Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Words We Choose

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A capital walks into a bar, and… Wait, you’ve never heard of a capital walking around? OK. A talent walks into a …. You’ve not heard of a talent walking either? A resource? No? Of course not! People walk into bars.

And this is a terrible secret in today’s workforce. We have Human Resources discussing Talent Acquisition and reading articles about Human Capital retention; these terms obfuscate that there are people involved. On a visceral level the use of such dehumanizing euphemisms has an extremely corrosive effect on multiple facets of the relationship between company and employee.

Take-away 1: The words we choose define our thought processes. Choosing to refer to people by terms more typically associated with things disconnects managers from the fact that people are being discussed. Companies employ people, they should have Personnel departments. They hire and seek to retain people, so they should search for and keep people, not “talents,” “resources,” or “capitals.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the hiring process itself. Companies no longer look for talented people with capacity for growth; rather, they seek persons with specific skill sets, often to the point of writing job descriptions so razor-sharp in specificity that, seemingly, the only person who could get the job is the person who just left the job. My favorite example reads “Wanted: Urinary Catheter Design Engineer. Must have at least five years of experience designing urinary catheters.” Needless to say, this is frustrating to job seekers who, based on the overall job description, believe they are up to the challenge and are eager for the chance to grow.

So what drives this? There are several causes working together. First, today’s companies run so lean that there is no time for a traditional learning curve, either in the company’s projects’ timelines or on the hiring manager’s calendar. Indeed, the catchphrase of modern hiring managers is “hit the ground running.” Never mind that this is impossible; even subject matter experts need weeks just to learn the company’s systems – a process lengthened considerably by most companies not having formal new-hire integration processes, let alone a mentor with the time to take hew hires “under their wing.” At one employer over 500 man-hours went into installing each new piece of equipment; my own “installation” consisted of a 20-minute orientation and being handed assorted manuals to read.

Take-away 2: The best way to have someone “hit the ground running” is to proactively implement a formal process of integrating someone into the company under the auspices of a mentor, most effectively a joint task between Personnel and the hiring manager. Anything less wastes the potential of the new hire.

Second is the risk-aversion in today’s corporate world. If a “perfect fit” hire does not appear, hiring managers can always blame the candidate pool for not spontaneously producing a superhero. But should a hiring manager hire someone who did not fit every bullet point, they expose themselves to blame should the new hire not work out. It’s easy to blame the “shortage of talent” when the pain of understaffing is diffused over the organization, but far riskier personally to take a chance if not hiring a Superman. However, that diffuse pain of not hiring anyone has costs as well: unhappy customers and stressed employees. These should prompt company executives with perspective to act to protect the company as a whole.

Last, and most significant, is the mental thought pattern created by the dehumanization of corporate terminology. Employees are no longer people, they are “assets.” Companies don’t hire people, they “acquire talent.” By describing people with the same language as equipment, hiring managers combine project pressures, risk-avoidance, and dehumanization to create job descriptions resembling machine specs. The slightest deviation from the requirements is grounds to rule out candidates, as many seeking jobs complain. A few years ago I experienced this first-hand when I easily met every listed criterion but one: I didn’t know the right CAD package. It didn’t matter that I had been doing CAD work for longer than they required and could easily learn a new software program. I didn’t meet the spec, so I was off the list.

Whether consciously or not, hiring managers act as though there are vendors somewhere cranking out people with precisely defined skill sets. In the real world, though, most careers are the product of changes in path imposed from the outside, especially given today’s layoff-willing world. In my career I’ve only voluntarily changed positions twice. The specific skills that I’ve developed are, for the most part, not part of a deliberately planned progression but pure necessity in having to survive involuntary changes and the need for an income.

Take-away 3: No job description should have more than 3-5 “must have” requirements. And all points, whether needs or wants, must be made as generic as possible (e.g., think “thought process of the person” rather than “specific software package”). Software can be learned – the ability to think is the real requirement.

Another consequence of using these dehumanizing terms is the treatment of candidates during the job search process. It is now typical for companies to use automated resume submission systems; but some automated systems don’t even acknowledge receipt or completion of the application. Companies such as this are referred to as “black holes,” and they are plentiful. The fact that companies don’t specify an automated response from an automated system is a clear indicator of how much these companies truly value a candidate’s interest in them.

