Stop Processing People

Stop Processing People

Faced with a nasty HR situation in which a couple of senior middle management men were spreading false accusations about their boss, the Deputy CEO brought the full force of the disciplinary code to deal with the problem. This involved witnessed warning interviews (2), letters of required behaviour (3), and a deal of paperwork and formality as well –  a long drawn out process that lasted four months. At the end of this he believed that the two perpetrators were aware of the possible consequences (firing) and the matter was put to rest. Within a month the false stories were circulating again. The two men do not work there now.

A somewhat similar situation occurred in a different business in the media industry. There the CEO called the two men in, gave them a coffee and told them that if they didn’t stop their unpleasant and egregious behaviour she would fire them immediately without compensation and they could take her to court – if they wanted to waste their money. They drank their coffee, thanked her and went back to work. No more stories circulated. The two men got stuck into their jobs and made a splendid contribution to the business. The CEO congratulated them six months later on their adaptability. They still work there.

Two different approaches. Two different outcomes. No prizes for which was the right one. Or are there? Which do you think was right? After all, behind-the-factory disciplining of people rightly went out a long time ago. Workers should be treated fairly, their rights should be preserved and they should not be managed by threat. A procedure for seeing if someone is ‘guilty’ must be balanced, must not depend on any one or two individuals’ stories and must above all proceed in the belief that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. But people are people, all different. Rules about them have to be flexible.

George Stephenson, who built the Locomotion for the first railway, was constructing his first steam locomotive. Examining the work one day, he said to Fred, his right-hand man “The piston exertion is too severe to start moving the heavy locomotive so we must reduce the gearing to make it less threatening”. Fred understood and did what the master had told him. Stephenson was building a machine, one that he expected to last. The business of converting steam into useful energy required a process – and he was aiming to create the best one possible. Machinery is process.

People aren’t. But the technology revolution has produced innumerable processes for people, even, it has to be admitted, for people mentoring and coaching. Programmes and checklists abound. I cannot complain about checklists because I wrote two books of them back in the 1960s and 1970s and I still get small royalty payments from Scandinavia. But my checklists always came with a big red warning at the start. It said “Checklists are there to stimulate thought, not to replace it”. Processes for people are there to guide not to replace observation and judgment.

The human resources ‘process’ has become far too dominant in deciding an employee’s future and engagement. The Resume or CV has become the touchstone of evidence which means that jobs are awarded on experience rather than potential. This lets everyone off the hook. Experience is all there on the CV. If true – that’s something else again – it is unassailable. Judgment of potential is clearly not proven by CV or any other historical evidence. It is visible only through perception, engagement and judgment at an interview. The consequences can take a year or more to emerge.

This is a clear case of process taking over from judgment. Do you know the ten questions you should ask of a potential employee who you are to interview? I’m sure many of you do! They are not questions of experience (you can already see that) or education (it’s all there for you). They are not fixed, they vary with every candidate, every job and every time when an interview is to be held. If I am interviewing someone for a job I write them down before the interview and make sure they are not the same old questions everyone asks. I want smart people to work for me.

Of course some people are frightened of smart employees, even today. Well, they’d better get over it.  The pressure of people wanting jobs, the extreme competition exerted by the economic fallout from the pandemic and the pace of change imposed by these two elements is of a different order from what applied six months ago.

 If you’re dealing with people you need to be smarter and to hire smarter.

Don’t process them, assess them.


Today’s questions:

What are the five important things to learn about a potential employee from an interview?

Over what issue does processing people cause the most damage to a business?