Faking it

I once had a job where I was “spoken to” because I was too calm.

A VP came up to my desk and proceeded to detail the latest crisis. This was punctuated with gestures and more than a few f-bombs. I listened to him, took notes, and then said something along the line of: “Okay, I’ll take care of that.” He looked at me and walked off.

A few days later a manager took me aside and sheepishly admitted that he was asked to speak to me.  The VP was not happy with how I handled the situation.  I was confused.  Had I not done what was required? Was the outcome not good? Were all parties concerned not satisfied.

Well yes, but apparently I was too calm. And yes, I had done everything…except freak out.

Now, I was really confused.

I was a 20-something when I was in this job, so that will partly explain why my response was something in the ballpark of: “so you are telling me he wants me to “fake it” for him?”

One word: yes.

I worked in many jobs since that one and faced many “crisis situations” and I have learned the value of why my outwardly calm demeanour might have given the VP the wrong impression…even though my actions in getting the job done said otherwise. I can appreciate that people want to know that they are not only being heard, but also that they are being understood.

What I learned throughout these experience was the value of empathy.

Empathy is a big deal.  Empathy is the missing piece in many unfinished puzzles left lying around on the conference and lunchroom tables in the workplace.

However, there is a fine and precarious line between being empathetic and faking it.  And there is any equally subtle difference between wanting people to care and wanting people to be a mirror to your emotions.

What I experienced back in the example that I opened with was not a situation that called for empathy.  You see, you can waste time trying to understand and walk a mile in the shoes of someone who has no use for your soft skills crap – what they want is for you to “get” that they are a big deal and that you need to act accordingly by making an equally big deal.  And they are not bothered in the least whether you are faking it for them…it’s all about the show.

However, in my experience, most people are looking for the real thing – that want to know that you have heard what they are saying, that you understand and that you are demonstrating this in some way. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the same emotional response that they are having to actually connect with them.

Empathy skills can be learned, but more importantly they need to be practiced in order for them to be genuine.  Oh sure, you can always fake it, but you would be doing both the other person and yourself a disservice.

Employee branding


You know it’s going to be a tough sell when you have to explain to management  that you don’t mean THAT kind of employee branding.

It’s the newest greatest re-discovery of an idea since vinyl records: Employees ARE the company’s brand.

A cool logo and catchy slogan are a good start – they may get people in the door, but are they enough to bring you back? With exception to label-whores, I would say that poor customer service experience or crappy products will reduce the possibility of a customer returning to your business.  No matter how interactive your website is.

As an employer, it’s not enough to just pay people to do their work.  Why?  Because all you will get are people doing the work. Nothing more. And that will be enough for you to maintain a marginal status.

To move beyond this, you need to create a culture and environment that will allow employees to do more than just their job. Of course, I’m not talking about pool tables and cappuccino bars in the staff lounge. By culture and environment, I mean that you find and hire people who already believe what you are trying to sell / provide.  People that bring to the office all those intangibles that you can’t teach them.  Pride, respect, drive.

Bring in people like this, teach them the business, and reinforce the values and remind them that they are the face and voice of the organization.  And once you are done teaching them and telling them all this – YOU have to do it too.  After all, nothing will kill the culture faster than an hypocritical leader.

There is a lot of talk about branding these days.  Individuals are encouraged to come up with their own personal brand – live it, speak it, tweet it, Instagram it, FB-it.  Make it real.  Make it authentic.  Make it you!

Do you know how hard it is to be real and authentic in a digital environment?  I know there are many out there that are successful at this and perhaps they will roll their eyes at me for saying otherwise, but it’s not that easy.  Particularly if you have brand-conflicts.

What happens if I go through the self-analysis to develop my own brand, which is real, authentic and me, but it’s at odds with my employer’s brand.  As an employee, I need to be the organization’s brand…but I’m my own brand…and now I’m sitting here in front of Twitter, poised to send out a Tweet and I don’t know which voice to use.  So, I blend them together as best as I can, but the results is that both are slightly diluted and neither are truly authentic.

