Develop “Machine Intelligence”
Much of the focus on AI and automation has been on which jobs or tasks will be replaced. That’s understandable, of course. But it’s clear, if less explored, that sales leaders and reps will continue to be crucial to the sales process even as they adapt to working with machines.
The “human touch” will need to focus more on managing exceptions, tolerating ambiguity, using judgment, shaping the strategies and questions that machines will help enable and answer, and managing an increasingly complex web of relationships with employees, vendors, partners, and customers.
Machine learning and automation tools, for example, will be able to source, qualify, and execute far more sales opportunities than reps can keep up with. Sales leaders therefore need to develop clear escalation and exception protocols to manage the trickiest or most valuable situations, making sure a sales rep keeps a robot from losing a big sale.
While machine learning will continue to evolve, for the foreseeable future senior executives must point the technology in the right direction. They’ll have to think about a number of questions: What sorts of decisions should be automated? Which kinds of automation will help deliver on strategic growth goals? What are the legal and risk implications? How will vendor and technology relationships need to be managed and integrated to create the greatest competitive advantage?
There are implications too for the hiring and managing of sales reps. An empathetic personality will still be important, but beyond their relationship skills, reps will succeed based on their ability to understand and interpret data, work effectively with AI, and move quickly on opportunities. That’s a very different sales profile from the one many companies recruit for today.
Machines are already doing many sales jobs more effectively and efficiently than their human counterparts, and boosting customer satisfaction in the process. How sales leaders respond will determine what the future of sales looks like — and how well it works.
Your most valuable employee is someone who holds significant worth at your company. It’s easy to see which salesperson sells the most, but is that person truly the most valuable? It may be the receptionist who holds the foundation of the company together or the custodian who found a way to cut utility costs last year.
How do you identify the most valuable employees and hire others just like them? Ken Sundheim at Forbes identified 15 traits of the ideal employee. We’ll focus on four: intelligence, ambition, culture fit and hard work.
Intelligence can be difficult to identify, but you can look at how your employees handle challenges. Do they offer solutions to problems? Do things run better when they are around? You might think, “He’s just an admin,” but if he came up with a new way to organize paperwork and increased your efficiency by 20 percent, he might be more valuable than you thought.
To keep reading, click here: Identify Your Most Valuable Employee
Even decades after the Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted, employers are still making basic mistakes, such as presuming that an employee who wants FMLA leave has to use the word “FMLA,” failing to properly calculate FMLA allotment or use, and disparaging those who take leave. Perhaps managers find some provisions unclear or simply need a refresher. Along those lines, here are 10 “takeaways” from recent court decisions over alleged FMLA mistakes.
1. When calculating FMLA entitlement, include overtime and “working lunches.” An employee’s actual workweek is the basis for determining FMLA leave entitlement. This means overtime and breaks that were spent working must be included when calculating an employee’s FMLA entitlement. In one recent case, the Eighth Circuit held that, although a tire manufacturing employee had the choice of whether to put his name down for certain overtime shifts, the overtime became mandatory once he did that and was selected for a shift, so the overtime should have been included in calculating his allotment of FMLA leave for the year. Given that his overtime hours varied from week to week, the employer should have calculated his leave in accordance with 29 C.F.R. §825.205(b)(3). Instead, the overtime hours were not considered at all. His FMLA interference claim would therefore go to trial.
In another case, a corrections department counselor claimed understaffing kept him from eating in the employee lunchroom and he had to eat where inmates congregated. This, ruled a federal court in Illinois, raised a question on whether his lunches were spent predominantly benefitting his employer and should have been included in calculating whether he met the 1,250-hour requirement. Also at issue was whether the employer knew of his working lunches: 29 C.F.R. §785.11 states that unrequested work is work time if the employer “suffer[s] or permit[s]” the work and “knows or has reason to believe” the employee is working.
2. In calculating amount of leave used—don’t include days an employee is not scheduled. Be careful in calculating how much FMLA leave has been used—FMLA leave may be taken in periods of weeks, days, hours, and sometimes less than an hour. The employer must allow employees to use FMLA leave in the smallest increment it allows for other forms of leave, as long as it is no more than one hour. When calculating the amount of leave used, exclude days an employee would not be working (e.g., weekends, temporary plant closures, holidays).
One employer faces trial for including weekends in calculating an employee’s FMLA usage (she worked Monday through Friday) and firing her when it thought her leave was used up. The company thought it was “simple math” that her periods of leave in 2013 totaled 12 weeks (84 days) as of December 15, but a federal court in Tennessee disagreed. Weekends were not to be counted, so the total was 60 days and she had not exhausted her FMLA leave by December 15. Also rejected was the employer’s argument that the plant closes for the holidays so she would have soon exhausted her leave anyway. “If the employee is not scheduled to report for work, the time period involved may not be counted as FMLA leave,” the court noted, quoting the DOL’s response in the Federal Register to a comment.
3. Neither a medical emergency nor a request using the word “FMLA” is required. One employee won summary judgment as to her employer’s liability for FMLA interference after a federal court in Pennsylvania rejected the employer’s argument that FMLA leave is limited to medical emergencies. The court found it undisputed her parents had a serious health condition and she was entitled to family care type leave to make arrangements for their transition in care. It also found that her need for leave was unforeseeable and she was only required to give notice as soon as practicable—it was enough that she said her “dad was ill, and she had to get the house ready for him to come home” from the “hospital.” If the employer wanted more information on her parents’ health, it could have asked.
As to notice of the employee’s own health condition and need for leave, if there is a known history and the employee shows symptoms at work, that could be enough under the FMLA. It is up to the employer to learn more. For example, an employee with a history of migraines avoided summary judgment after a federal court in Missouri found that a sick log stating she was absent for “headache” may have triggered the employer’s duty to investigate; instead, it fired her under its attendance policy. In another case, a truck driver receiving treatment for high blood pressure had chest pains and, believing he might be having a heart attack, asked a coworker to tell the manager he was leaving. He was considered a “voluntary quit” since he failed to notify the manager himself, but a federal court in Maryland found triable issues on whether he provided sufficient notice of the need for FMLA leave.
4. Give employees a chance to provide certification. Employers may require employees to provide a medical certification of the need for FMLA leave, but lawsuits often arise if the certification is found deficient. The Second Circuit recently revived an employee’s FMLA claims against an employer and an HR director responsible for a communication breakdown that led to the employee’s discharge. The employee provided certification that she needed to care for her son who was hospitalized with diabetes. After he broke his leg, she sent a new FMLA request for leave through July 9 and repeatedly asked if more information was needed. She heard nothing until she received a July 17 letter stating her paperwork did not justify her absences. She sent emails asking what “paperwork” was needed, but the HR director simply sent a DOL brochure and refused to let her return absent proper documentation. She was fired for job abandonment. To the appeals court, a jury could find the employee made good faith efforts and was thus relieved of her duty to provide certification.
