Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Big Lie

Is honesty a dead concept inside corporations?  Why do managers lie to their employees?  Is it all just to protect the company against litigation?  "Open and honest feedback" is a catch phrase in the majority of corporate statements on ethics and values - but I believe the reality is that the vast majority of corporate leaders refuse to give *any* feedback - and when they do - it will be (at best) corp-speak: legally blessed yet completely meaningless.  At worst, it will be a complete fabrication - a lie to satisfy the employee and make them shut-up and get out of their office.

I recently read a blog (sorry - I didn't save the link) by an HR recruiter that said that the primary reason many companies do not provide feedback to job candidates is that often that feedback simply starts an argument with the job candidate and leads to job candidates responding with an abusive reply.  I'm sure that's true - especially when the interview was as ridiculous as some of the interviews I have been on - and you then find out that it was a waste of time because they promoted an internal candidate or they give you a BS reason that is an obvious brush off.  Of course, some candidates are also just jerks - and they would blast back at any failure to be hired.

However, is that really a good excuse for a company not living by their own corporate values?  Perhaps they should change the corporate values to say "Open and honest communication, when it is convenient and doesn't lead to conflict."  In addition, even a system generated "thank you for applying, however you have not been selected for this role" is FAR better than simply providing nothing back to the candidate.  How rude do you have to be to invite a candidate in for a face-to-face interview, then simply never respond to the candidates phone calls or emails asking for a status?  Are you really that busy, or do you simply have so little thought for another human being?  I suspect the latter - because job candidates are not really people - they are just resumes or names in a database.

Of course, it's not just the recruiting process where honesty is dead.  Lack of honest communication runs rampant through organizations.  I pity the poor employee who actually believes the senior executive when they give the "I have an open door policy" speech.  The typical senior executive wants to hear only "It's done" from their employees.  If you are part of the inner circle of a corporate leader, you can see the planning that goes into the half-truths, misdirection and spin-doctoring at the top - of course, you won't see the planning that goes into the spin applied to *you*...

The typical justification for not being honest when speaking to employees is that managers "must do what's in the best interest of the company."  If they actually told the employees that they will all be replaced within a year with lower cost offshore contractors, the employees would all bail and the corporation would grind to a halt.  So, the managers lie.  They say that the future looks bright.  They say that you are a key member of the team that will lead the company into the future.  They say that there are no plans to cut staff.  They say these things at the same time they are working with HR to eliminate your position, meeting with candidates to "upgrade" you for another resource and/or working with offshore staffing firms to move your job to Bangalore, Bucharest or Shenzhen.

Once upon a time, when a company wanted to use a different technology, the project would include training for the existing IT staff so that they would be able to work with and support the new technology.  Now, the existing staff is simply replaced with new resources already trained in the new technology.  If there are still older legacy systems that also need to be supported, contractors are hired until those systems can be replaced.  The IT staff is rotated with the systems, and since the typical life of an IT system is 3-5 years, that is also the maximum time you can expect to keep your corporate IT job.

OK - so looking at this from the CEO's position, what's wrong with this scenario?  He's getting the best IT resources for the lowest cost, and he doesn't have to continuously spend money to train his internal staff.  After all, once they are trained, they might just leave the company for another gig anyway.

I see several issues with this short-sighted strategy:

1. No functional business knowledge continuity - It is tempting to believe that the tech geeks in your IT department don't need to understand how your business operates.  That is dead wrong.  The more the technical staff knows about how the business operates, the better your systems will match your true business requirements.  Translating functional business requirements into technical system designs is the absolute key to any successful technology project.  It is the difference between happy & efficient users, and an expensive pile of useless HW & SW.  Fail to recognize this at your peril.

2. Failure to form a Business-IT partnership - If you have fallen into the fallacy of believing your IT staff doesn't need to understand your business, then it must follow that you believe all business knowledge must come from the business users.  Congratulations, what you have just established is the typical Business vs IT organization where neither understands the other's world, and the business sees IT as simply a group of techies that need to be told what to do.  Conversely, IT sees the business as demanding technophobes that have no clue what they are asking IT to build.  There can be no partnership without understanding, and there can be no understanding without knowledge being shared in both directions.  This requires the ability to build long-term relationships at the employee level - not just at the executive table.

3. Lack of Innovation - It's all well and good to hold the CIO responsible for the long-range IT strategic vision - that's his job.  However, the CIO often does not see the day-to-day technical challenges that are faced by his staff.  It is very common for these daily challenges to drive ideas for improvements in processes and systems that represent the source of innovation within the IT department.  If your staff is composed of specialists in your current technology and augmented with low-cost contractors, you may very well have limited the amount of innovation that will be generated by your staff.  An employee looking at a maximum of a 3-5 year gig has very little incentive to maximize efficiency - particularly if that efficiency means a new technology that will ultimately result in them being replaced with another specialist.

4. No commitment - You are simply fooling yourself if you think your employees are unaware that a new technology means the end of their job.  They absolutely do know - they know because they are not receiving training on the new system, and their role on the implementation project is limited to "data conversion and migration" or "legacy system interfaces".  It will only be a personal desire to do good work that will keep your staff motivated.  You haven't earned their commitment and, quite frankly, you don't deserve it.  You will blame your project manager and the project team for not hitting their milestones - but really, you should be looking in the mirror to see who is to blame.

I'm not an executive (clearly!) but to me, the possible gains from this type of short-term thinking does not seem worth it.  Not when very expensive, business critical systems and projects are on the line.

There is another solution - don't lie to your employees.  If you believe a new system will mean an employee will be replaced, then be honest with them.  Tell them the end date, and give them an incentive package to stick around and hit that date.  The money is a pittance compared to failing to complete the new project.  Companies want it all - they want their employees to be happy little trolls toiling away in the salt mines, and they also want the ability to sweep them to the gutter when they aren't needed any longer.  But it won't work. Even the flying monkeys knew she was an evil witch.


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