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HR should understand machine learning. Not because it will change work, but because it already has.
Depending on what sci-fi stories you grew up with, machine learning will either herald a Jetson’s-like utopia where robot butlers scoot around on wheels and predict our every whim, or mankind will be rounded-up, enslaved and exterminated by its own creations.
It’s not difficult to trace where fear of the latter stems from. Machine learning has already played a part in disrupting and revolutionising some industries, in turn feeding our pre-existing fears of becoming disempowered, obsolete and ultimately bumped off the top of the food chain. But Arnold Schwarzenegger clones aren’t exactly coming for us wielding shotguns in the dead of night.
“It’s fear of the Terminator, right?” says Anton van den Hengel, director of the Australian Institute of Machine Learning. “That fear is motivated by a lack of information. And actually those fears are not really founded.”
Describing a cat
Machine learning is a relatively simple idea, insists van den Hengel. Let’s say you want to code some software with a set of rules so it can recognise pictures of a cat. Sounds easy enough, right? Not exactly.
Ask a human to describe a cat, says van den Hengel, and they’ll likely describe it along the lines of small and furry with four legs. But those exact same rules apply to dogs.
“If I showed you an image of a cat and an image of a dog, you will instantly know what the distinction is,” says van den Hengel.
“But you can’t describe how you know that – nobody can describe how they distinguish an image of a cat from a dog.”
Which explains why it’s impossible to code a computer to make the distinction.
But there is a solution, or one that’s very close to a solution. It involves humans guiding the machine to create algorithms – or rules – for itself. This process is known as machine learning.
“If you want to solve that problem, you give the computer 5000 images listed as cats and 5000 images listed as dogs,” explains van den Hengel.
“Then you ask the computer to figure out what the distinction is, and it will create algorithms so it can make the distinction for itself in the future.”
The result will have up to 98 per cent accuracy. If that doesn’t sound great, van den Hengel says that humans only achieve about a 95 per cent success rate from the same test.
“Most of the things a human can do in less than a second, machine learning is more accurate at,” he says.
“Even if you classify yourself as a doomsayer who fears the rise of machines, chances are you have already been participating in your own demise.”
Neural networks are the underpinning technology for machine learning. They help deal with large sets of data and are very much inspired by the human brain.
“They are interconnected layers of algorithms, called neurons, which feed data into each other, with the output of the preceding layer being the input of the subsequent layer,” says Nick Heath in a September 2018 article for TechRepublic.
One of the biggest benefits of a neural network over a traditional computer is its ability to do many things at once.
“With traditional computers, processing is sequential. One task, then the next, then the next, and so on,” says Eric Roberts, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University, on his university’s website.
With traditional computers, it may appear that many things are happening at once, but this is only an appearance. Another fundamental difference between traditional computers and artificial neural networks is the way in which they function.
“While computers function logically with a set of rules and calculations, artificial neural networks can function via images, pictures and concepts,” says Roberts.
“Traditional computers have to learn by rules, while artificial neural networks learn by example, by doing something and then learning from it.”
You’re already involved
Even if you classify yourself as a doomsayer who fears the rise of machines, chances are you have already been participating in your own demise. Ever tried to log into a website and had Google’s infuriating reCAPTCHA act as gatekeeper? Well, instead of the machine knowing all the answers, you’ve actually been an unwitting participant in training it.
You’ve been at it since 2009 and have helped Google Books digitise its entire archive, helped train Google Street View to read house numbers and shop signage, and you’re also playing a part in driverless cars one day being able to read street signs.
“Reading house numbers was a real challenge for Google,” says van den Hengel, “because house numbers are surprisingly difficult due to each one having a different font and different colour.”
Machine learning is already playing a part in our day-to-day lives, but how can it impact HR? One key area, says van den Hengel, is efficiently shortlisting candidates. Machine learning can be used to identify key traits that your most successful employees all possess. It can then use that information to shortlist the most ideal candidates.
“The current process is that you put together a team that has all the skills you need,” says van den Hengel, “but the real opportunity is the ability to put together a team that has the personality types that you need to work together as well.”
Coaching is another area where machine learning will have an impact, predicts van den Hengel.
Say you’re an employee at a bank and a customer asks you a difficult question. In times gone by your options would be to wing it, wait until someone more senior is available to help out, or get back to the customer at a later date. But machine learning will allow you to engage with a digital coach for advice on the spot. Think Siri or Alexa, but for employees.
“There’s a whole lot of legal questions in banking, and people who work there struggle with the unbelievable complexity of the system,” says van den Hengel.
“So machine learning coaching resources can not only help them answer the technical question, but also figure out what the opportunity is.”
The same opportunity exists for customers. Chatbots have exploded onto the scene in recent years, and machine learning will only help them improve their customer service.
So should HR run for the hills, or should it face the machines head on? Van den Hengel says that while some people will likely see their jobs reassigned due to future machine learning efficiency gains, there’s an opportunity for most professionals to add more value and provide better outcomes.
“There will be winners and losers. But as far as I’m concerned, the winners will be the ones who can figure out how to get better outcomes using machine learning.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
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The skill-set demanded of modern CEOs reflects those already possessed by the HR profession. The time has never been better for senior HR professionals to strive to reach the very top.
In my thirty years as an executive director, non-exec director, CEO and management consultant, I’ve seen very few HR directors ascend to the apex of their organisation. In fact, it’s more common for the best HR execs to move on to a similar job in a larger organisation. Conversely, I have seen those in other professions climb up their company ladder with no issues.
So why don’t more HR stars become CEOs?
Always the bridesmaid…
It might not surprise you to find out that half of the world’s chief executives come from one of three backgrounds: finance, operations or marketing – according to research conducted in the UK by Robert Half (paywall), via Management Today.
The remaining half are sourced from 23 industries, ranging from legal to IT and strategy. Only five per cent of CEOs have an HR background.