In a case out of Illinois, a staffing agency was denied summary judgment on an FMLA interference claim because it fired the employee one day after requesting her medical certification. An employer may deny leave absent timely certification, explained the federal court, but 29 C.F.R. §825.305(b) defines timeliness to be 15 calendar days from the request for certification. It also requires the employer to warn the employee in writing of the consequences of failing to timely return a certification, and that was not done here.
5. Communicate with employees. As indicated by the HR director’s inadequate responses to an employee’s questions in the Second Circuit case above, it is important to keep a dialogue with employees who request information about their FMLA obligations. It is also important to communicate regarding their job status or what they can expect to change due to their absence. For example, a federal court in Arizona held an employer liable for liquidated damages under the FMLA because it failed to answer a pregnant sales rep’s questions about how her accounts and commissions would be handled during her maternity leave. By not responding to repeated inquiries over seven months, the company essentially forced her to guess as to the professional consequences she would suffer in terms of lost commissions and transferred accounts, reflecting a lack of good faith and willful indifference to the FMLA.
6. You can require the use of customary notice procedures for absences, but with caveats. Cases regularly crop up where employees have been denied leave or disciplined for not following call-in procedures for potentially FMLA-qualifying absences. Employers need to consider if the need for leave was unforeseeable. If it was unforeseeable, employees need only provide notice of the need for FMLA leave “as soon as practicable,” though employers may generally require them to follow normal call-in procedures. In one case, an employee’s bipolar medication interfered with sleep and she overslept, failing to call in an absence before her morning shift. In the opinion of a federal court in Kansas, a jury could find that calling in late was “as soon as practicable” and that the employer interfered with FMLA rights by firing her for tardiness and absences.
In other cases, where employees have no excuse for failing to follow call-in procedures, their FMLA claims usually fail. For example, a Michigan welder had his FMLA claim tossed because he had no good reason for not calling in his late arrival. The federal court found that his deposition testimony providing only “conjectural justifications” such as he was probably suffering an anxiety attack at the time, were not enough to avoid summary judgment. The result was the same for a Delta flight attendant based in Utah who was fired for violating airline policy by accepting an assignment and then canceling without sufficient notice.
7. Avoid derogatory remarks about those who take leave. If there’s one thing that’s going to make a plaintiff’s case easier in proving unlawful intent, it is a manager’s or decisionmaker’s derogatory remarks about a statutorily protected activity. In one case from a federal court in Indiana, an employee was previously disciplined for excessive absences and was subject to a last chance agreement, but he still survived summary judgment on his FMLA claims, which were supported by his supervisor’s disapproving remarks about his need for leave, including that he was on “thin ice” and was “burying himself.” In a federal case out of Illinois, a car salesman who was fired 13 days after returning from FMLA leave for heart surgery won an extra $308,240 in liquidated damages on his FMLA retaliation claim after the employer failed to show it acted in good faith. Significantly, his visible heart pack was treated with open disdain by his supervisor, and he was told “don’t die at the desk or I am going to drag you outside and throw you in the ditch.” He was also threatened with demotion.
8. Be consistent in your treatment of employees before and after leave. A change in the way an employee is treated after FMLA leave may be considered evidence that the leave was a negative factor in any disciplinary action. In one case, an employee claimed that as she took more FMLA leave, her new supervisor began to “watch her like a hawk,” then gave her warnings for allegedly violating attendance and personal phone usage policies, eventually placing her on two performance improvement plans and firing her. This was enough, ruled a federal court in Illinois, to state a plausible FMLA retaliation claim. In another case, a federal court in Michigan denied summary judgment based largely on evidence that an employee received a positive performance review before her FMLA leave, but afterwards was disciplined and terminated for poor performance, along with evidence that the employer skipped a step in its progressive discipline policy and created an after-the-fact paper trail documenting misconduct that purportedly occurred months earlier.
9. Adjust goals downward for employees who take FMLA leave. While it is important to be consistent in how you treat an employee before and after FMLA leave–and as compared to others, it is also important to adjust time-sensitive goals for those who take FMLA leave. For example, evidence offered by an account executive that her company didn’t adjust her sales targets to account for her intermittent FMLA absences and then fired her for failing to meet her goals raised an issue for trial on whether she was actually fired for taking FMLA leave, ruled a federal district court in New Hampshire. Similarly, a court in Tennessee denied summary judgment on FMLA claims by an employee who took intermittent leave to care for her daughter, based in part on evidence that the employer refused to let coworkers help her meet her goals, nitpicked her work, faulted her for missing goals when she took leave, and treated similarly situated employees who missed goals better than it treated the employee.
10. Not every deviation from what you expect of a seriously ill person suggests FMLA abuse. It’s one thing if an employee posts Facebook pictures of his vacation in St. Martin during FMLA leave—a federal court in Florida held that an employee who did just that failed to show he was fired for taking FMLA leave rather than for his conduct while on leave. Usually, though, suspected FMLA abuse isn’t so clear, so employers must tread carefully. In one case, a kitchen manager told his employer he was ill with blood in his stool and planned to go to the hospital or health department. Instead, he walked to a diner, had coffee, then drove home, contacting the health department the next day (he was diagnosed with colitis and diverticula and was treated for two years). Though he was fired for walking off the job, a federal court in Tennessee found triable questions on whether he gave notice of an FMLA-qualifying condition and triggered a retaliatory action. In a case out of Maine, a long-time employee approved for intermittent leave due to chronic anxiety told his employer he was taking the rest of the day off. He ran into a coworker and they had lunch. Coworkers notified HR, which had him watched. He was suspended for “possible FMLA fraud” and then fired. The federal court held that he stated a plausible FMLA retaliation claim.
Other recent developments of note. In terms of case law, a recent ADA case bears mentioning because it highlights the confusion experienced by some employers concerning the potential overlap in their obligations under the ADA and the FMLA when an employee requests medical leave as an accommodation. In particular, it is important to note that an employee who has exhausted his or her FMLA leave may still be entitled to medical leave under the ADA. As explained by a federal court in Florida, granting the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave may not satisfy an employer’s independent duty to accommodate an employee’s disability under the ADA, such as through additional (though not indefinite) medical leave. Thus, the FMLA does not supplant the ADA when it comes to granting medical leave as an accommodation.
Agency developments should also be noted, including the Department of Labor’s announcement of a new FMLA notice poster that employers will be required to post in their workplaces and a new employer guide designed to provide essential information on FMLA obligations. The DOL also recently issued a fact sheet on the joint employment relationship and the corresponding FMLA responsibilities of primary and secondary employers, including both an example and a chart to illustrate specific responsibilities. More information is available on the Department of Labor’s website, including posters; e-Tools; and fact sheets on employee notice requirements and how to calculate FMLA leave, rules for military family leave, and other topics.