Of course, nobody expects a hand-written reply to a resume. But in my last job search I learned that companies do not reply after interviews – never mind resumes! My experience is not atypical. Indeed, most companies seem to treat applicants as supplicants, begging for scraps from the master’s table. While that seems melodramatic, it’s born out by experience. A company VP I knew through networking invited me to interview for an open position before it was publicized: The Holy Grail of networking! Yet after an interview visit in which every discussion ran long (a very good sign according to “conventional job search wisdom”), and their adding to my schedule (another very good sign), I heard nothing. Only three months later, when I managed to catch my contact on the phone, did I learn they had a hiring freeze. Neither my contact nor anyone else was bothered to spend two minutes to contact me.

Abraham Lincoln said that if you want to test a person’s character, give them power. By that standard, many companies are lacking. Not responding to resumes, let alone interviews, is the norm; but this can backfire. How companies treat persons applying for work is a common topic in every networking group I’ve ever been in, including the one I run, and doubtless affects decisions to pursue specific companies.

The foundation of this new attitude towards candidates lies in the subconscious reaction to the use of dehumanizing terms and its logical extension that people are interchangeable units and thus instantaneously replaceable. The less we refer to or view people as people, but rather as things, the less likely we are to consider them as worthy of respect or courtesy. Such terminology creates an emotional distance between manager vs. subordinate, as well as company vs. employee and candidate, and is akin – though not as extreme – as the infamous “Prisoners vs. Guards” experiment done at Stanford University. My argument is not that there is no need for authority, but rather that authority and power are magnified by the emotional distance created by dehumanizing terms, and can lead to the very behaviors too-often seen in today’s workplace.

Take-away 4: How you treat candidates will enhance or hurt your image in the marketplace. If your company is not communicating with candidates in a timely way, bank on the fact that they are telling other potential candidates about your company. Remember that there are far more people that you reject than you hire, and imagine how many other job seekers they meet!

There is a final consequence to the subconscious corrosive effects of using such terms: how managers view and interact with rank-and-file employees, and the resulting effects on employee trust, performance, and retention.

No less a person than GE’s Jack Welch admitted in his book, Winning, that corporate handbooks and other materials discussing a company’s respect for “work life balance” are mostly marketing tools to get potential candidates’ attention. Yet handbooks don’t spring from the ether – they are written by people, and more importantly approved by people in top management. By approving a handbook where what is said clearly differs from what is done, dishonesty is codified as tacitly approved by the upper echelons. And people take note of this, with rank-and-file trust in management decreasing with the level of the manager. (1)

Take-away 5: If you communicate, mean it. No matter how well disguised, deception and hypocrisy will come out. And once out, the genie will never go back into the bottle. The situation is not symmetric: it can take months to build a reputation as trustworthy, but a single comment to destroy that trust.

For example, filed under how-stupid-do-you-think-we-are, several years ago a senior executive casually made a comment to a Q&A meeting I attended – a comment that brazenly contradicted earlier official statements by the company’s management and gave lie to those earlier statements to boot. By his offhand comment, it appeared he didn’t conceive we could fact-check his statements against those previous official statements. His unwitting admission of official mendacity displayed management’s contempt for us rank-and-file people, and sparked a smoldering grass fire in the plant eating away at our already-low morale.

Trust is one of the most important commodities managers have, with tremendous leverage over their ability to lead people successfully. (2) A liar once exposed cannot be trusted; in one impending layoff situation I was in, the department manager swore that he did not know who was to be let go. But he knew and we all knew he knew. Had he announced that he “could not discuss it, I’m sure you all understand,” that would have sufficed. The fact that he lied to our faces destroyed his credibility and his ability to lead. We later found out that he had been ordered to lie “or else” – thus placing him in an impossible situation – and the twin revelations of the order itself plus what should have been its predictable effect on his leadership position also demolished the credibility of those above him. As a direct consequence the bleeding of people to competitors accelerated.

Take-away 6: Just because someone isn’t a senior manager doesn’t mean they can’t check what you say against other information. Count on the fact that they will, especially if they are nervous. Remember that many of them are just as shrewd as you were in your early career, perhaps even more so.

The words we choose directly shape our perception of what is being discussed. Using terms like “resource,” “talent,” and “capital” to describe people subconsciously transforms people into things. The effect is corrosive in multiple areas – from interviewing and hiring, to trust and the ability to lead, the dehumanization of people in corporate vocabulary has multiple negative effects on how people are viewed and treated. Those attitudes and treatments are predictably reflected back by rampant cynicism, low retention, and poor organizational performance.