This a challenge that I recently experienced when I was blogging at the HRPA Conference.  I  have my “Accidental HR” brand which is pretty me rambling on and my thoughts are generally fueled by some strong emotion (or red wine).  This, I wisely surmised, was not really reflective of what the HRPA people would be expecting.  So, I had to think about how I could embody this new brand, but still incorporate myself.  I struggled and my writing reflected this – it was forced and did not feel like me.  It was me on HRPA (kids…don’t do HR).

And so we go back to the organization and we struggle at getting our brand out there – making sure it’s recognized, making sure it’s positive.  And many in the leadership sect have learned that it goes beyond the logo and that’s the people, the experience that is the true brand…so they invest a lot into ensuring that their people are embodying the brand that they want to project.

Let me ask you, have you ever tried to put a sweater on a cat?

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Apparently it can be done, but I’m not sure how easy a process it is or how happy the cat is wearing the sweater.  I’m pretty confident that this cat is not going to be cool with projecting the image you want it to.

And so, when it comes to your organization – you need to start with the right people before you start handing out the sweaters.  As Scott Stratten puts it: the best marketing you can do is to hire great people.  You need people who want to be there, people who want to do what you want them to do, people who want to wear the sweater.

Consider this the ultimate in brand-alignment.  Start with the right people, take the time to find them, and you won’t have to develop a 12-week branding training session for your new hires.  Or find a branding iron with your logo on it.

Teams debunked: There is an I

I participated in an organizational event that included a guest speaker talking about the importance of team work.  I’m not going to name the speaker because it doesn’t matter – he was a nice guy, his presentation and sports anecdotes resonated and entertained the group, and his message was a good one; however, he said the one thing that I had wished he hadn’t:

“There is no “I” in team”

That’s right, he went there. This could have only been topped by him mentioning Zappos, which he also did.

What, might you ask, is wrong with saying that there is no “I” in team?  Isn’t it a positive message? Doesn’t it make sense?

Of course it makes sense – any kid in grade 2 with auto-correct can see that there is no letter “i” in team.  I mean, unless you work at Apple, in which case, they might call them iTeams, but I digress…

Rest assured that I recognize that it’s only a saying.  I truly do understand the clever meaning that success is achieved by the accomplishments of the group and not those of any single individual.

Here’s the thing though –  a team is a sum of the parts of which it’s made.  That means that if I’m on the team…then the team has a “me”, and it has a “you”, and a “her” and possibly a “oh great…him”.  And at some point each of these “parts” is going leverage their knowledge and strengths (which is probably why they are on the team) to move the team forward.

And quite possibly, at some point, each of these “parts” is going to do something that slows things down…whether it’s conducting one more analysis, re-formatting the presentation, debating a point, or even just checking-on for a day or two.

As a team member, I have a vested interest in the project succeeding and will likely to do what it takes to get it done – this will obviously include my part, and if necessary, helping someone else with theirs.  That’s teamwork, right? No one gets left behind.

I’m not alone in thinking this – apparently everyone has experienced this.

Don’t believe me, then ask this of your next candidate: “Tell me about a time when you were part of a team and did more than was expected of you” (or alternately, “Tell me about a time when you overcame obstacles to get a job done”)…and see if you don’t get the following answer (or a close fascimile):

In university I was assigned to a group project and at the outset we divided up the work evenly among the members.  Most of us worked very hard to get their part done; however, there was one member who went AWAL – we tried to get in contact with them…called, texted, left messages, but never heard anything.  We advised the prof of the issues and we were told to resolve it ourselves.  I took it upon myself to complete the missing member’s part – putting in lots of extra time – so that we could hand in a complete project on time.  The team ended up doing really well.

Just once, I want to interview someone who admits to being the kid that went AWAL.  I really want to know their story and why they participated in all those group projects…were they a mole that profs planted in each group so that students would have a legitimate answer when they go to interviews.  Or did they just like to screw up the team.

My long winded point is that a team is not made up of equal parts – there needs to be a range and variety of skill sets, working styles, and personalities, which pretty much guarantees that egos and pathological tendencies are bound to emerge.