Today we dispatched the second edition of our Leadership That Works Newsletter, a curated monthly digest of the very best leadership links from around the web (compiled by the enthusiastic leadership wonks at ConantLeadership). In the event that you are not subscribed to our mailing list but still have an unquenchable thirst for leadership knowledge – we’ve also compiled the 10 articles from our newsletter letter right here for your reading enjoyment. This month’s links touch on productivity, decision-making, credibility, and much more. Enjoy, and stay curious! (And if you like what you see, you can sign up to receive leadership insights from ConantLeadership here).
This Harvard Business Review article shows why your purpose, like you, is always evolving. Therefore, you need practices for ensuring your work stays meaningful in the long-term, not just in the present.
In this excellent Strategy+Business article, author Augusto Giacoman tells you exactly why you must put credibility first if you want to get anything substantial accomplished as a leader. And he tells you precisely how to do it.
“A common misconception is that simply because someone excels in the current role, that success will automatically translate to the next level” writes Marty Fukuda in this Entrepreneur article that spells out four compelling reasons to make investing in leadership development a top priority.
Bridging the US gender gap in work entirely would produce an estimated $4.3 trillion in additional GDP in 2025″ finds McKinsey & Company in this fascinating, research-backed article that puts the cost of the gender gap in the workforce (and the enormous economic opportunity to be found in fixing it) in stark terms.
“As important as trust is and as much as we talk about it, the problem is we are not always talking about the same thing” writes Jesse Lyn Stoner in this helpful post that explains in detail the four different dimensions of trust. Stoner encourages people to be more specific when gauging and evaluating trustworthiness in ourselves and others.
“The opposite of blame is responsibility” writes Leadership Freak in this actionable post that spells out six practical ways to empower blamers to own their responsibilities more fully.
If you’re not comfortable pushing yourself to more fully connect with people, you have to get out of your comfort zone and find ways to do it anyway urges Mary Jo Asmus in this tough-love post; Asmus lays out four ways leaders can better build relationships, even if it doesn’t come naturally.
Thin Difference asked a diverse group of people from their online community how they keep themselves centered on their leadership journey. Their answers, compiled in this interesting collection of insights, make for interesting and inspiring reading.
But you still have to make decisions in a timely manner, given the information available to you. Mickey Addison, in this General Leadership article, paints decision-making as an art that gets better with practice; the more you do it, the better you can strike the balance between decisive and hasty.
“What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel impacts our actions” writes Leigh Stringer in this Quiet Revolution article that outlines ways we can change our environment to “nudge” ourselves towards better habits. What’s most interesting is that “biophilia” – or humans’ innate preference to be around natural splendor — can be leveraged for higher productivity by incorporating natural elements like water and plant life into our work environment.
What leadership links did you discover this month that challenged, intrigued, or inspired you?
Just as resilience.
'Virtuous' Grit is an Essential Ethical Value
Last week I watch a TED presentation by Angela Duckworth who discussed her findings in a 2013 TED Talk, where she defined grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. I realized this was a hot topic when I saw her presentation had 8.5 million views.
Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied people in challenging settings, including contestants in the National Spelling Bee, salespeople new to their positions, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods, and cadets at West Point and discovered that one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It was grit.
So what is grit? I tend to think of it as courage and resolve; strength of character. Is grit the secret sauce that drives success? More important than both talent and intellect? What are the limits of grit and how far can it take you in life and at work? More important, how can you attain a level of grit that gives you an edge over others who don’t have it and what might you expect at the end of the road?
Grit is the new buzzword for success. The research shows that grit really does matter after all. More than intelligence. More than talent. Even more than hard work. It’s a combination of unshakable motivation, persistence, and determination. And the belief that improvement is always possible.
Other research has also pointed to a potential downside to grit. Like stubbornness, too much grit can keep us sticking to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned. We may be unable to give up on an idea and even become obsessed with its completion. In this case too much grit can be unhealthy. Like most things in life a balance needs to be struck between perseverance and knowing when to cut your losses and move on to the next challenge.
Psychologist Gale Lucas and her colleagues found in one experiment that gritty individuals will persist in trying to solve unsolvable puzzles at a financial cost. And that’s a limitation of grit: it doesn’t give us insight into when it will help us prevail and when it will keep us stuck in a dead-end.
Grit is more than work ethic. A strong work ethic is a necessary but insufficient condition for grit to prevail. You might stay at work two hours extra every day and work on weekends but that doesn’t mean you’ll have the courage to resist pressures to do something wrong, such as those encountered in workplace situations. In fact, you may be tempted to take a shortcut if it gets you to your goal quicker, especially when you have doubts about getting there.
So, ethics is also an integral part of grit. Just as one has to want to do the right thing and has the skills to carry it out, even in the face of counteracting forces, true grit requires a dogged mentality informed by following a righteous path, something I call virtuous grit.
Virtue requires integrity. Integrity is the basis for all ethical action. Principled people are motivated to act in accordance with their values regardless of the personal cost or cost to one’s employer if it is done to protect the public interest. This is no more obvious than for auditors who render an independent opinion on a client’s financial statements.
To be gritty, Duckworth said, we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.
That’s good news for those of us who have tasted defeat. We should dust ourselves off, get back on our feet, and strive to do better, work harder and smarter, and act ethically when confronting the new challenges of the day.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 17, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.
“After Work, Is What Determines Your Future!”
Meaningful work is something we all want. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously described how the innate human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.1 More recently, researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.2 Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.3 But, so far, surprisingly little research has explored where and how people find their work meaningful and the role that leaders can play in this process.4
We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual;5 it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work; instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.
We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.6 Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.
We also expected to find a clear link between the factors that drove up levels of meaningfulness and those that eroded them. Instead, we found that meaningfulness appeared to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of “Why am I bothering to do this?” strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.
About the Research
Meaningful work is a topic that is receiving increased attention. However, relatively little empirical research investigates in depth what meaningful work actually means to individuals. To address this, we undertook an extensive review of the literature on meaningful work from various fields, including psychology, management studies, sociology, and ethics. Drawing on these findings, we defined meaningful work as arising “when an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”i
To conduct our research, we wanted to garner insights from people in a wide range of work situations. We interviewed 135 individuals in 10 very different occupations and asked them about times when they found their work meaningful or meaningless. The occupational groups we studied were: retail assistants, priests from various denominations, artists (including musicians, writers, and actors), lawyers, academics from science disciplines, entrepreneurs who had started their own business, nurses in an acute care hospital, soldiers, conservation stonemasons who were working on the preservation of an ancient cathedral, and garbage collectors. All data were collected in the U.K. We transcribed the interviews and coded them by theme to uncover patterns in how people view their work.