I am one of a relatively small number of CEOs who took the route from HR to the top. As such I have sought to advise HR colleagues who get the feeling that they are always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
My own impression is that decision-making interviewing panels often see the HR function as necessary, but not critical to the corporate mosaic of the organisation. While this view is misguided, it strikes me that the HR profession needs to position itself more strategically and bang its drum more loudly.
It doesn’t have to be a long way to the top
In response to the question of why more top HR execs don’t become CEOs, clichés tend to be the answer. “HR isn’t strategic enough” or “HR doesn’t have enough broad-based business acumen”. Personally, I don’t buy this line of reasoning at all. In fact, in recent decades the HR function has become more integral to business success.
Let me give a few examples:
Developing ‘talent strategy’
This is viewed as a prime determinant of corporate success, with intellectual and human capital being viewed as increasingly important.
Get the right people in the right places; ensure you have the right talent strategy, team dynamics, and culture; and you’ll have strong foundations for success. It is chief HR officers who are at the heart of creating and delivering on an organisation’s talent strategy.
Acquiring core skills (‘soft skills’)
Modern corporate leaders are required to demonstrate the full gamut of core skills including: empathy, outstanding communication, and the ability to deliver constructive, critical feedback. These skills are attributes that have traditionally been the cornerstone of the HR function.
Creating corporate culture
Organisational success depends on how things get done as much as what gets done. Creating the building blocks for the development of an important corporate culture is very much within the experience and skill-set of HR professionals.
Promoting diversity and equality
Legal requirements and modern corporate ethics place a significant priority on ensuring that inclusion, diversity and equality are properly prioritised. The HR profession has a proud history in being at the forefront of this agenda.
How do you make the leap?
So, what can the HR profession and individual HR professionals do to promote both the function and their roles? Here are some suggestions:
Think like a corporate animal
HR professionals should view themselves as business managers and need to continually ask: “how can I add value to the bottom line, how is what I do assisting the organisation to meet its objectives?”’ This will mean thinking less narrowly about HR as a personnel type function, but rather as a key player in enabling the organisation to reach its corporate goals.
Make sure HR is always sitting at the top table
As a CEO, I have personally always had the HR manager reporting directly to me. I recall having several finance and corporate services directors resent my “take-over” of “their” HR function. For me, the CEO’s primary role is about directing change management within the organisation and HR is integral to this process.
I also take the view that the chief HR officer should have a place at the management team’s table. HR bosses need to demonstrate to CEOs that they are indispensable and that their reach goes way beyond that of traditional personnel management.
Get qualified and experienced
HR professionals are capable within their discipline, but how many go above and beyond? A business degree, for instance, provides knowledge of all the main corporate disciplines. In terms of gaining wider experience, HR professionals should be the first to volunteer to be seconded into any cross-discipline project teams. Here they will both pick up a broader range of skills by rubbing shoulders with secondees from other professional backgrounds, and at the same time get themselves noticed as corporate team players.
While it’s tough at times to reach the top, the future is far from bleak for HR professionals. Times really are changing. Slowly but surely the perception of the HR department as a back-office, largely administrative function, is being altered.
Over the course of my career, I have concluded that the business of leadership revolves around change management. For transformation to be sustainable, we need leaders who have skill-sets which so many able HR chief officers already possess. It is my hope that more HR professionals will take up the challenge of becoming a CEO.
The future of HR may be as a springboard to director and CEO roles. For this to happen, HR professionals need to display their aptitude for talent and culture management; a skill-set that separates them from other candidates. That said, these attributes form only part of what makes an effective CEO.
HR professionals need to also demonstrate their corporate credentials, their MBA, the seconded corporate roles and job rotations undertaken – it is these types of commitments that will provide evidence to interviewing panels that an HR director is ready to take on the role of CEO.
William Taylor is a freelance writer, consultant and public speaker. He is a former HR director, council CEO and management consultant.
It facilitates a universe of gig work while offering full-time employees world class HR. Does Airtasker exist between work as we know it and the future?
Depending on which side of the fence you sit, Airtasker is responsible for disrupting an inefficient labour market or for eroding decades of hard-won industrial relations regulations.
It’s easy to guess what the company itself thinks. Head of people operations Mahesh Muralidhar believes Airtasker is already one of the great Australian success stories. “The fact that it has been created in Australia and is now going global… is something I think Australians should be incredibly proud of,” he says.
Founded by CEO Tim Fung in 2012, the tech startup operates an online marketplace that allows people to outsource tasks. These are mostly everyday chores, such as painting an apartment or gardening. But it can include higher-skilled, more specialised labour like website design, or more obscure tasks such as foot modelling.
The platform is only getting bigger. It has more than two million users, facilitates $200 million in transactions per annum and was launched in London this year, with plans to expand into more international markets in the not-too-distant future.
Taskers and employees
The Airtasker universe is divided into two spheres: ‘posters’, those who need work done; and ‘taskers’, those who do the work. Then there are Airtasker employees who create and maintain this universe.
It’s an interesting dynamic that places the company between modern work and its potential future – one characterised by a contingent workforce and a digital-first labour market.
On a practical level it means the relationships Airtasker has with full-time staff and taskers are very different.
The former receive top benefits and the kind of cutting edge, analytically-led HR treatment that’s seen in Silicon Valley. The latter operate flexibly and control their own working lives.
Airtasker serves as an intermediary between taskers and employment – an arrangement that means taskers exist in the same legal grey zone as other gig workers. It’s undetermined whether they will end up being classified as employees, contractors or as something new.
World class HR
To get an idea of how Muralidhar approaches HR for Airtasker’s employees, you just have to understand that he has one clear goal: create value for Airtasker’s customers. “My biggest priority,” he says, “is to set people up to hit the company goals.”
Fung and Muralidhar oversee a growing team of 175 located in Sydney, Manila and London, and when you’re expanding fast, acquisition of top talent is crucial. “I go out of my way to tell all my team members that we should never compromise on the people we’re bringing on board,” he says. The point is illustrated by Airtasker’s recent high-profile recruits, such as the new head of engineering, former Google executive Yaniv Bernstein.
