Who Is Teaching Your Staff?

Layoffs involving senior experienced staff and the proliferation of free but untested online information both continue to grow in the HR/staffing community. Does this pose a potential quality control problem? Try this scenario out for size: At yesterday’s staff planning meeting, the HR/staffing representative was tasked with the mission of developing a reliable list of legal and illegal interview questions, which is to be placed on a simple handout for all hiring managers to use to train their interviewing staff. Being the survivor of the previous two years of bloody headcount slashing in the HR/staffing departments, the HR/staffing representative involved has limited practical experience in developing policies or procedures. So she turns to the web to fill the knowledge gap, in the form of:

  • Sending emails to equally inexperienced peers
  • Sending emails to the various professional “chat room” websites to which they subscribe
  • Visiting favorite sites where they have mined information in the past.

One of the websites she turns to as an information source is www.HREverythingyouneedtoknow.com, which purports to be published by J. Doe, PhD, HR Stuff/Flotsam/Jetsam and a leading consultant to Fortune 500 companies. This is a favorite HR information site, primarily due to the fact that it has a daily HR/staffing joke that is usually pretty good and worth downloading and disseminating. One of the previous newsletters had a section on, “How To Legally Screen Out Possible Candidates Who Are High Risk At Using The Provisions Of The FMLA.” This information is used to develop a “legal” question for female candidates of child-bearing age. Four months later, while your corporate attorney is preparing briefs on one of 27 lawsuits currently pending against your company from female applicants claiming to have been asked an illegal, discriminatory, and biased question, and while also compiling information for a potential audit from the State Department of Labor, in addition to compiling interview and hiring data for federal auditors expected next week due to congressional inquires based on angry female constituent complaints with EEO/AA implications, placing your current $25 million in federal contracts at risk, your corporate counsel discovers that the website www.HREverythingyouneedtoknow.com was actually the brainchild of an HR/Staffing generalist with two years of business experience at a 15-person company. Their B.A. degree is in general studies, and their experience is all OJT, one year as office manager and one year as HR/Generalist in a family-owned company where all the employees are related to the owner and there are no HR/Staffing issues. Consequently Jane/John Doe has nothing better to do than run an “expert” information website based on information they gleam from a website, www.IthinkthisisagoodideaforHRStaffing.uk, managed by the 16-year-old son of an HR/Staffing racist, terminated for cause due to using racial slurs in the workplace and posting anti-female newsletter clippings on the staff bulletin board. At this point, there are three potential outcomes:

  1. All the attorneys, auditors, and angry candidates anticipating high fees, settlements, and fines, upon learning of the totally honest mistake made by a well meaning but inexperienced HR/staffing representative, all laugh and laugh and laugh and go home tearing up their lawsuits, telling you how they understand how these kinds of things can happen and no harm done. (Somewhere in this scenario there should be bunny rabbits and butterflies with a smiling sun chasing away the nasty frowning clouds.)
  2. After surviving devastating settlement costs, your company has to invest a significant amount of its limited surviving cash flow trying to brand your company to prospective customers, investors, and high quality candidates as something other than an anti-female, low-revenue, low-dividend, high-risk investment with questionable capability to meet deliverables (aslthough, the 60 Minutes piece on your company’s fall from grace did earn an Emmy, guaranteeing multiple re-runs throughout the season).
  3. Your company goes Chapter 11 and your HR/staffing representative starts looking in the help wanted ads for a company looking for someone to act as the catalyst for their ultimate destruction (for which I highly recommend the job board of choice for fallen executives, www.I-blew-it.com).