The Five Qualities of Meaningful Work
Our research aimed to uncover how and why people find their work meaningful. (See “About the Research.”) For our interviewees, meaningfulness, perhaps unsurprisingly, was often associated with a sense of pride and achievement at a job well done, whether they were professionals or manual workers. Those who could see that they had fulfilled their potential, or who found their work creative, absorbing, and interesting, tended to perceive their work as more meaningful than others. Equally, receiving praise, recognition, or acknowledgment from others mattered a great deal.7 These factors alone were not enough to render work meaningful, however.8 Our study also revealed five unexpected features of meaningful work; in these, we find clues that might explain the fragile and intangible nature of meaningfulness.
Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent. Although it is not a well-known fact, the famous motivation theorist Abraham Maslow positioned self-transcendence at the apex of his pyramid of human motivation, situating it beyond even self-actualization in importance.9 People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment. For example, a garbage collector explained how he found his work meaningful at the “tipping point” at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling. This was the time he could see how his work contributed to creating a clean environment for his grandchildren and for future generations. An academic described how she found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony, a tangible sign of how her own hard work had helped others succeed. A priest talked about the uplifting and inspiring experience of bringing an entire community together around the common goal of a church restoration project.
The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric.10 People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness. People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful. The current emphasis on positive psychology has led us to focus on trying to make employees happy, engaged, and enthused throughout the working day. Psychologist Barbara Held refers to the current pressure to “accentuate the positive” as the “tyranny of the positive attitude.”11 Traditionally, meaningfulness has been linked with such positive attributes.
Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought, meaningfulness is not always a positive experience.12 In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy. The most vivid examples of this came from nurses who described moments of profound meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives. Lawyers often talked about working hard for extended periods, sometimes years, for their clients and winning cases that led to life-changing outcomes. Participants in several of the occupational groups found moments of meaningfulness when they had triumphed in difficult circumstances or had solved a complex, intractable problem. The experience of coping with these challenging conditions led to a sense of meaningfulness far greater than they would have experienced dealing with straightforward, everyday situations.
A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences. For example, a university professor talked of the euphoric experience of feeling “like a rock star” at the end of a successful lecture. One actor we spoke to summed this feeling up well: “My God, I’m actually doing what I dreamt I could do; that’s kind of amazing.” Clearly, sentiments such as these are not sustainable over the course of even one single working day, let alone a longer period, but rather come and go over one’s working life, perhaps rarely arising. Nevertheless, these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.
Meaningful moments such as these were not forced or managed. Only in a few instances did people tell us that an awareness of their work as meaningful arose directly through the actions of organizational leaders or managers. Conservation stonemasons talked of the significance of carving their “banker’s mark” or mason’s signature into the stone before it was placed into a cathedral structure, knowing that the stone might be uncovered hundreds of years in the future by another mason who would recognize the work as theirs. They felt they were “part of history.” One soldier described how he realized how meaningful his work was when he reflected on his quick thinking in setting off the warning sirens in a combat situation, ensuring that no one at the camp was injured in the ensuing rocket attack. Sales assistants talked about times when they were able to help others, such as an occasion when a customer passed out in one store and the clerk was able to support her until she regained consciousness. Memorable moments such as these contain high levels of emotion and personal relevance, and thus become redolent of the symbolic meaningfulness of work.
In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to recount a time when they found their work meaningful that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences. Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.
One of the entrepreneurs we interviewed talked about the time when he was switching the lights out after his company’s Christmas party and paused to reflect back over the year on what he and his employees had achieved together. Garbage collectors explained how they were able to find their work meaningful when they finished cleaning a street and stopped to look back at their work. In doing this, they reflected on how the tangible work of street sweeping contributed to the cleanliness of the environment as a whole. One academic talked about research he had done for many years that seemed fairly meaningless at the time, but 20 years later provided the technological solution for touch-screen technology. The experience of meaningfulness is therefore often a thoughtful, retrospective act rather than just a spontaneous emotional response in the moment, although people may be aware of a rush of good feelings at the time. You are unlikely to witness someone talking about how meaningful they find their job during their working day. For most of the people we spoke to, the discussions we had about meaningful work were the first time they had ever talked about these experiences.
Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times. One musician described his profound sense of meaningfulness when his father attended a performance of his for the first time and finally came to appreciate and understand the musician’s work. A priest was able to find a sense of meaning in her work when she could relate the harrowing personal experiences of a member of her congregation to her own life events, and used that understanding to help and support her congregant at a time of personal tragedy. An entrepreneur’s motivation to start his own business included the desire to make his grandfather proud of him. The customary dinner held to mark the end of a soldier’s service became imbued with meaning for one soldier because it was shared with family members who were there to hear her army stories. One lawyer described how she found her work meaningful when her services were recommended by friends and family and she felt trusted and valued in both spheres of her life. A garbage collector described the time when the community’s water supply became contaminated and he was asked to work on distributing water to local residents; that was meaningful, as he could see how he was helping vulnerable neighbors.
Moments of especially profound meaningfulness arose when these experiences coalesced with the sense of a job well done, one recognized and appreciated by others. One example of many came from a conservation stonemason who described how his work became most meaningful to him when the restoration of a section of the cathedral he had been working on for years was unveiled, the drapes and scaffolding withdrawn, and the work of the craftsmen celebrated. This event involved all the masons and other trades such as carpenters and glaziers, as well as the cathedral’s religious leaders, members of the public, and local dignitaries. “Everyone goes, ‘Doesn’t it look amazing?’” he said. “That’s the moment you realize you’ve saved something and ensured its future; you’ve given part of the cathedral back to the local community.”
These particular features of meaningful work suggest that the organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement — and almost never related to one’s employer or manager.
Meaninglessness: The Seven Deadly Sins
What factors serve to destroy the fragile sense of meaningfulness that individuals find in their work? Interestingly, the factors that seem to drive a sense of meaninglessness and futility around work were very different from those associated with meaningfulness. The experiences that actively led people to ask, “Why am I doing this?” were generally a function of how people were treated by managers and leaders. Interviewees noted seven things that leaders did to create a feeling of meaninglessness (listed in order from most to least grievous).
1. Disconnect people from their values. Although individuals did not talk much about value congruence as a promoter of meaningfulness, they often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness.13 This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. One stonemason commented that he found the organization’s focus on cost “deeply depressing.” Academics spoke of their administrations being most interested in profits and the avoidance of litigation, instead of intellectual integrity and the provision of the best possible education. Nurses spoke despairingly of being forced to send patients home before they were ready in order to free up bed space. Lawyers talked of a focus on profits rather than on helping clients.
2. Take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. Academics talked about department heads who didn’t acknowledge their research or teaching successes; sales assistants and priests talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work. A stonemason described the way managers would not even say “good morning” to him, and lawyers described how, despite putting in extremely long hours, they were still criticized for not moving through their work quickly enough. Feeling unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unappreciated by line or senior managers was often cited in the interviews as a major reason people found their work pointless.
3. Give people pointless work to do. We found that individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time, and that a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense. Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness. Stonemasons and retail assistants cited poorly planned projects where they were left to “pick up the pieces” by senior managers. A retail assistant described the pointless task of changing the shop layout one week on instructions from the head office, only to be told to change it back again a week later.
