At work, our Communications Director is fond of saying that you have to repeat your message 12 times before people hear it. Well, I must be above-average, because I only had to be told four times (and work 13 years in Human Resources) before I understood what it meant to think of job applicants as customers. This is the story of my remedial path to grasping the obvious.
The first time: February
I read an entertaining rant entitled Computerized HR Departments and had a brief exchange with its author, “noahvail,” about online application systems. At the time, my organization’s online application was a source of daily concern and I knew we would have to replace it soon. Since his rant’s primary complaints were far from our rudimentary problems (Keyword matching? If only!), I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I was sorry that Noah had had negative, irritating experiences as an applicant, but deep down I was disappointed that he and the people commenting on his post didn’t understand the scope of HR’s responsibilities in hiring. They assumed the root cause of an online application and screening program was laziness. “It only takes a few seconds to read a resume!” they said. Yes, fine, I thought, but that’s not the point at all.
The second time: June
Our replacement project approved, I was hip-deep in Applicant Tracking System (ATS) information and feeling overwhelmed. Late in the day one Friday, I threw out a plea to my Twitter followers: HR, do you love or hate your Applicant Tracking System? In spite of being connected to many, many fine HR people, the only responses I received were solicitations from three ATS salespeople and, from @noahvail, “I refer you to our conversation four months ago.” This sparked another brief exchange wherein I attempted to justify my professional choices in 140-character chunks and Noah graciously let me off the hook. Again, I shrugged and returned to work.
The third time: July
My coworkers and I were much better informed about our ATS options, but still adrift. After too many product demos we felt that any of the systems would be an improvement over our current one and it seemed they all basically did the same things. We started a large chart comparing product features, but abandoned it when it only reinforced the products’ similarities. We had spoken with other HR professionals about their systems and read ATS discussions on HR message boards. One system was very popular in the public sector and came highly recommended by colleagues I admired. Another system dominated the overall market (public or private) and was praised by HR professionals online. While prices varied, all but two were within our budget and those two had indicated a willingness to negotiate. I didn’t want to default to the cheapest or the one that “everyone used,” but I didn’t know how to choose.
Desperate and internet-dependent, I started Googling product names. When one of the hits was, “I hate (product),” I Googled that phrase for each ATS. Trying it for the market-leading ATS produced 4 pages of search results. I found at least two blogs dedicated to hating this product. I clicked, read, and realized the haters were all job-seekers. Applicants hated the product HR people loved most. (Pause now to picture, not a light bulb over my head, but an anvil sinking me Wile E. Coyote-style into the earth.) With this realization, I immediately went to the website of an organization I knew had recently installed the popular public-sector ATS and applied for a job. It was a frustrating, cumbersome, unintuitive process. We had been seriously considering this product. I was horrified.
The fourth time: Still July
I looked up companies that used the products we were considering and applied for jobs on their sites. I hadn’t applied for a job since 2004; the experience was eye-opening. My previously-absent light bulb blinked on: Noah. I quickly contacted him to ask if there were specific company job sites that had prompted his February rant. He provided two and, sure enough, both were powered by products we were considering. That’s when it finally occurred to me that I had been focused on the wrong end of the ATS. On the back end the systems were all so similar, and my organization’s needs so basic, that it seemed impossible to distinguish one product from another. But on the front end, the applicant-interface end, the products were very different. It was this end that would represent my organization to our customers.
At home that evening I spent three hours applying for jobs. The next day I asked my coworkers to spend some time applying too. They were not thrilled by this request, but it succeeded in changing our team’s focus. We were quickly able to narrow our product list from eight to three: the three that had provided the smoothest applicant experiences. The two market leaders, the ones all the HR folks we had talked to loved, were out the window. I felt simultaneously enlightened and moronic: I had made the right shift, but why had it been needed? Why hadn’t I tested the applicant’s perspective from the beginning?
In all our initial product demos I had asked the salesperson to show me the applicant side, but that had been a guided demonstration on a fake site. Applying on my own on real company job sites had been an entirely different experience.
As I write this, in late August, we have signed a contract with our chosen Applicant Tracking System and are just beginning product implementation. At work today I had an interesting exchange with a coworker as we worked to determine “required” fields on an ATS form that hiring managers (who are also HR’s customers) will complete to request a job posting. I favored fewer required fields and more optional ones because I thought that would be easier and faster for the manager. My coworker favored making all fields required, with “n/a” as a choice the manager could select for fields that did not apply, because that would ensure the information was complete.
After a moment’s thought my coworker said, “You’re just going to have to keep telling me to get over it.”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m going to want to make everything required. I want every box checked so that I know the person looked at every part and the information we need is there – but that favors us, not them. I have to re-think it. So as we go through this process, just keep telling me to get over it.”
I gawked at her. She’d been thinking it over. She understood my goal – our goal – in trying to make a necessary evil as painless as possible for people. She and I both are just beginning to understand how difficult that will be. We have to re-think it, every day.
At work we offer two dental plans. The first one is the plan you hear jaunty radio ads for; the name-brand plan. Nearly all of our employees choose it. The second plan is the discount, HMO-type dental plan that yeah, we offer, but very few employees select. The second plan has a bad reputation.
A representative from the second plan visited our office for the first time last week. She was nice, knowledgeable, and clearly on an image-repair mission. She told us her organization had recently reviewed and improved every aspect of its operations.
The #1 objection to the discount plan I had heard was that patients had to wait a ridiculously long time to get an appointment. The rep said the organization’s leaders had heard that too and couldn’t figure out why it was. The number of patients per clinic or scheduled appointments per week didn’t support this claim, yet they heard it time and again.