To find the best people, Muralidhar relies on data-driven recruitment processes to reduce bias and improve decision-making. Anyone applying for a role at Airtasker is asked to complete a exercise to “showcase their craft”, he says.
“We have a very numbers-driven assessment process for each piece of work that they hand in.” Successful applicants are then invited to spend half a day in the office.
Muralidhar looks for culture-add over culture-fit, which, in his view, is an unreliable judgement. Ask if a candidate is good at their job and if they will create value for the company and its customers, he says. If the answer is yes, invite them to add to the culture and “make us even better”.
“We work hard to create a fun and lively physical environment,” says Muralidhar. Weekly ‘ask me anything’ sessions with staff serve as a powerful team-building exercise. Employee perks and benefits include café and gym discounts, social events, an “above-market” parental leave policy and a “pretty chill” informal work from home policy. “There’s a strong level of trust in the business,” says Muralidhar.
Staff are provided with learning and development opportunities, with quarterly goals set to guide professional growth. So far, 30 per cent of staff have completed feedback training. “We have some ambitious goals, so people need to stretch. They need to become really good at their craft.”
Underpinning this high-performance culture is a united sense of purpose. “There’s a lot of meaning in the work we do. We put money into a lot of people’s pockets,” he says.
Muralidhar believes leadership determines culture, and credits Airtasker’s positive culture to Fung. “You need CEO sponsorship,” he says. “The fact that we’ve got an awesome culture that people are really attached to is a reflection of him and his stewardship. Our values primarily come from him, because at the end of the day the tough decisions where your values kick in are made by the CEO.”
“We have some ambitious goals, so people need to stretch. They need to become really good at their craft.” – Mahesh Muralidhar
Taskers and critics
Unlike Airtasker employees, taskers have no workplace benefits like paid parental leave and gym discounts. Instead, taskers have flexibility and the opportunity to work at all. Airtasker creates jobs, argues Fung, who claims that 70 per cent of tasks on Airtasker were job opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Muralidhar says Airtasker’s senior management treats the welfare of its users seriously. “One of our values is that people matter,” he says. “Tim takes this very personally. It’s really important to him that we do right by people. We talk about it a lot.”
Airtasker is like any traditional open-air market, says Muralidhar. The goal is to make sure the market is safe and easy to access, as this is key to facilitating as many transactions as possible. “That’s our job. It’s setting up that landscape. The better we do it, the more transactions that happen, the more money people make. We are completely incentivised to do that.”
However, the platform is not without its critics. A 2016 report by Unions NSW argued that the “increased prevalence of digitally enabled, gig-based work is actively fragmenting labour standards and disintegrating traditional jobs into short-term tasks with no employment safety nets”. Among Unions NSW’s primary concerns were workplace safety, particularly in the use of trades skills, and the use of Airtasker by businesses.
Another concern is the downward pressure Airtasker places on wages as posters assign jobs to the lowest bidder. “There’s also the potential for people to post jobs that would otherwise be paid at a normal rate for a casual worker,” says UTS Business School associate professor Sarah Kaine, who offers the example of unpacking pallets in a warehouse, a job that is covered by an award.
“That’s not Airtasker’s direct responsibility, but it’s a by-product of the system and the market they’ve set up.”
However, Kaine credits Airtasker with “trying to grapple with some of the more difficult regulatory and moral issues around their model” more than other sharing economy platforms, after it announced an agreement with Unions NSW in April addressing concerns about pay and working conditions.
Another recent deal has seen Airtasker introduce insurance for taskers via IAG’s CGU brand, providing up to $10 million in cover for third-party liability, personal injury or property damage.
“They’ve stopped short of mandating what rates are to be paid, but at the very least there appears to be some concern about what kind of model they’re propagating,” says Kaine.
It’s a model about which Muralidhar is characteristically optimistic. “We’re trying to make markets more efficient”, he says. “The more we share, the more connected we are to each other, the happier we are.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
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Slowly but surely the gender pay gap is narrowing, but pay parity could still be half a century away. HRM breaks down the new report and examines a useful case study.
Five years of data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), a government led initiative, shows that the pay gap between male and female employees has continued to drop. Indeed, 2018 saw the biggest single year drop – down 1.1 percentage points from last year.
While the movement towards an evenly paid workforce is gathering momentum, there’s still a far way to go with men taking home 21.3 per cent (around $25,700) more than their female counterparts, on average.
WGEA director, Libby Lyons, says: “We have clear evidence that employer action delivers real results and we should recognise the great work many employers have done in addressing issues such as pay equity. As employers have taken action, the gender pay gap has declined and gender equality outcomes for women and men across Australia have improved.”
Here’s HRM’s breakdown of the report.
WGEA based their data on 4,644 gender equality reports that were submitted between April 2017 and March 2018 (an annual requirement for non-public sector employers with 100 employees or more). The reports are representative of four million employees across Australia.
While overall the results show a decreasing pay gap, there are some industries that are going in the other direction.
The construction industry saw a two per cent increase in the gap, which is now sitting at 29.4 per cent. The most female-dominated workforce, health care, saw male employees accumulating higher salaries for the second year running, jumping up by 1.4 per cent from a 14.7 per cent gap in 2015-16 to 16.1 per cent in 2017-18.
The top three industries with the smallest difference in pay is public administration and safety (4.9 per cent), wholesale trade (8.5 per cent) and education and training (9.7 per cent).
The industry with the highest pay gap is financial services (30.3 per cent) although it has declined steadily over the last five years.
A case study
One financial services organisation that’s making strides towards a gender equal workforce is HESTA, the $46 billion superannuation fund for those working in the healthcare industry.
In 2016, the fund applied for Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation from WGEA. To do this, it was required to conduct an in-depth analysis of its current gender balance state. This process resulted in some important realisations.
The fund reviewed salaries by gender and across various business units. When synthesizing the results, it looked at tenure, role changes, career breaks and parental leave uptake.