4. Treat people unfairly. Unfairness and injustice can make work feel meaningless. Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices, such as one stonemason who was told he could not have a pay raise for several years due to a shortage of money but saw his colleague being given a raise, to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment. Procedural injustices included bullying and lack of opportunities for career progression.
5. Override people’s better judgment. Quite often, a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done. One nurse, for example, described how a senior colleague required her to perform a medical intervention that was not procedurally correct, and how she felt obliged to complete this even against her better judgment. Lawyers talked of being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly. Stonemasons described how being forced to “hurry up” using modern tools and techniques went against their sense of historic craft practices. One priest summed up the role of the manager by saying, “People can feel empowered or disempowered by the way you run things.” When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count, or that they could not have a voice, then they were more likely to find their work meaningless.
6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships. Feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from coworkers and teams. Most interviewees talked of the importance of camaraderie and relations with coworkers for their sense of meaningfulness. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes. Creative artists spoke of times when they were unable to reach out to an audience through their art as times of profound meaninglessness.
7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. Many jobs entail physical or emotional risks, and those taking on this kind of work generally appreciate and understand the choices they have made. However, unnecessaryem> exposure to risk was associated with lost meaningfulness. Nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients; garbage collectors talked of avoidable accidents they had experienced at work; and soldiers described exposure to extreme weather conditions without the appropriate gear.
These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of his or her work as meaningful. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.
Cultivating an Ecosystem For Meaningfulness
In the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg showed that the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same as those that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.14 It seems that something similar is true for meaningfulness. Our research shows that meaningfulness is largely something that individuals find for themselves in their work,15 but meaninglessness is something that organizations and leaders can actively cause. Clearly, the first challenge to building a satisfied workforce is to avoid the seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.
Given that meaningfulness is such an intensely personal and individual experience that is interpreted by individuals in the context of their wider lives, can organizations create an environment that cultivates high levels of meaningfulness? The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive. As other scholars have argued,16 efforts to control and proscribe the meaningfulness that individuals inherently find in their work can paradoxically lead to its loss.
Our interviews and a wider reading of the literature on meaningfulness point to four elements that organizations can address that will help foster an integrated sense of holistic meaningfulness for individual employees.17 (See “The Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem.”)
The Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem
Individuals can derive meaning from their job, from particular tasks in their work, from interactions with others, or from the purpose of the organization. Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningfulness at work in terms of just one of the four elements, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one is present in a job, and these four elements can combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness.
1. Organizational Meaningfulness
At the macro level, meaningfulness is more likely to thrive when employees understand the broad purpose of the organization.18 This purpose should be formulated in such a way that it focuses on the positive contribution of the organization to the wider society or the environment. This involves articulating the following:
- What does the organization aim to contribute? What is its “core business”?
- How does the organization aspire to go about achieving this? What values underpin its way of doing business?
This needs to be done in a genuine and thoughtful way. People are highly adept at spotting hypocrisy, like the nurses who were told their hospital put patients first but were also told to discharge people as quickly as possible. The challenge lies not only in articulating and conveying a clear message about organizational purpose, but also in not undermining meaningfulness by generating a sense of artificiality and manipulation.19
Reaching employees in ways that make sense to them can be a challenge. A clue for addressing this comes from the garbage collectors we interviewed. One described to us how the workers used to be told by management that the waste they returned to the depot would be recycled, but this message came across as highly abstract. Then the company started putting pictures of the items that were made from recycled waste on the side of the garbage trucks. This led to a more tangible realization of what the waste was used for.20
2. Job Meaningfulness
The vast majority of interviewees found their work meaningful, whether they were musicians, sales assistants, lawyers, or garbage collectors. Studies have shown that meaning is so important to people that they actively go about recrafting their jobs to enhance their sense of meaningfulness.21 Often, this recrafting involves extending the impact or significance of their role for others. One example of this was sales assistants in a large retail store who listened to lonely elderly customers.
Organizations can encourage people to see their work as meaningful by demonstrating how jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose or serve a wider, societal benefit. The priests we spoke to often explained how their ministry work in their local parishes contributed to the wider purpose of the church as a whole. In the same way, managers can be encouraged to show employees what their particular jobs contribute to the broader whole and how what they do will help others or create a lasting legacy.22
Alongside this, we need to challenge the notion that meaningfulness can only arise from positive work experiences. Challenging, problematic, sad, or poignant23 jobs have the potential to be richly generative of new insights and meaningfulness, and overlooking this risks upsetting the delicate balance of the meaningfulness ecosystem. Providing support to people at the end of their lives is a harrowing experience for nurses and clergy, yet they cited these times as among the most meaningful. The task for leaders is to acknowledge the problematic or negative side of some jobs and to provide appropriate support for employees doing them, yet to reveal in an honest way the benefits and broader contribution that such jobs make.24
3. Task Meaningfulness
Given that jobs typically comprise a wide range of tasks, it stands to reason that some of these tasks will constitute a greater source of meaningfulness than others.25 To illustrate, a priest will have responsibility for leading acts of worship, supporting sick and vulnerable individuals, developing community relations and activities, and probably a wide range of other tasks such as raising funds, managing assistants and volunteers, ensuring the upkeep of church buildings, and so on. In fact, the priests were the most hard-working group that we spoke to, with the majority working a seven-day week on a bewildering range of activities. Even much simpler jobs will involve several different tasks. One of the challenges facing organizations is to help people understand how the individual tasks they perform contribute to their job and to the organization as a whole.
When individuals described some of the sources of meaninglessness they faced in their work, they often talked about how to come to terms with the tedious, repetitive, or indeed purposeless work that is part of almost every job. For example, the stonemasons described how the first few months of their training involved learning to “square the stone,” which involves chiseling a large block of stone into a perfectly formed square with just a few millimeters of tolerance on each plane. As soon as they finished one, they had to start another, repeating this over and over until the master mason was satisfied that they had perfected the task. Only then were they allowed to work on more interesting and intricate carvings. Several described their feelings of boredom and futility; one said that he had taken 18 attempts to get the squaring of the stone correct. “It feels like you are never ever going to get better,” he recalled. Many felt like giving up at this point, fearing that stonemasonry was not for them. It was only in later years, as they looked back on this period in their working lives, that they could see the point of this detailed level of training as the first step on their path to more challenging and rewarding work.
Filling out forms, cited earlier, is another good example of meaningless work. Individuals in a wide range of occupations all reported that what they perceived as “mindless bureaucracy” sapped the meaningfulness from their work. For instance, most of the academics we spoke to were highly negative about the amount of form filling the job entailed. One said, “I was dropping spreadsheets into a huge black hole.”
Where organizations successfully managed the context within which these necessary but tedious tasks were undertaken, the tasks came to be perceived not exactly as meaningful, but equally as not meaningless. Another academic said, “I’m pretty good with tedious work, as long as it’s got a larger meaning.”