When this happens and we are trying to motivate teams to get back on track, maybe we should be telling them that sometimes there is an “i” in team…you just need to know where to find it and how to work around it.


Cautionary Tales

I see part of my role in HR to help with damage control.  Actually, I see a larger part of my role as helping people from having to resort to damage control.  It happens though.

Unless you are a lighthouse keeper, you are likely working with or around other people and issues are bound to happen. Sometimes it’s because of people’s reactions to circumstances and other times, it’s because of the people themselves.  And we have all been there, on the cusp of saying what we really think, or responding to that email with a fantastically snarky response, but most of the time we bite our tongue or hit delete.

Most of the time.

Then there are times when we do say exactly what we were thinking or hit send.  Or worse, hit Reply All.

And that my friends, is the ultimate “oh shit” moment.  Seriously.  Close your eyes (well actually, read this first and then close your eyes) and imagine that you receive the 157th annoying all-staff reminder email and you have had it – you are not a child and do not need constant procedural reminders of what to do. Just because other idiots keep forgetting, why should you be lumped in with them.

So instead of just deleting the email, you draft a snarky response and even take a dig at another employee in reply to the sender.  Except, instead of hitting Reply, you hit Reply All. Reply ALL. As in everyone who was on the original email.  As in every single employee on staff, which includes the person you slammed.

Those two words you are seeking to explain that feeling you have: “Oh shit”

I mean, if you were able to imagine this situation with out your stomach dropping and your eyes popping wide open in fear and disbelief, then you are either one cool cucumber or lying.  My money is on the latter.

And this just happened to someone I know (no it isn’t me).  They weren’t the sender, but they were one of the many staff that were copied on the following email response (names have been changed, but the atrocious sentence structure is all original):

Re: Shift Exchanges

I look at it every shift and a fair number of times even if it is confirmed it will not allow you to accept it it says so and so is unable to work this shift. So it won’t change.  As for employees they in many cases don’t OK it themselves Maggie Fitzgerald the queen of shift changes. Multiple not accepted. Don’t know how she remembers where she is supposed to show up and for what shift.

A first glance it’s not really that bad an email – more on the “oops” side of things, but what you don’t know is that this was sent by a Manager to an employee.  This was sent by a Manager at a workplace that is absolutely toxic, with little trust, and serious employee relation issues.  Based on the email above…not really shocking.

What this inadvertent email gaffe did, aside from making the Manager look like an imbecile, is that is has revealed a bit of what happens and what is being said behind the curtains.

I personally think that the Reply All button should have a two-step process – similar to some delete features that will prompt you “Are you sure you want to delete this?”  I’m thinking of how many inappropriate jokes, rude responses, and personal information could have been prevented from being shared beyond the original destination if there was a simple “Are you sure you want to reply to ALL these people?” before you hit send.

However since that doesn’t exist yet, this would be the point in which I would need to go into damage control advice mode to handle and defuse the situation.

When it comes to the preventative part, well that’s easy – how about don’t put that crap in an email in the first place.

Just ask Amy Pascal  – I am certain she would agree with me on that one.


I have a question…

Okay it’s Friday and I’ve got nothing for you.

Well that not entirely true – I have a question for you.

If you had to conduct an interview, with absolutely no time to prepare and were allowed to ask only 3 questions, which questions would you ask?

What are your go-to questions that will tell you what you need to know about a candidate?

I’m curious.

Hoping to hear from you in the comment section.

House of Cards


Sometimes really cold snowy days make me think of being a kid stuck in the house with NOTHING to do.  Actually, this isn’t true – I relished the idea of being able to sit around and read or play board games.  But sometimes even that would get old, so I would pull out a deck of cards and endeavour to make the tallest house of cards that I could.

Handling cards and arranging them into a tower is an art.  You had to ensure that the base wasn’t too slippery (carpet worked well) and you had to use really worn cards…preferably sticky from overuse (yeah…gross, I know).