HESTA was happy to see that the results put it in a good position – no major discrepancies were revealed. But the findings did encourage them to challenge traditional thinking around resource allocation.
When looking at their organisational spend on learning and development through a gendered lens, the fund saw that pro-rata training budgets for part-time employees (a female dominant section of their workforce) was limiting development opportunities. To counteract this, they reallocated the training budgets for part-time employees to ensure equal access.
They also found that their flexible work and parental leave policies were mostly being used by women, which sparked conversation about the impacts – to both a business and the individuals – of so few males taking carer’s leave.
As a result, HESTA started career coaching for both women and men who were going on and returning from parental leave. It also implemented a parental support program for dads.
“Where there is a gender imbalance in caring roles, there will always be one in the workforce. And as women and men increase sharing parental and elder care responsibilities, there will be more equal representation of women and men at all levels of the workforce,” says Sophie Sigalas, HESTA’s executive, people strategy.
HESTA says it now uses the annual analysis “as an essential part of influencing areas like workforce planning, strategic planning, recruitment and selection strategy, capability and learning planning”.
More women in management
A big part of closing the gender pay gap is increasing the amount of women appointed to leadership positions. The WGEA report shows that women now comprise almost 40 per cent of managers; 43.3 per cent of manager appointments were awarded to women in 2017-18.
Nearly a third of key management personnel (those who sit under the CEO level) are women.
However, the glass ceiling is not yet shattered. CEO appointments crept up only slightly, rising less than one per cent to 17.1 per cent representation, as did board appointments which now sit at 25.8 per cent.
It’s not just the glass ceiling that’s still intact, so is the glass wall. There has been minimal movement in the gendered role segregation space over the last five years, with only two industries moving from male-dominated into “mixed” – the professional and scientific and technical services sectors. Interestingly, the telecommunications and media sector took a step in the opposite direction moving from a mixed-gendered sector into a male-dominated one.
People and leadership expert and founder of HR Gurus Emily Jaksch, takes a different perspective. While she says it’s encouraging to see year-on-year improvement she also believes that many of the statistics fail to consider the “multitude of factors, other than sexism or discrimination, that contribute to the pay gap”.
“The real pay gap is between mothers and fathers, not simply men and women,” she says.
“The recent WGEA study findings show that we have more female managers but not CEOs. Does this take into account the fact that [some] women aren’t interested in pursuing careers that consume their lives? How many women do you know who are willing to raise [two], work 80 hours a week and live at work? Not many. Coupled with this the fact that we still have no real improvement in paid parental leave or flexible work options, which demands the question: how easy are we making it for women to return to work from maternity leave?”
Employers are taking it seriously
Analysis of pay equity has been on the rise among employers, with 41.6 per cent saying they have a strategy in place to analyse payroll data. Of those organisations, six in ten took action as a result of their findings.
The most proactive industries (that take action after analysis) were: mining, information media and telecommunications, and the financial services industry.
Female-dominated retail trade was one of the industries where employers were least likely to take action after their pay gap analysis.
Still 50 years behind
While the report signifies a step in the right direction for gender parity, more needs to be done.
As detailed in a Sydney Morning Herald report, the federal Labor party has signalled that under its government, compulsory WGEA reports would be made public and organisations could be “named and shamed if they fail to comply, and excluded from lucrative government contracts”.
Lyons, who acknowledges the positives of a narrowing gap, still believes that “progress it too slow” and told the SMH that “Australia is still 50 years away from closing the pay gap”.
“The first five years of data shows where we are seeing positive change and where we need to make more effort. We now need even more employers to take action so that we can accelerate the momentum for gender equality in Australian workplaces,” says Lyons.
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Micromanagers have long decried as the bosses that drive employees out the door. But are under managers just as bad, if not worse?
Micromanagers get a pretty bad rap – they get derided as control freaks that stifle creativity, refuse to delegate and dominate decision-making down to the last detail. But are their antithesis, under managers, any better? Perhaps the difference lies in what is being micro/under managed – is it employees or output?
HRM takes a look at the benefits and pitfalls of both managerial styles.
The relationship between an employee and their manager is a key determiner of employee experience and performance. It’s understandable, then, that having your manager constantly breathing down your neck is off-putting – as demonstrated in a previous HRM article, which cites research by US-based employer review site, Comparably.
The study, which features data collected from over 2000 employees (predominantly tech-workers) from organisations big, medium and small, in both the public and private sectors – found that micromanagement was the worst offence a boss could make. Overall, 39 per cent of surveyed employees ranked this trait as a manager’s worst, and this was across both genders (44 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women).
While micromanagement can stem from stress and a fear of underperformance, it can have the opposite of the desired effect – driving down employee creativity and productivity, and eventually causing staff to leave.
One frequently referenced study by Indiana University Bloomington found that when people are in high-stress jobs with little control, there was a 15.4 per cent increase in the likelihood of death, when compared with those in less demanding jobs (it should be noted the study was of workers aged 60 and over).
Then there’s also the matter of whether micromanagement can constitute bullying. As mentioned in an article by employment law firm McDonald Murholme, The Fair Work Commission held in one case that micromanaging can amount to bullying if coupled with the intent to bully – such as overmanagement disguised as a wish to fire an employee.
In a different case the Fair Work Commission held that management must be conducted in a ‘reasonable manner’, which is dependant upon the nature of the action, the facts and circumstances around the action, and the resulting impact of the action on the employee.
Not that micromanagers don’t have their defenders. In a recent article in Forbes, CEO of ecommerce company Grouper.mk Nina Angelovska says there’s a certain skill involved in useful micromanagement, and that CEOs favour those that are output-driven.
“Bosses who stick their noses into every single detail because they have nothing smarter to do are the representative of micromanagement done wrong. But bosses who closely monitor, provide detailed guidance and corrective feedback when needed are something totally opposite.”