4. Interactional Meaningfulness
There is widespread agreement that people find their work meaningful in an interactional context in two ways:26 First, when they are in contact with others who benefit from their work; and, second, in an environment of supportive interpersonal relationships.27 As we saw earlier, negative interactional experiences — such as bullying by a manager, lack of respect or recognition, or forcing reduced contact with the beneficiaries of work — all drive up a sense of meaninglessness, since the employee receives negative cues from others about the value they place on the employee’s work.28 The challenge here is for leaders to create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work climate among colleagues, between employees and managers, and between organizational staff and work beneficiaries. It also involves recognizing the importance of creating space in the working day for meaningful interactions where employees are able to give and receive positive feedback, communicate a sense of shared values and belonging, and appreciate how their work has positive impacts on others.
Not surprisingly, the most striking examples of the impact of interactional meaningfulness on people came from the caring occupations included in our study: nurses and clergy. In these cases, there was very frequent contact between the individual and the direct beneficiaries of his or her work, most often in the context of supporting and healing people at times of great vulnerability in their lives. Witnessing firsthand, and hearing directly, about how their work had changed people’s lives created a work environment conducive to meaningfulness. Although prior research29 has similarly highlighted the importance of such direct contact for enhancing work’s meaningfulness, we also found that past or future generations, or imagined future beneficiaries, could play a role. This was the case for the stonemasons who felt connected to past and future generations of masons through their bankers’ marks on the back of the stones and for the garbage collectors who could envisage how their work contributed to the living environment for future generations.
The four elements of the meaningfulness ecosystem combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness, where the synergistic benefits of multiple sources of meaningfulness can be realized.30 Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningful moments in terms of any one of the subsystems, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one or all of these are present.31 A sales assistant, for example, described how she had been working with a team on the refurbishment of her store: “We’d all been there until 2 a.m., working together moving stuff, everyone had contributed and stayed late and helped, it was a good time. We were exhausted but we still laughed and then the next morning we were all bright in our uniforms, it was a lovely feeling, just like a little family coming together. The day [the store] opened, it did bring tears to my eyes. We had a little gathering and a speech; the managers said ‘thank you’ to everybody because everyone had contributed.”
Finding work meaningful is an experience that reaches beyond the workplace and into the realm of the individual’s wider personal life. It can be a very profound, moving, and even uncomfortable experience. It arises rarely and often in unexpected ways; it gives people pause for thought — not just concerning work but what life itself is all about. In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others. For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life.
Yet the benefits for individuals and organizations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be immense. Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.
By: DLA Piper
I’ve never worked with an organization that said they didn’t care about performance. Quite the contrary, I’ve always worked with organizations that cared about performance. A lot. Specifically, they wanted high-performance. In individuals and in teams.
But what does it take to identify a high performing (HiPo) employee? And once you’ve identified them, how can managers continue to develop their skills and abilities? HiPo employees have some habits that set them apart.
- They have their own system. Whether it’s a morning routine, a mindfulness ritual, a bullet journal, etc., HiPo employees have their own way of staying grounded and organized. It helps them stay focused on what’s important, so they can perform.
- They listen to others – for feedback, suggestions, and proven strategies. High performing employees take-in information. It could be about their performance. Or a speaker during a conference with a tip or resource. Possibly a co-worker explaining a strategy that worked for them.
- They hold themselves accountable. Always focused on quality, HiPo employees keep their word. If for whatever reason, they cannot deliver, then they renegotiate the deliverable. People who work with high-performers know exactly what to expect.
- They are focused on the positive. This isn’t to say that everything around them is always positive. But when given a choice between celebration or cynicism, they find a way to look on the bright side. This outlook helps HiPo employees stay engaged with their work.
- They will accept a challenge. And often don’t need to be told. High performing employees are willing to take on tough tasks. They are ready to solve problems. Many times, they are the employees bringing you the problem and the solution.
- They set their own goals. Along with stretch goals. HiPo employees have goals. Not only the goals that the company sets for them. They have their own goals. In addition, high-performers set stretch goals. Maybe to finish the project early or under budget. They look for opportunities to exceed expectations.
- They learn from their mistakes. Speaking of accomplishments, HiPo employees don’t always achieve their goals. But they do use those moments to reflect and learn from the situation. They don’t view the moment as failure. It’s an opportunity (see Habit #4.)
- They know how to manage their time. This ties into Habit #1. HiPo employees are able to perform at their level because they understand their personal working style and how to get things done. This includes saying “no” at times so they don’t disappoint. Or negotiating commitments and setting clear expectations.
- They’re committed to their own personal development. High-performers are not complacent when it comes to new skills. HiPo employees learn something every single day. It doesn’t need to be a breakthrough discovery. They understand that learning takes place in small iterations.
- They’re highly engaged and willing to commit to the organization. Several of these habits point to an individual who is happily engaged with their work and the company around them. They perform at a high level because the organization is invested in their success. HiPo employees build a working relationship based on trust and respect.
While it’s important to keep the entire workforce engaged, it’s particularly important to keep high performing employees engaged. High performing employees are often selected for the company’s succession plan. Research from CEB shows that organizations with strong leadership can double their revenue and profits. So those HiPo employees are the key to future business growth.
The 10 Habits of High Performing Employees
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Does your management team know how to recognize the habits of a HiPo employee? What should they be looking for?
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby on the streets of South Florida
A staggering 88% of companies listed in the 1955 Fortune 500 are nowhere to be found in the same list today. They have gone bankrupt, merged, or simply shrunk off the list. Half a century ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Now it’s less than 15 years.
If we want our companies to last, we must excel at the “Three Box Solution.” This is a framework I have developed over the course of 35 years of working with and doing research in corporations around the world. I found that the companies that survive and thrive are good at aligning their organizations around three critical but competing activities:
- Box 1: Manage the present at peak efficiency and profitability.
- Box 2: Escape the traps of the past by identifying and divesting businesses and abandoning practices, ideas, and attitudes that have last relevance in a changed environment.
- Box 3: Generate breakthrough ideas and convert them into new products and businesses.
To endure, companies must excel at all three boxes, or their success could be very short-lived. In our work, many leaders tell us that Box 2—destroy the obsolete—is the most challenging; they find it hard to let go of the past. And yet without Box 2, organizations don’t truly transform; they persist in limiting ways of operating.
So, how do you build Box 2 muscle? How do you build a company that’s able to routinely toss what no longer works? One effective way is to work on culture. Box 2 muscle requires a culture where honest Box 2 questions are encouraged. Here are three things leaders can do to create a culture that is good at escaping the traps of the past:
Create a collective narrative that helps people understand why shedding the past (Box 2) is part of doing business and how to do it.