Take-away 7: What goes around, comes around. If you treat people as expendable assets, don’t be surprised that they treat you as a stepping-stone to be exploited in their individual career growth goals. They will prioritize themselves over the organization they’re in, performing their jobs until they wring all they can from your company to aid in their jumping to another stone that looks better.


[1] “Many employees don’t trust their boss,” Machine Design, September 13, 2007
[2] “The High Cost of Lost Trust”; Harvard Business Review, September 2002

7 comments:

Bill said...

David -

I find your observations to be more on-point and probative than any I have read. You are also an extremely well-versed writer and communicator. My applause at your keen observations. Keep up the good work.

William D. Kickham, Esq.
WIND South
Ph.: (781) 320-0062

Adriana said...

One of the measures of success of a blog is how many comments it can generate either good or bad, so here is my contribution.

First, here is a definition from economics: Human Capital = The skills that people have acquired in school and through on-the-job training. Yes, opposite to common beliefs, human capital is not just people it is the set of the people's skills. We are people, but we apply to a job with the intend to sell our skills not to sell our humanity.

Second, let's face it, grammar and high school are so far away now. Being a professional involves having the maturity to make decisions under unknown circumstances. Part of that is decide what to learn and how to learn in a new job to quickly become up to speed. Professionals don't need someone to take them by the hand. That's what differentiate us from kids and non-professionals. Training programs are good, but they are far away from being the key issue for professionals.

Third, in my own experience I have been consistently hired without meeting all the requirements from the positions I have applied for. It has helped to match my previous achievements with some of the needs that they expose in their postings.

Anonymous said...

David,
I am currently a job seeker and am experiencing exactly what you have described. You either have to submit your resume via an online tool which immediately dumps you into a black hole or you email to a job posting without ever an acknoledgement. I wonder why they even post jobs at all. Anyway, this is the first time I have been affected by a lay off and I am very disheartened with the engineering opportunities in the area. Unfortunatley, I like many of my colleagues may have to change careers to find what we are looking for. It is sad and a waste. Thank you for the eloquent observations.

Anonymous said...

David-
Congrats on your new blog. I wish you the best. Your commentary and leads through WIND have been helpful and insightful.

You are right on about the terms we use to describe people in the workplace. Adriana is also correct, so where is the disconnect? Adriana correctly notes that "we ... sell our skills not ... our humanity" but do we want to be seen as merely a set of skills. Of course not. I don't give up being a human at work. The flip side of a worker's "having the maturity to make decisions under unknown circumstances" is the company's maturity to see me a as a person with feelings and needs beyond paperclips and computer programs.
David, you are absolutley right that companies short-sightedly hire skills instead of thinking, feeling people who can mature into their positions. Really, who has 15 years experience repairing radar installations, knowledge of PALASM, PERL, and PASCAL, experience with sales, marketing, and stamp collecting, and can tap dance besides that wonderful human being you laid off just three months ago when your stock dipped 5 percent? Nobody.

Richard (Rick) Boucher
Dir. Eng. and Mfg.
BL Healthcare
Foxboro, MA
Proud WND Alumnus

DMC said...

We first met at a SAVE meeting and I heard your efficient and clever use of words. You are now proving to have a wonderful writing voice. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

David,
I agree with Bill - you are a great writer. This was a fascinating read. I looked at this from several different aspects and you hit on several relevent areas for me. I was an umemployed job seeker trying to change careers and industries. Now I am a recruiter with an MBA with a specialization in HRM. I think my being unemployed for a period of time gave me a different perspective on "human capital". Especially different than the definition provided in HR and business classes. I now believe that all hiring managers should be unemployed for a while and see how they like the job descriptions they have to read and what responses they get back or as you pointed out, don't get back. Our hiring process would change overnight.
Can't wait to read more from you.

Angela Young
Watkins & Associates
(713) 334-4342

Athena said...

David, thank you. You have described my experience as a job seeker to a T. Never have I been so frustrated or felt so dehumanized by a process. Let’s put the value back where it belongs: on the human being and the ability each one of us has to learn, when we are given the right tools.
Keep on writing David, we need voices like yours.