She also believes that micromanagers are appealing to CEOs, given their desire to achieve results: “Every leader dreams of having people who he can trust and rely on, people who have an eye for details, who can pay extreme attention to what others are doing and who can get things done perfectly.”
Many of us have likely thought at some point that having a hands-off boss is a dream scenario (I know I have). They let you get on with what needs to be done, and trust that you will come through with the results. And if you don’t? No sweat, next time.
But, as an article in Harvard Business Review points out, while these managerial types are often well-liked in the organisation and are considered to be good collaborators, they tend to avoid conflict and can have accountability issues. They also don’t performance manage effectively, which can lead to underperformance.
Management consultant Victor Lipman, who authored the HBR article, says that there are several, interconnected reasons behind the under management approach, with the desire to be liked and to escape conflict, and therefore avoid stress, at the forefront.
“True, pushing your people and holding them accountable for strong performance won’t win you any popularity contests, and it requires some level of comfort with conflict,” says Lipman. “But while maintaining positive relationships with your own employees is a good thing, over the long run your priority is to deliver results.”
In fact, the desire to avoid conflict can result in the inability to manage complaints of bullying and harassment adequately. Failure to investigate or take complaints of bullying and harassment seriously can lead to detrimental consequences for both the affected employee and the organisation.
Take a 2005 NSW Supreme Court case for example. An employee who was promoted to a new role as team lead ahead of her former manager was subjected to ridicule by her old boss. Her new manager did not take any action after she complained over a two year period, and in fact, labelled her complaints “groundless and obtuse”. Unfortunately for the employer, the Supreme Court of NSW thought otherwise, finding the employer’s conduct to be “negligently passive”, and awarded her almost $340,000 on appeal for the psychiatric damage caused.
Even if it’s not as bad as the refusal or failure to handle complaints, under management can also leave employees without feedback, which we all need. Otherwise it can feel like we’re running around in circles, chasing our tails, without knowing how we’re really doing.
Perhaps a micromanager with a bit of chill is an organisation’s best bet? Let us know your thoughts.
HR is not a supplement to a business. It’s at the beating heart of every organisation. An organisational strategy expert shares her thoughts.
A few years ago I attended a workshop exploring how HR could become more relevant and ‘get a seat at the table’.
Typically, we explored what the problem was with HR and how we could ‘fix’ it. In the final plenary session, sitting in a wide circle of fifty executives, we were sharing insights and learnings from the day. The head of a retail division (a non-HR Exec) of a company said,
“I get this, because I used to work in HR, then a few years ago I got out of HR and went into running the business…”
I was so struck by this comment. I don’t remember what he said after. I thought, aren’t HR professionals part of running the business? In that moment I realised this was the real problem HR faces.
This executive saw HR as separate from the business, so much so that in his mind if you wanted to run, or be in the business, you had to get out of HR. What struck me even more was that most people sitting in our circle were senior HR executives, and they all nodded their heads in agreement. No one challenged his theory. Was no one else surprised by this statement? Or were they just as nervous as I was to call him out?
I agonised for a few minutes wondering if I should say something. I didn’t want to challenge him in the group, but I knew what he had said was a ‘gift’ that shouldn’t be passed up. I realised it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just his assumption. It was a deeply embedded collective systemic hypothesis.
Reframing the collective assumptions and map of HR
HR professionals would never have a ‘seat at the table’ if this was the collective assumption held both by HR and other business executives. Until that moment this had not been visible to me. I believe that HR is a vital part of the business and has a critical role to play in ensuring business success. The business was not a separate entity that HR served.
I found my voice, and the courage to speak:
“That’s the real problem. You don’t get out of HR to run the business, in my mind HR is a vital part of running the business and of it being successful.”
He blushed and acknowledged his error. There was a collective disquiet and murmuring around the circle, as the implicit assumptions we were all holding were revealed. The veil was lifted, it was an uncomfortable but important discovery.
Not just a technical change
I left the workshop with a new understanding that the real challenge that HR and organisations faced was an adaptive one. It wasn’t a technical fix, but a complete reset of the role of HR and where it was positioned in the business ecosystem, that was required.
This event happened a few years ago now, but this narrative is not history, it’s still very current. It’s my understanding that this collective systemic hypothesis is still running us.
There are a few organisations where the green shoots of a new system are emerging, but it’s still the dominant systemic contract embedded implicitly in our HR operating models and in the language, which I hear consistently in HR teams – “we had a meeting with the business” or “the business doesn’t want that”. It’s also reflected in HR job titles and roles, the predominant one being the HR business partner.
You could technically ban the business partner title, change the job and call it HR consultant or HR manager, which I agree would be good, but it could also change nothing in terms of how HR is seen or positioned in the system, as we know happens with many other job changes or restructures.
We shouldn’t confuse the job of HR business partner, with the role of the HR subsystem in the business. Paradoxically, we could keep the title of HR business partner but reframe its meaning.
HR business partners could become true partners in the business, having a symmetrical place in the business leadership team with commercial accountability, rather than being partners to the business.
The real work we need to do is to completely reset both the roles of HR and non-HR executives, and how they relate and connect to each other, with regard to the people, organisational and business imperatives.
We need a new systemic contract, a shift away from HR being a “service provider” and “order taker”, to HR being real partners in the business, with mutual accountability for commercial business outcomes.
At the same time, we need to give the non-HR executives co-accountability for the people and culture agenda in their teams and the wider organisation. Perhaps the time has come to stop letting non-HR executives off the hook for this too. Undoubtedly, we need to move out of the binary pattern, getting all leaders to be both people, culture and business leaders simultaneously.
The traditional HR operating model needs to be disrupted, but equally that implies that the way the whole people, culture and organisation agenda is managed and lead will need to shift too. There is as much work to do with non-HR executives as there is with HR.
Australia’s oldest bank is getting with the times. Indigenous and transgender staff to benefit from Westpac’s new enterprise agreement.
Good news coming out of one of Australia’s big four banks is rare these days. After what has been a tumultuous year with the Royal Banking Commission; it’s refreshing to be able to report what they’re getting right for a change.
