The Best of Intentions

One of my favorite statements, when speaking to a group of executives, is: Few people come to work with the intention of screwing up.  I follow that up with a statement about the importance of sustainable leadership – that process whereby expectations are clear, feedback is frequent, correction is immediate, and value is appreciated.

So often I find leaders taking the first step and setting expectations, then sitting back and watching for the magic to happen.  It usually doesn’t.

Changing a mindset (which is what leadership is really all about – helping the employee shift from “just okay” to “wow”) takes a sustainable process loop of review-adjust-review-adjust.

With anything, it has to be the whole process, from start to finish and then starting all over again.  There is no “one and done” when it comes to a collective group of people.

A recent article reminded me just how important that sustainable process is, even in policies and regulations.  The article is “We All Quit:  How America’s workers are taking back their power.”  The media has been rife with articles about staffing shortages, and blame is flying from one political pole to the other, and back again.

My husband and I don’t bother going to restaurants anymore.  We can’t get seated and we can’t get served.  The staff is kind and apologetic and quick to tell us that they can’t find help.  Some lay blame on the pandemic unemployment boost, saying employees make more in unemployment than in their job.  Those few restaurants that are thriving are quick to mention that they pay very well and don’t have a problem.

So when I read the article, it sparked a trip back in time for me, to my 40+ years in Human Resources for some very large companies.  It was so well written, that it caused me to examine and question some of the rules of my profession that I learned and applied every day.  Let me see if I can explain, because I think this is an important context for everyone to consider.

Human Resources Ground Rules

The article made me wonder if perhaps there are some ground rules that have contributed to our current predicament, at least in some small ways.  A Human Resources ground rule is a practice, a protocol, a way of doing business that is standard practice, not to be deviated from.

One of those ground rules relates to fixed pay vs variable pay.  When an employee is granted a raise – an increase to their base salary. It becomes the new base from which future budgets are created – it becomes a fixed cost.  A fixed cost stays on the liabilities side of the corporate balance sheet forever unless the pay is reduced (not likely) or the employee leaves.

Variable pay, wildly popular with many organizations, includes bonuses or incentives that only pay out when they are earned, thus “funding” the cost of the payment with an increase in revenue or profit. No incremental future personnel costs are incurred by the organization unless there is additional revenue to fund it.

Human Resources Ground Rule #1:

Don’t add to fixed expense unless necessary.  Use variable pay when possible.  In theory, this makes great sense.  But theory needs to be balanced by common sense.

The article “We all quit” addresses employers who are trying to attract new employees by paying a hiring bonus, with an Amazon warehouse offering $3,000 to come on board and work specific shifts. The bonus looks quite appealing until you spend it all trying to catch up with the cost of living and find yourself in the same predicament, or worse.

[Side note:  the article mentions paying candidates to interview.  How do you spell W.A.S.T.E?]

In the article, a professor was quoted as saying, “’ What they don’t want to do is establish a permanent higher norm, so instead of $15 an hour, they say here’s a bonus. You can have free lunches. We’ll pay for your tuition. Employers will do anything to not improve wages in a permanent fashion.’”

I get it. It made sense to me throughout my time in HR.  Does is fit the test of common sense today?

Human Resources Ground Rule #2:

Unions = bad.  My career has been exclusively non-union organizations, so I cannot talk to the nature or culture of a union shop.  The picture that has been painted for non-union shops is pretty much like creating the fake cemetery where Beetlejuice jumps out of the grave.

I have been privileged to be part of organizations that really did care about their employees and took great pains to create a culture that went beyond pay (which was good) to the holistic concept of culture and engagement.

The article doesn’t take a stand on the value of unions but does make a statement that does discuss the plight of the low-paid worker whose choices in employment are limited.  It also mentions the new (at least for me) practice of requiring employees to sign agreements that prohibit them from going to competitors to work for several months.

What I took from the article is that employees in large, multi-site restaurants or shops really have nowhere to turn to address and hopefully amend their poor employment situation.

So maybe ground rule #2 might not be quite as dogmatic as we, in HR, have always thought it should be?

Rules and Regulations have a shelf life

Just like a leader must practice sustainable leadership to facilitate shifts in performance and culture, so must organizations.

The world, the country, the organization is a fluid entity.  Employees come and go.  Customers come and go. The community, the state, and the contextual factors that influence how people behave ripple subtly until one day, we sit back and say, “What the hell happened?”

That employee who really didn’t want to screw up keeps on screwing up.  She probably still doesn’t really want to screw up, but she hasn’t gotten the expectations, the feedback, or the praise that helps her climb to the next level.

So it is with organizations. At some point, employees say “Enough.”  At what point do these same organizations take a real, hard look at the problem instead of putting the same band-aid on the gaping wound?

We shouldn’t really wonder where this is all coming from.  We should have been looking at it [review, adjust, review, adjust] all along.

The staffing shortage is all our problems.  Only collectively, with open minds, can we begin to address it in a sustainable way.

We start with the best of intentions.  But those intentions may be overcome by events around us that change.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. An organization must have the ability to respond to events, to monitor what is happening, to be able to predict risks and opportunities and, finally, to learn from past experience.
    The world is changing much faster than organizations and this forces entrepreneurs to rapidly transform their structures to try to recover speed of response to all sorts of solicitations.
    However, this requires an adequate culture, resilient managers, resilient workers, collaborators who help the system to develop strategies to implement innovations, rebuild the roles and values of the company, develop greater flexibility and expand the communication network by managing the stress of employees and collaborators in all its phases.
    The wage problems mentioned in the article are complex problems that are very present in many countries and would require common sense but also the courage to face changes when they only create problems for the entrepreneur and employees.

    • The complexity you mention is real, and it isn’t just pay – it is the hierarchies involved, the power structure of leadership, the ability for leaders to recognize that it isn’t all about the numbers. Appreciate your comment.

  2. Hi Cynthia, and thank you for commenting. I agree that results can follow, but that means both executive leaders and HR need to take the time to think, and in today’s business world, I don’t see that happening. But Hr can be a significant catalyst for change – that, I have proven.