Why Employee Programs Usually Fall Flat

Posted on August 30, 2012. Filed under: Work Issues | Tags: , , |

by Sheree Van Vreede (@rezlady)

employee programsI should start out this post by saying that I am a cynic (we prefer to call ourselves “realists,” but I’m learning to embrace my negativity…) :-)

I have been an entrepreneur now for 13 years, and I spend my days working on the employee (job seeker) side of things. I also run a consulting business that has a small team of people who serve corporate clients in the publishing industry. Before all that, however, I spent time in both the corporate and the academic worlds getting a birds-eye view of what both cultures offer.

My business partner and husband, Stephen Van Vreede, spent a great deal of time in the corporate world, rising to a director-level position, dutifully earning his Six Sigma Black Belt, and overseeing a large-scale inbound call center (meaning he spent a great deal of time on the hiring/training/incentivizing side of things). He now spends a great deal of his time helping our IT/technical clients navigate through corporate waters.

Together, we also have acquired numerous contacts in the corporate HR/recruiting arena and participate in numerous forums focused on the world of work.

The reason for all this synopsis is that I want to be clear about where I am coming from when I say that most employee programs fall flat, and why.

In my last post, I wrote about vacations and how it is getting harder, not easier, for people to disconnect from work when they go on vacation. In writing that post, I touched on the fact that as employees we are a hot mess because we say one thing and do another (“Work better not bother me while I am on vacation…I’ll just check work e-mail a few times a day.”).

The whole thing reminded me of a key rule I learned early on in my career, and one that many of my HR/corporate leadership friends don’t like to embrace:

Listen less; watch more.

In one of my first work experiences after college, I learned this lesson the hard way. Like so many people, I had a boss who was very demanding, and it was my job to meet his needs (aka I was the office lackey). At first, I spent a lot of time “listening” to what he needed. We would dedicate time each week to sitting down together while he rattled off his wishes…the new PDA thingy that had just come on the market, an appointment with so-and-so, etc. And boy was I a good listener because I would hop up from our meeting thinking I had a clear understanding of just what he wanted (I mean, after all, how hard is it to go out and buy the exact PDA he said he wanted?).

The problem, and it took a long time for me to get this through my thick head, was that he liked to pontificate more than he actually wanted the stuff. In other words, he loved just having our weekly meeting and having me at the ready to serve him. He didn’t really care about anything he was saying.

For there I was buying the PDA and getting him the appointment, and the more I fulfilled his said wishes, the less he wanted them! The PDA he dropped on the cement floor and then proclaimed, “It’s too fragile. Take it back and get a refund.” The appointment he canceled. And so on. Pretty soon, I just learned to sit back and let him talk.

And although he was somewhat of an extreme case, I meet people with some of the same characteristics (and I have them too) every day.

The truth is that as people, we rarely say what we mean.

As you can imagine, this does not strike a good note with many of my HR friends. By and large, they are not cynics, like me. They take the positive route, believing that if they listen more to what leadership says and to what employees want, they will create the next best thing in corporate training or leadership development.

One good example is what is now called “onboarding” (just the name alone should be an indication of how ineffective it is likely to be). Both employees and management said they wanted a better “orientation” (that so-1990s term!) process for new hires, one that seemed less stuffy and more representative of the true “culture” of the organization.

Oh my, what music to HR’s ears! Culture, culture, culture…so off they went creating (aka hiring expensive consultants who went on “listening” tours around the office) onboarding processes that met every demand from both employees and leadership (and made things more fun too!). So the end result was Nirvana, right?

Well, not so much. Now no one seems too happy. In fact, in today’s world of work, employees are more convinced than ever that leadership doesn’t care about them, and leadership is more confused than ever because it feels pretty sure it “listened” to everything the employees said. HR? Well, it’s still patting itself on the back for creating such a fun culture, but deep down, it’s left wondering why no one else seems as enthused.

Like I said before, what a hot mess.

You can’t build an effective program, of any kind, much less business model based solely on what people say. To produce a succcessful marketing campaign, many companies will put together focus groups to try to hear what prospective customers say about their products, but what’s more effective is when they actually observe their behavior. (“I would never buy this candy bar because I am trying to lost weight,” she says while unwrapping her third one.)

So the key here is much like my demanding boss, make him feel listened to but watch what he does (in the end, we really just want people to “get” us). Once I responded more to his actions and less to his demands, we both were much happier. :-)

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