And, from the bank’s perspective, the successful negotiation of an EBA that’s receiving positive press is no doubt welcome. It’s coming in the same month as it gave the commission 22 summaries of misconduct and its chair delivered an unqualified apology to shareholders.
Details of a new Enterprise Agreement (EA) between Westpac and the Finance Sector Union (FSU) show some very progressive policies laid out for the bank’s employees, particularly its transgender and Indigenous staff.
The new agreement, which is yet to be lodged with the Fair Work Commission, has the support of Westpac executives and 90 per cent of staff who voted in the FSU’s ballot. The current agreement is due to expire on the 31 December. The new agreement is likely to benefit around 30,000 employees.
Gender transition leave
There are plenty of reports highlighting the barriers transgender employees face in the workplace, and with a rise in corporate consciousness around LGBTIQ rights, it’s vital that employers take the time to put their best foot forward in supporting this portion of the workforce.
As part of its new EBA, Westpac employees undergoing a sex or gender change will be able to access four weeks of paid transition leave and up to a year of unpaid leave in an effort to support employees during a sensitive time in their lives.
The leave can either be taken in one go or in a period of blocks, and staff are also offered counselling and support services, says Sam Turner, the bank’s head of inclusion and diversity.
FSU assistant secretary Nathan Rees said to the Sydney Morning Herald, that, as far as he was aware, Westpac were the first bank to introduce transgender leave, describing it as a “very positive step”.
While Westpac may be the first Australian bank to implement a policy like this, they wouldn’t be the first organisation. Victoria’s Deakin University recently announced that their staff would be able to access ten days of paid leave to undergo a gender transition.
And in 2016, the International Convention Centre included a provision in their EA that states employees can make an application to their employer to use up to five days of accrued paid annual leave (or take five days of unpaid leave) to either transition their gender identity or undergo gender reassignment.
Sally Goldner, acting treasurer and former executive director at Transgender Victoria, previously told HRM that “more [transgender] people are feeling safe to disclose being themselves, including in their workplace… if trans people can just be themselves, then they can be a productive employee and everyone wins.”
While policies like this are just the right thing to do, they can also be used as effective tools to retain and engage your staff members, says Kathryn Dent director at People+Culture Strategies, a workplace relations legal firm and management consulting business.
Dent, who is also the NSW convenor for AHRI’s Employee Relations/Industrial Relations Network, says she is seeing an increasing level of interest by employers in workplace transgender policies.
“My clients are looking for innovative ways to attract and retain a talented and engaged workforce, not only by way of a provision of benefits – such as gender transition leave – but also in the employer’s values and recognition of societal values and changes at the heart of which is diversity and inclusion,” she says.
“Attraction and retention of a talented and engaged workforce impacts the bottom line. There’s merit in what Westpac has done particularly given its large workforce and reputation within the community.”
‘Sorry Business’ leave
The bank are also keeping their first nation employees in mind. Three days of ‘Sorry Business’ bereavement leave will be given to Indigenous staff following death of a family member or another personal tragedy.
If an Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander employee loses a family member, they may become involved in what’s known as ‘Sorry Business’ – an important cultural tradition that involves community ceremonies and a variety of cultural events. Such ceremonies could also take place if a family member falls ill or is imprisoned; or to mourn the loss of a cultural connection to land – such as if a native title application was lost. (For a fact sheet on Sorry Business, click here).
Aunty Margaret Parker from the Punjima people in north-west WA explains in this Creative Spirits article. “The whole community gets together and shares that sorrow. We have to cry in sorrow… that’s how we break that [grief], by sharing together as a community. This is an important aspect of our culture. And this is how we are brought up”.
Yolnu elder Djambawa Marawili from Arnhem Land adds: “Ceremonies and mourning periods last days, weeks and even months, depending upon the beliefs of the language group and the social status of the deceased person.”
Going the extra mile
While the ‘Sorry Business’ and transition leave might be garnering the most attention, there’s more to the new agreement that will benefit the whole workforce.
Domestic and family violence leave will be doubled, with employees now able to access 20 days of domestic violence support leave. Paid parental leave for support carers and long-term foster carers will also increase from two weeks to three.
The EBA also contains the following provisions for pay increases:
A 3.25 per cent fixed pay increase for staff earning up to $82,500
A minimum 2.25 per cent increase for staff earning between $82,501 and $106,500
A 2 per cent annual pool of funds to be spent of fixed pay increases for staff earning between $106,501 and $160,000 (to be distributed based on remuneration review).
A statement from the FSU website says: “At a time when there is increased scrutiny on workplace culture, conduct and pay structures through the Royal commission hearings we have a unique opportunity to lead the way on changes required to regain the trust and confidence of customers and our community.”
Dent believes that when it comes time for the other big banks to renegotiate their enterprise agreements, there is likely to be an expectation from staff, unions and the banks’ customers that these benefits will be offered. Then it will become more of a norm rather than an exception, she says.
Are the protests we’re seeing in the US a watershed moment for industrial relations in the West? Or are they a flash in the pan?
Earlier this year HRM wrote an article about a petition 3000 Google workers sent to management, protesting the company’s involvement in a US military project. Since then tech employees in the US have continued to participate in organised, public protests against their organisations.
It happened at Amazon, with workers seeking to stop the company from offering it’s facial recognition technology to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been widely viewed as a controversial institution since the detention of immigrant children earlier this year. Microsoft workers had a similar problem with their company’s cloud services.
But the biggest protest so far again happened at Google, where last week a reported 20,000 workers staged a global walkout after a New York Times article revealed the company had a troubled history with sexual harassment.
The most damning revelation to come from the article was that the company heaped praise on and gave a $90 million dollar exit package to Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, while keeping quiet about a claim of misconduct against him. This is despite the fact that the company found the claim – that Rubin coerced an employee into performing oral sex – to be credible.
After the organisation failed to calm their concerns, Google employees staged a global walkout (the organisers had five demands, that they outlined on The Cut).