A close look at the operations of their centralized appointment center explained it: long ago, the dental providers had instructed the appointment setters to schedule only one type of appointment each day. Monday would be set aside for hygiene appointments, Tuesday for fillings, etc. This established a stable routine for the dental clinics which the providers enjoyed, and it probably worked fine when the business was new.
An unknown number of years later, however, this practice meant that if you were a patient of Dr. Smith’s who needed a crown, and Dr. Smith also had 10 other patients who needed crowns, and Dr. Smith only did crowns on Thursdays, well . . . how does five Thursdays from now sound?
So — in what had to have been an enormous cultural change — the top brass blew the old appointment-setting system up. All dental providers now provide all services on any day of the week. The rep beamed at us as she finished this tale, saying, “You can get an appointment the same week you call! We even have same-day appointments!”
How many years did Discount Dental shake its collective head as patients walked out the door and annual enrollments declined? How many years did clinic staff say, when leadership asked, “I don’t know why people think they can’t get an appointment – why, we had three openings this week!”
How long did it take before someone with the power to change it thought to ask how the appointments were scheduled?
This story is a perfect (and entertaining) reminder for Human Resources professionals to step back and examine our systems. Is a decision made years ago about a routine process holding back our success today? What don’t we see because, as Madge used to say, we’re “soaking in it?”
Over the years I’ve seen several systems theory problem-solving models. The one currently pinned to my bulletin board is the Waterline Model by Roger Harrison. In the past I have used it when talking to supervisors about “difficult” employees, because it encourages the supervisor to step back from blaming the employee and look at the surrounding situation first. This year I am going to use it to analyze the systems around our department’s tough problems.
I know we’re soaking in something - and it’s not Palmolive.
A few weeks ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Deborah Cadbury promoting her book Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers. As much as I love chocolate, what struck me about this interview was her description of the founders’ “Quaker Capitalism,” where the goal of the business was to benefit its employees and community.
“As soon as they were able,” Cadbury told NPR, “they were doing things like raising the wages of their workforce, introducing Saturdays off, introducing pensions, introducing unemployment benefits and sickness benefits, and even free doctors, free dentists and vitamin pills for staff.” This was in England in the mid-1800s. As I was driving around listening to this, I had to wonder how Cadbury Brothers’ ideals had been received in the land of Oliver Twist. Surely they were mocked.
The business was successful enough that in 1879, Cadbury opened a larger factory out in the countryside. This unusual location was chosen to benefit workers. According to a BBC News article on the topic, “George [Cadbury] was driven by a passion for social reform and wanted to provide good quality low cost homes for his workers in a healthy environment – giving an alternative to grimy city life. So he set about building a village where his workers could live.”
I’ve kept thinking about Cadbury Brothers while studying the history of U.S. labor law this week. (I’m preparing for the SPHR certification exam.) It’s easy enough to drop a reference like Oliver Twist and malign the societal and working conditions of an entire country, but conditions weren’t much better on this side of the pond. The Industrial Revolution was a brutal time and United States workers were treated deplorably, with the full backing of our legal system.
Only after years of violence, death, fraud and (gasp!) the obstruction of commerce did the federal government take action to formally codify and improve labor relations in this country. Thanks to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and all of the federal employment laws that followed, the United States has the working conditions we enjoy (and continue to complain about) today. This federal interference in business – still lamented by some in 2010 – was necessary, because whether in London or New York, the sweatshops outnumbered the philanthropic chocolate factories 25,000 to 1. Industry on its own would never have made these changes.
Our current system is flawed and there are days I would love to throw collective bargaining out the window, but whatever its present state, the labor movement’s shaping of our nation’s employment experience is enormous and enduring. And as I take two days off to spend with my family each week, and work in a temperature-controlled environment with regular lunch breaks and the expectation of health benefits – even as I bite back unkind words about some recent action of our Local – I am grateful.
Holly is our Women of HR Featured Contributor this week. Click over to meet her and see what she has to say about herself, her career, and her views on the workplace and the women in it.
Photo via Washington Post courtesy of Publicaffairs
This morning in the July/August issue of FAST COMPANY I read about Cynthia Warner (pictured), former head of global refining for BP. The article was about former oil execs leaving their posts for jobs in the growing field of renewable energy - but that’s not what caught my attention.
Warner briefly described starting out as a woman in the oil industry nearly 30 years ago and the discrimination she faced, including what I would describe as “hazing” on an oil rig. I took one look at the confident picture of Warner and felt sure she had taken whatever they dished out and kept moving forward with a smile. This woman was bad-ass. She didn’t let it get her down and she didn’t sue. She succeeded.
Had I just thought that?
I don’t think less of people when they sue or file a complaint for legitimate reasons. That’s why we have employment laws - to rein in crap like hazing on oil rigs. In fact, when I read employment law cases I’m often appalled at the bad behavior of the plaintiff’s coworkers and management. Tied for my first two thoughts are: “of course they sued!” and “oh, I feel sorry for that HR department.” These are the legitimate cases. Naturally, I also do plenty of eye-rolling and indignant sputtering as I read the other ones.
Equal Employment Opportunity is not just a federal law I’m charged with helping my organization uphold, it’s a personal conviction. And yet Cynthia Warner, and my now-retired aunt who fought her way up through the ranks at Boeing, and thousands of other women who persevered and proved themselves day after day in the face of bigoted jerks and discriminatory policies, who succeeded without the help of the courts . . . these women are John Wayne to me.
It’s not that I think less of the women who have to take legal action; it’s that I idolize those in the generation before us who never did. As a Gen-Xer I’ve gone through my entire work life expecting that I would not be discriminated against. When I bump up against prejudice or downright mean-spirited bigotry in the workplace I’m surprised. Didn’t they get the memo? It’s not 1969.
How privileged am I to be able to have that mindset?