Overstated set of circumstances? Sure! Self-serving hypothetical example designed specifically for the purpose of proving a point? Absolutely! It could never happen to you? Of course not! Maybe. I think. Well, not likely. Right? (Nah! You just have a corporate counsel on retainer because they always have the best lawyer jokes.) The new age of information represented by the Web has guaranteed unlimited access to information. It has also guaranteed unlimited ability to make information available, regardless of knowledge or the right to do so. Which gives rise to the question, is all information of equal value? Of equal importance? How can you discern fact from fraud? Up until ten years ago, availability was usually in direct proportion to value because availability was also in direct proportion to cost. Not a rule that was reliable 100% of the time, but sufficiently so to act as a reliable “first pass litmus test” of sources and resources. The days of print media made access expensive. If a company had a front-page ad in the help wanted section, that did not guarantee that they were financially sound, but it did mean they could pony up $80,000 for an ad. The more often you saw a company’s message, the more certain you could be of its value. Again, not an absolute, but a reasonable first test, as the cost involved in making oneself visible indicated cash flow. To be “commonly known” or “commonly accepted” had a reference value in and of itself. The same was true for self-styled experts. Visibility was too expensive for “hacks” and the liability risk for the publishers was too high not to be cautious. Today, the website of a major player in a specific industry and that of a hobbyist or practical joker can have the same look, limited only by e-talent and access to reasonably priced tools. This is not an issue requiring evil intent; well-meaning amateurs can be as harmful as intentional deceit where information is concerned. One of the other past common methods used to evaluate information sources was experience. Ten-plus years of being “in the business” developing contacts, networks, and resources based on years of trial and error, success and failure, and acquired personal knowledge were the components of perfecting your professional library of fact versus fiction, reliable versus dubious, best practices versus “neat-o” ideas. But reverence for experience has faded. Why? Because experience equates to cost. High levels of professional experience equates to high cost. Several years ago, you did not bother to “brag” about the year your company was established in your market branding efforts until your first half century of continuous operation. Last month I read an ad for a company proudly proclaiming, “Providing service to New England since 1998.” Then again, to have survived the last two years is no mean feat. The value of experience has been deflated by direct access to information…assuming that those with limited inexperience can discern the value to the source and the veracity of the content. With the wholesale slaughter of the HR/staffing community in the last two years, more and more companies appear to be relying heavily on a thinly spread and very junior HR/staffing workforce to act as their navigators along the rocks and shoals of human resources practices. It appears that many, if not most, companies are oblivious to the metaphysical damage a small rocky shoal can do to a “supertanker” taking the wrong turn, or else they are more focused on the advantage of immediate short-term savings that come from cutting senior salaries than the potential strategic damage caused by misinformation or disinformation accepted as fact. Save six digits, lose seven or eight digits. Those who are currently in a position of responsibility with five or less years experience, holding a position previously occupied by a staff of three with a manager of ten or more years experience, need not be marginalized, insulted, or embarrassed by this premise. Experience is a function of time, effort, intelligence, and dedication. You can control only three of four of these items. Time in and of itself is not a value, but the opportunity time offers for the repeating of events as a way of learning, and refining theory by that repetition, is a critical component in the development of proficiency. Bravado is self-defeating and counter-indicating. As I have stated before, the “super person” mindset is a certain course to disaster. If you need heart surgery, who do you want performing the procedure?

  1. The #1 graduate in his class from Harvard Medical School, class of 2000, with 27 similar operations as an assistant, with access to medical websites.
  2. The #25 graduate from a mid-range medical school with 10 years of experience and 375 procedures as the lead surgeon, all successful, and a network of peers with similar experience and backgrounds.
  3. A holistic healer who uses crystals.

If you chose #1, then you probably have less than five years experience and are years away from worrying about your heart. If you chose #2 you probably have more than five years experience, accept the inevitability of needing a heart surgeon one day, and tend to look at the issue less as a theoretical exercise than as one that does hold real risk for you one day. Risk is what separates the luxury of a theoretical exercise from the reality of actual consequences. The #3 choice was for our West Coast readers. To support the above premise, go to any HR/staffing professional website and gauge the questions more frequently asked and the depth and value of the answers. Over the last two years the level of knowledge requested has been increasingly at a more junior level, asked by people with senior “titles.” And with equally increasing frequency the peer answers are often of dubious or untested quality. Remember, in a critical role or function in business, being right 99 times is totally negated by the one time you were wrong. This is especially true in strategic business decisions, investment data, issues with potential litigation, and hand grenades. As a resource, most if not all of the new HR/staffing professionals with five or less years experience turn to the tool of choice of their entire careers, the web. Companies have policies on giving credit to customers, or the control and access of information divulged to potential sub-contractors to protect the company’s intellectual property, and firewalls to prevent external web access beyond a specified level. What is your current corporate policy on verifying and use of information developed from website searches? In other words, do you have stricter policies and procedures regarding giving a customer $25 in credit to buy a widget than you require in your HR/staffing area for valuing information “mined” that carries the potential for millions of dollars in liability if that source is, unintentionally or otherwise, incorrect, inaccurate, or criminally negligent? The Web is like a room full of strangers. There is the potential to make friends, enemies, or waste time with individuals with little or nothing to contribute to your life. How to choose correctly the best person with whom to shake hands is the challenge. Before next week, ask your peers, “What is the litmus test you apply to website resources before you accept the information they offer to influence reports, recommendations or proposed policies? Is the process standardized? The data you downloaded last week from a co-worker, was it also held to the same standard?” Of course, I exclude myself from the above. You can always trust me, right? Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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