On the first day of his new job as CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella sent a powerful message to his employees. The message was intended to inspire new energy in the company at a pivotal time:
“While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more. Our industry does not respect tradition—it only respects innovation.”
Nadella was sending a clear message to look past the “sacred cows” of the organization and pursue an agenda of innovation over orthodoxy. Later that year he reinforced the message:
“We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?”
In these two emails, Nadella introduced a new Box 2 narrative into Microsoft’s culture by openly calling into question the status-quo.
Looking at Nadella’s communications, you may consider what new narratives could you introduce to create a Box 2 culture in your company?
Role model Box 2 decisions, implicitly giving permission for others to do the same.
The CEO of a prominent Silicon Valley company, let’s call him Peter, got to unexpectedly act as a role model for Box 2 decision making at a recent off-site. In the middle of passionately advocating the development of a line extension for a current product, we’ll call Product X, Peter was interrupted by a colleague: “Given that we’re phasing out Product X and launching a much better product, Product Y, does it make sense for us to now develop Product X version 2?” The tension in the room was palpable.
Peter paused and looked down at the table. The room quieted even more. A moment later Peter looked up and smiled. “Yes, you’re right, that doesn’t make any sense.” He continued, “let’s not launch Product X version 2 and instead focus all our efforts on Product Y.”
There was a collective sigh of relief with the realization that no further effort would be directed towards a product that was seen as obsolete. After the meeting, one colleague pointed to Peter’s decision as a key turning point: “Peter’s willingness to change his mind in public was huge progress for us in establishing a strong Box 2 culture.”
What decisions could you make that set a Box 2 tone in your organization?
Make symbolic bets to remind people that the Box 2 culture is here to stay.
Some innovation leaders make Box 2 symbolic bets that send powerful ripples throughout their organizations. Symbolic bets are highly meaningful and visible actions that touch people’s hearts, let them know the new way of doing business is here to stay and have real business impact.
Former GE boss Jack Welch was a master at using symbolic bets to coach GE to have the culture he wanted to achieve his strategic goals, to be #1 or 2 in every market they were in. He recounts one such example in his autobiography Jack: Straight from the Gut:
“In those days I was… trying to blow up traditions and rituals that I felt held us back. In the fall of 1981, [I challenged] the Elfun Society, an internal management club at GE….It was a networking group for white-collar types.”
In his characteristic style, Welch blasted the Elfun Society at their leadership conference. He saw the club as a symbol for “superficial congeniality.” In his address he described them as an “institution pursuing yesterday’s agenda” and told them “he could never identify with their recent activities.” His Box 2 speech had an impact within Elfun and its turnaround became a symbol of transformation for GE as a whole:
“…Today  Elfin has more than 42,000 members, including retirees. They volunteer their time and energy in communities where GE has plants and offices. They have mentoring programs for high school students….Elfin’s self-engineered turn around became a very important symbol [of reducing bureaucracy]. It was just what I was looking for.”
As humans, we remember symbols—Jack Welch was a master in creating them that inspired many to think and be bigger. Imagine Jack looking at your organization. What symbolic bets would he make to remove unproductive vestiges of the past and create a powerful Box 2 culture in your organization?
It’s important to remember that Box 2 is part of a road that is endless. Innovation leaders are fascinated with that road. We can call it a hero’s journey: mindfully maintaining what serves, courageously letting go of what doesn’t, and purposefully creating what will.
By: Zelle LLP
New Affordable Care Act FAQs Released on Rescissions of Coverage, Preventive Care Mandate, Out-of-Network Emergency Service Coverage, and Mental Health Parity
Keeping up with ACA!
By: Franczek Radelet P.C.
When you’re looking for a job or exploring a new career path, it’s smart to go out on informational interviews. But what should you say when you’re actually in one? Which questions will help you gain the most information? Are there any topics you should avoid? And how should you ask for more help if you need it?
What the Experts Say
“Informational interviews are essential to helping you find out more about the type of industry, company, or role you’re interested in,” says Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking. “You may think you already know all about a certain position, but speaking to someone directly gives you the opportunity to test your assumptions.” John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of The Success Code, agrees. Informational interviews “give you exposure — a way to get yourself known in the hidden job market,” he says. “The visibility may put you straight onto a short list, even if a job isn’t advertised.” They can also be a great boost to your self-esteem. “You get to wear smart business clothes and visit places of work, which maintains your confidence levels in a job search,” he explains. So whether you’re actively trying to change roles or just exploring different professional paths, here are some tips on how to make the most of an informational interview.
Prepare and practice
Informational interviews are, according to Clark, “a safe environment to ask questions.” But that doesn’t mean you should go in cold. After all, your goal is to come across in a way that inspires others to help you. So do your homework. Study up on industry lingo. Learn who the biggest players are. Be able to talk about the most important trends. You don’t want to waste your expert’s time asking Google-able questions. “You will come across as a more serious candidate if you are familiar with the jargon and vocabulary,” says Clark. Lees concurs. “Showing that you’ve done your background research plants the idea of credibility in the other person’s mind,” he says. Work on your listening and conversation skills too. Lees suggests that you practice “asking great questions and conveying memorable energy” with “people who are easy to talk to, such as your family, your friends, and friends of friends.”
Keep your introduction short
“What frustrates busy people is when they agree to an informational interview, and then the person seeking advice spends 15 minutes talking about himself and his job search” instead of learning from them, says Lees. It’s not a venue to practice your elevator pitch; it’s a place to “absorb information and find stuff out.” Clark suggests preparing a “brief, succinct explanation about yourself” that you can recite in three minutes max: “Here’s my background, here’s what I’m thinking, and I’d like your feedback.” People can’t help you unless they understand what you’re looking for, but this part of the conversation should be brief.
Set the tone
“You want to leave people with a positive impression and enough information to recommend you to others,” says Lees. At the beginning of the interview, establish your relationship by revisiting how you were connected in the first place. “Ideally, this person has been warmly introduced to you” — perhaps you have a friend or colleague in common or you share an alma mater — so remind them, he says. It’s also a good idea to state at the outset that “you’re interested in talking to 10 or 15 industry experts” during your information-gathering phase. “That way, the person will start to process the fact that you are looking for additional sources early on. If you wait until the end to ask for other referrals, she might be caught off guard.” Ask about time constraints up front too, says Clark. “If, at the end of the time allotted, you’re having a good conversation, say, ‘I want to respect your time. I would love to keep talking, but if you need to go, I understand.’ Prove you’re a person of your word.”
Think like a journalist
Prepare a list of informed, intelligent questions ahead of time, says Clark. “You don’t necessarily need to stick to the script, but if you’re unfocused and you haven’t planned, you risk offending the person. Lees recommends approaching your interview like “an investigative journalist would.” You’re not cross-examining your expert, and you certainly don’t want to come across as “pushy or difficult,” but you should “gently probe through curiosity, then listen.” He suggests a framework of five questions along the lines of Daniel Porot’s “Pie Method”:
- How do you get into this line of work?