Then you started building layer by layer until you got to the point where you literally had to hold your breath as you placed each card.  And heaven help the idiot that inadvertently created air movement within a 2 m radius of the structure.

At some point a card would give in the middle layer and I would try to re-position it or remove it without affecting the overall structure.  And you could get away with this with one or two cards, but beyond that the house of cards became too unstable and collapsed, leaving you with a pile of cards to clean up.

Good times.

Dealing with changes in the workplaces has a striking resemblance to building a house of cards. Although it’s not intentional, it may appear that management is playing a similar game when making these decisions…adding layers and keeping anyone from coming near the table.

Now, I may only be in HR; however,  I understand operational needs, but more importantly I understand consequences.  And the reality is that you can only re-position, remove, and restrictso much before you weaken the structure.

Because despite being really worn (and potentially sticky) these are employees, not cards. And 52 pick-up is not the same game when you are dealing with people.

Image source: inspiredology.com

“Out of office” does not mean I’m not “working”


Damn,  I forgot to put the out of office alert on my blog.  I always do that.

I have been working, I swear – I know you have your doubts about the productivity of people who are not in their seat all day, every day, every week, every month…but it’s true, some of us have figured it out.

Oh, I can see that thought bubble over your head: “More like figured out how to scam the system.”

Am I right?  Now, now – that’s not very nice.  I might get the impression that you don’t trust me.

I have been busy blogging over at the LIVE HR blog at the 2015 HRPA Conference.  So feel free to check out my posts there, they are tucked in among the great work posted by my fellow blog team members:



@MitchellAlli, @tomfromhr

Perhaps you are also thinking that I wasn’t really working while I was at the conference, after all HR people are notorious for well…let’s just say, what happens in the “AODA: What You Need to Know for Private Sector Organizations”, stays in that session.

It’s true, over 3000 of us were sitting, listening, walking around, chatting, and generally having a good time.  However, often what I came across were people scrambling for charging sessions so that they could log in to work, people coveting chairs and corners where they were making scheduled calls with clients, and even more had to leave sessions early to deal with issues that had come up.

As one participant shared with me, it’s like no one needs us or cares if HR is at work until we aren’t there.

In my regular blogging job, I generally sit down and type out whatever idea has been brewing in my head for days – I write the way that I would want to read it.  I do a quick once over and hit publish.  This quick and dirty method will not be a surprise to anyone who is a regular reader of my blog (as illustrated by my grammar / spelling errors). I really don’t concern myself about who or how many people will read it.

However, my time at the conference created a completely new and uncomfortable blogging experience.  Not only was I in information and idea overload, but I also had to write with deadlines and I did have to concern myself about who was going to be reading my posts.  Add to all of this the fact that I was contributing alongside some really great bloggers.

My initial post reflects this perfect storm.  I couldn’t decide what to focus on, I spent most of my sessions thinking about what information I could use in the blog, and then I tried writing it in bits and pieces throughout the day.  And truthfully, I felt like I couldn’t even write in my own voice, after all, who I am to write about HR.  And then I was up late at night re-writing, fine-tuning, over-analyzing, and second-guessing every, single. word.Then I hit publish.

After reading some of the other posts – I needed to take a step back.  I had to change my approach.  It’s not that I felt intimidated by the other bloggers – I was inspired.  We chatted about what we were writing about, shared ideas, and supported each other. Truthfully they made me think more about my content and style, but at the same time made me realize that I could improve these and still use my style and voice.  I thought and planned more and obsessed less. The grammar and sentence structure…well, that’s something I can concentrate on next time.

So I apologize if it may have appeared that I was off having a mini-vacation from this blog and work, I know when you see me tweeting excessively about #HRPA2015 it may look like I’m just goofing off, but the truth is that I WAS working, learning, developing skills, collaborating, and making connections.

I know that these are not tangible and easily measured, they may not have been on my development plan or listed in my job description.  I may not have been in the office, but I can assure you that I was working.

You will just have to trust me on that.

This post is dedicated to my fellow HRPA Conference bloggers – thank you for everything.