More than any previous protest, this one had commenters suggesting that we’re seeing a sea change in employee relations. Some argued that the protest is a sign that Silicon Valley workers are rejecting their long-held individualism and embracing something close to unionism. In Australia, Michael Walker on The Conversationcalled it “a hugely significant, symbolic development for labour relations in the 21st century” (though he notes the scope of the protest was limited).
Will we hold the same view years from now, or will this moment of tech worker discontent be seen as a flash in the pan?
One of the defining features of late 19th and early 20th century labour movements was the sense members had that they were fighting for their livelihoods; their families, friends and future. They were in a struggle for a living wage, the ability to be sick and not get fired, and to have basic laws protecting them from workplace injury and death.
While the protest efforts from US tech companies are serious, the stakes are nowhere near as high. Firstly that’s because the protesting workers are exceptionally well paid, and in top demand. If there is any blowback, most will get to walk into another high-paying job.
Secondly, they’re fighting for changes that are harder to grasp. Transparency around sexual harassment complaints is obviously crucial, but it’s hard to know whether or not you have it. It took a thoroughly researched investigation by one of the world’s largest news organisations for Google staff to know what was happening in their own offices. Other changes are more tangible – they’ve asked for the promotion of the Chief Diversity Officer so that they answer to the CEO and can make recommendations to the board – but have unproven efficacy.
Many of the protestors’ other concerns are quite far removed from their day-to-day lives. Questioning the morality of enabling ICE is a legitimate political position, but it’s doubtful many employees at Microsoft, Salesforce, or Amazon have a strong personal connection. They may refuse to help build or maintain technology for ICE or the Pentagon, but how many will quit over their company’s association?
It’s also worth noting that what makes unions effective is having a lot of workers from different organisations unite into a powerful faction. Some are questioning if Silicon Valley staff will do that, and whether coming together over single issues (in isolated companies) will create meaningful change.
As was his approach with the staff revolt over a US defence contract, Google CEO Sundar Pichai is nodding his head to the concerns of his employees, agreeing to a limited number of demands (in this case more transparent sexual harassment investigations), and being careful to project an image that the C-suite is very much in control.
“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action,” Pichai wrote in an emailed statement to Recode. The tone of the correspondence makes it seem as if Google were dealing with a few suggestions made to HR, rather than a mass walkout.
Is he wrong to do so? Damage to recruitment and productivity have been highlighted as the possible impact of these protests, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What’s more, even though sometech workers have quit in protest; Microsoft has not dropped it’s lucrative contract with ICE; Amazon and Microsoft have defended their defense contracts; and Google may have dropped its defense contract and established “no harm” AI principles, but seems to be going ahead with work on a Chinese search engine effort many of its workers don’t like.
It certainly seems these tech companies are treating the protests as an employee engagement and retention issue, not as a crisis. And if that approach ends up being effective, then any positive changes that come as a result of these protests will be limited to the companies, and limited within the companies.
‘Just-in-time’ training is helping workers deal with new people, practices and policies at very short notice. Here’s where it’s heading.
‘Just-in-time’ training (also called point-of-need training) is a methodology that provides personalised training on-demand according to what a specific situation requires. That demand could involve reactively plugging a knowledge hole and thanks to machine learning, big data, A.I. and enhanced analytics, it’s becoming increasingly predictive. This brings with it opportunities for organisations to automatically maintain and enhance workforce performance while significantly reducing errors.
The history and evolution of just-in-time training
The term, “Just-in-time” (JITT) is credited with first appearing in production industries where inventory storage stopped being as expensive and on-demand manufacturing reduced delays for the customer. The move into training was more of an evolutionary process, one that experts describe as “exploding in demand” when the internet and home computer ownership ballooned shortly before the turn of the Millennium. In many cases, a key driver towards just-in-time methodology was a reaction to new rapid communication enablement.
Since then, JITT has been used to train employees using off-the-shelf sessions that are frequently delivered via one-on-one interactions, in small-classes or using eLearning courseware – all with regularly updated materials.
As things have progressed the last vestiges of scheduling bottlenecks are being eliminated by technologies, like cloud delivery of courseware to individuals’ own mobile devices. Not surprisingly, the decrease in deployment delays has led to reductions in course-size too; spending an hour on a computer-based course is being supplemented with small, electronically-delivered lessons that can be engaged with just a few minutes before an event.
JITT enabling peer learning
A side benefit of smaller lessons is the enhanced-enablement of peer learning. Many people think a large chunk of organisational training should be performed by peers and it’s not hard to see why. Leveraging the experience of a senior sales person who might’ve previously had minimal relationship with learning and development operations is much easier when they don’t need to sit down with an instructional designer in a drawn-out joint effort to create a sizeable course.
The same goes for a factory operator who knows the foibles of particular machines and production lines better than anyone else. Giving them the ability to easily create bite-sized lessons is far more effective than receiving training from an outsider. There’s also the side-benefit of making these employees feel more valued which is essential for staff retention.
JITT training that trains for highly-specific tasks are plentiful. Other examples include the training of casual staff in retail stores when coming up to the busy Christmas period.
Meanwhile, a quick Google search demonstrates just how popular ‘Sexual Harassment Training’ courses have become to corporations, in recent times. ‘Discrimination policies’ are also hot topics while ‘spotting scams,’ ‘handling complaints’ and ‘first-aid basics’ are stalwart requests for point-of-need lessons.
The future of JITT
Advances in technology continue to enhance matters further. At a basic level, it’s possible to integrate a calendar with a learning management system so relevant micro lessons regarding attendees and subject matter can automatically be distributed to invitees shortly before the meeting.
On a grander scale, a company with multiple regional offices may see one part of the organisation report figures that represent low, key performance indicators. When this happens, reactive JITT lessons, automatically identified through analytics, could be targeted to struggling offices. Over time, that data can be analysed to the point where failure can be predicted before it occurs and appropriate materials can be distributed to address issues before they develop.