- What do you enjoy about it?
- What’s not so great about it?
- What’s changing in the sector?
- What kinds of people do well in this industry?
You can adapt these questions to your purposes; the idea is to help you “spot the roles and fields that match your skills and experience and give you an understanding of how top performers are described.”
Deliberately test your hypotheses
Your mission is to grasp the reality of the industry and the job so you can begin to decide if it’s right for you. So don’t shy away from sensitive topics. “You want to hear about the underbelly,” says Clark. She suggests questions “designed to elicit the worst information,” such as:
- What are the worst parts of your job?
- What didn’t you know before you got into this industry that you wish someone had told you?
Some topics, such as money, may seem taboo but can be broached delicately. “Don’t ask, ‘How much money do you make?’ Instead, say something like, ‘I’ve done some research online, and it seems that the typical salary range is this,’ so you’re just asking for confirmation of public information,” says Clark.
It’s also okay to ask for advice on “how to position yourself” for a job in the industry by making your experience and skills sound relevant. She recommends saying something like, “Based on what you know about my background, what do you see as my weaknesses? And what would I need to do to allay the concerns of a potential hiring manager?” If the feedback is negative, consider it valuable information but get second and third opinions. “One person’s word is not gospel,” she says. “You may not be qualified, but you also may have spoken to a stick-in-the-mud who discourages everyone. Don’t let him limit your career options.”
Follow up with gratitude, not demands
While thanking the person for their time via email is a must, Lees recommends also sending a handwritten note to express gratitude right after you meet. “It will help you be remembered,” he says. Your thank-you letter needn’t be flowery or overly effusive; instead, it should describe how the person was helpful to you and, ideally, that her guidance led to “a concrete outcome” in your job search.
Whatever you do, don’t immediately ask for a favor, adds Clark. Not only is it “considered bad manners,” but it’s also practically “an ambush because you barely know the person.” That said, “If, a couple of weeks later, a job opens up at the person’s company, you can tell the person you’re applying for it and ask if she has any quick thoughts on professional experiences you should play up in your cover letter.” If she takes the ball and runs with it and offers to put in a good word for you, that’s great. But do not ask for it.”
Play the long game
The real purpose of informational interviews is to build relationships and “develop future allies, supporters, and champions,” says Lees. So don’t think of them as one-off meetings in which “someone gives you 15 minutes of his time.” Take the long view and think about ways to cultivate your new professional connection. Forward him a link to a relevant magazine article, for instance, or invite her to an upcoming conference or networking event. In other words, be helpful. “You want to be seen as giving, not constantly taking,” Lees says. Clark notes that it can be a tricky proposition when there’s a wide age or professional gap between you, but if you focus on keeping the person “apprised of your progress” — perhaps writing him a note saying you read the book he suggested or that you joined the professional association he recommended — “it shows you listened and that his advice mattered.”
Principles to Remember
- Your homework. You should do enough background research before going in that you sound like a credible candidate who’s committed to moving into a new sector.
- Prepare a succinct explanation about your background and what you’re looking for
- Send a handwritten thank-you note. It’s good manners and makes you memorable.
- Go in cold. Practice doing informational interviews with friends and family so you get used to asking great questions and listening.
- Let one negative informational interview sour you on a job, company, or career path. Solicit other opinions.
- Ask for favors — it’s unseemly. Instead, ask for advice on how to position yourself in the job market.
Case Study #1: Prepare and be gracious
Two years ago, Matt McConnell, who lives in southern California, wanted to move from finance to marketing. He wasn’t entirely sure of his direction, so he began using informational interviews to learn about other peoples’ careers in the hopes of narrowing his focus. “I was also using the interviews to learn more about other organizations to see whether they might be places I’d want to work,” he says.
His first informational interview didn’t go very well, and Matt takes full responsibility. “I didn’t prepare,” he recalls. “He could tell, and he told me that I was wasting his time.”
Matt learned an important lesson. “I’ve never made that mistake again. I now always overprepare,” he says.
To get ready, he reads people’s LinkedIn profiles, does a Google search on their careers, and checks out their company’s website. He tends to ask the same questions, usually in the realm of how the person got started and how they ended up in their current role. “But I also make notes about particular questions I want to ask so that I have something to reference if the conversation stalls,” he says.
Matt also has a post-meeting routine. “I ask for a business card and immediately send a handwritten thank-you note. The thank you is typically three lines long, and I always mention one specific thing from our meeting that resonated with me so they know I was listening and found their time valuable,” he says.
“Early on in my career I worried that I didn’t have anything to offer anyone in return. [But] I learned that people enjoyed sharing their experiences and offering advice, so I make sure to communicate my sincere gratitude.”
Matt eventually had an informational interview with a marketing head of a quick-service restaurant group that yielded results. “After our meeting, the person called me and said her company was hiring for a role she thought I’d be perfect for,” he says. “She’d given my name to the HR department, and they were planning on calling me within the next 30 minutes to do a phone interview. That phone interview led to in-person interviews and eventually a job offer at that company.”
He worked at the company for a few years before moving on. He’s now the marketing manager for Astrophysics, a company that designs X-ray scanners for security screenings.
Case Study #2: Be respectful and don’t let negative feedback discourage you
A few months ago, Susan Peppercorn, a career coach and founder of Boston-based Positive Workplace Partners, decided she wanted to write a book about work satisfaction. Trouble was, she had no experience in the publishing industry beyond blogging. To educate herself, she has been doing a lot of informational interviews.
“Some are with writers, others editors, and others published authors,” she says. “In each case, I think in advance about each person’s expertise and focus my questions on the areas where I think they might have the most valuable advice.”
Susan makes sure she is respectful of the other person’s time, never asking for more than 30 minutes and always meeting at the person’s convenience, not hers. Before each interview, Susan also considers how she might help the person with whom she’s meeting: she might have a contact she could introduce, for instance, or she could offer to look over a resume or cover letter.
One of her recent interviews was with a potential editor. Susan was excited, and she prepared by thinking about what this particular person would look for in taking on a client. She began the conversation with a two-minute description of her book idea. But during the discussion, it became apparent that the editor’s goals and hers were quite different. “He told me in a very nice way that I had virtually no chance of having a publisher accept my book proposal. My balloon was burst quickly.”
Still, after the initial disappointment, she found value in his advice. “I learned about the importance of having a platform before approaching a publisher, since they want to know in advance that your book will sell well,” she says. “That saved me a lot of time and effort trying to pitch to publishers and helped me look at the viability of self-publishing. It also made me realize that I had more work to do with regard to clarifying and communicating the value of my book.”
The experience also helped her hone her approach for subsequent informational interviews. Now she shares a brief outline of her book in advance, with a short paragraph on her motivation for wanting to write it.
One of her most recent meetings, with a published author, was extremely helpful. “He explained the concept of a platform and helped me brainstorm potential ones for my work,” she explains.