Some of the more-futuristic JITT advances, like virtual and augmented reality, are here now. Earlier this month, Epson announced the latest iteration of its Moverio augmented reality glasses; they can now be operated with regular smartphones. A specific use case at the launch detailed how an engineer wearing them could use both hands while simultaneously watching a remote camera feed, all the while communicating with their head office which was sending instructions that appeared in an overlay that detailed how to fix a problem.
A step up from this is virtual reality. While the most powerful technologies like Nvidia’s Holodeck (which offers a collaborative, virtual workshop where remote participants can practice skills in a lifelike environment) are still powered by powerful computers, the likes of Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR headsets allow increasingly-similar functionality using a relatively-cheap headset plus a smartphone. Wide-spread on-demand VR-based training is right around the corner.
With employee retention inextricably linked to personal growth and training, it makes sense to embrace the current technologies. VR and AR might be a step too far for many, and any current investment in those spaces is at risk of rapid obsolescence. But building a base of bite-sized training sessions, with a sizeable proportion coming from peers, makes sense for any size of organisation that’s looking to enhance its existing training practices.
Darren Winterford is CEO of Ed Microlearning & Mobile LMS.
Organisations could be turning employees into saboteurs without realising it, research says. Here are some steps to identify and rectify the problem.
When employees become disillusioned with their employer, they can psychologically detach from the organisation’s mission, which increases the risk of them becoming an insider threat, say researchers from the University of Glasgow and Coventry University. In their paper Professor Rosalind Searle and Dr Charis Rice identify four different employee types that could be harmful to an organisation.
These employees might have previously been some of the best and most loyal but an organisational transition or an individual change – such as having their responsibilities shifted – can leave them feeling disgruntled. In both circumstances, an employee’s commitment levels drop and they begin to view employers through a distrusting lense.
What turns a loyal employee into a saboteur?
The bad behaviour of these “saboteurs” can be small, such as general time wasting or out of character rudeness. Or it can be more catastrophic, such as leaking confidential information to curious competitors.
Like the behaviour itself, the context in which it arises varies. Rice and Searle listed unpredictable work environments, inadequate communication, inconsistent leadership, and unfair changes or processes as some of the main causes for bad behaviour.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is being fired. A famous example, that sends shivers down the spines of leaders worldwide, is the 1996 “time bomber”. Timothy Lloyd, a former employee of Omega Engineering, left his employers one hell of a farewell gift, activating what’s being referred to as a “digital bomb” that deleted all of the company’s files, resulting in $10 million of lost sales and contracts.
Even if you’re furious about being let go, this behaviour is not advisable as Lloyd was sentenced to 41 months in jail.
Who are these people?
Different people have different reactions to change, depending on their adaptability and personal circumstances. Some employees are able to embrace any change, moving forward without rocking the boat, but that’s not true of everybody. Rice and Searle have placed those susceptible to poor behaviour during transition periods into four different categories:
These are people who occasionally slip up as a reaction to certain workplace changes. Perhaps they’re disgruntled by a new workplace policy and react by being rude to their manager, disrupting an important meeting or taking ‘on-site documents only’ home.
While this behaviour may be fleeting, and is only occasional, it’s important to not treat them lightly as even small slip ups can have larger negative effects.
According to Rice and Searle, these are employees that “carry out [poor] behaviour through an incapacity to self-regulate their actions”. They break the rules, but they do so unintentionally.
Maybe they accidentally send an email to someone they shouldn’t have or post about work sensitive issues on social media. Omitters usually require other employees to help them clean up their mess in order to reduce their insider threat risk.
You tend to encounter ommitters more during a poorly managed transition, where employees lose their emotional buy-in. Ommitters become withdrawn and lose their attention to detail and commitment to success.
Unlike a slipper or an omitter, this group set out to intentionally damage an organisation – however, they do so with a series of small harmful acts over a period of time. They’re playing a long game.
“Over time, if unchallenged and uncorrected, these can cause problems for colleagues and create additional costs and risks for their employers,” say Rice and Searle.
The Serial Transgressors
These employees are the type to blatantly engage with counterproductive behaviour in order to intentionally undermine authority figures and run amok throughout an organisation. Serial transgressors are the riskiest of the bunch.
Rice and Searle say that this group can also become a higher risk than even they originally intended due to the long-term stress implications of this state.
“They are already likely to be isolated from their work group, which can seriously impede efforts to discern the real level of threat they pose. They distrust those in authority whom they are likely to regard as responsible for squashing or sabotaging their cherished plans,” say Rice and Searle.
It’s not that they’re acting out for the sake of it. They feel they are justified in doing so. That’s the difference between an employee who is problematic versus someone who is conditioned into feeling cynical or vengeful.
Rice and Searle created a series of resources to advise employers on how to manage organisation transitions and reduce their risk of fostering aggrieved employees. Here is a summary of their key points:
HR procedures should be fair and consistent during transition periods.
Ensure employees feel protected, rather than punished, for calling out bad behaviour.
Give employee’s space to air their concerns and really listen.
Be transparent in your communication of the changes (don’t sugar coat).
Ensure all managers embrace important changes and lead by example.
Revisit the changes and adapt anything that’s not working. To do this, you’ll need to check in with both individuals and teams.
“There are many examples of high-profile companies which have made the headlines following employee sabotage,” says Rice.
A recent one is Elon Musk’s accusations that a Tesla employee had tampered with internal operations and shared company information with “unknown third parties” during a mass layoff period for the tech behemoth.
“It is vitally important to understand how these situations come about: the types of employee who might resort to these behaviours; why it happens and how managers’ actions can prevent this happening,” says Rice.
“We found examples of team and managerial distrust that led to employees withdrawing their effort from organisations and in some cases even bred revenge behaviour.”
Searle added: “Critically, our results showed that such outcomes were often an unforeseen consequence of an existing ‘need to know’ security culture and in part, the perceived heavy-handedness of HR and security teams with whom staff felt reluctant to share concerns.”
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