Making Work Worth It

We’ve all seen him: that employee standing still amid a flurry of motion, with an expression that clearly says, “Why do I have this job?” These days, though, it’s no longer just the lone worker in a sea of busy people. Recently, I stood in line at a large airport’s Starbucks that was fortunate enough to have four employees. Three of them were watching the fourth do all the work. As they stood there wearing the increasingly commonplace face of indifference, it occurred to me that if this is part of the heavily predicted “new normal,” the future is likely to be very abnormal.

We can try to analyze the causes—the disintegration of effective parenting, poor leadership, low pay, the many COVID-19 issues, or people simply no longer caring. But let’s consider taking a break from the “What’s wrong with people these days?” movement and start to examine the job itself. People (including me) talk a lot about employee engagement, which is in equal measure extremely important and largely lacking. While engagement certainly plays a part in this disconnect, it’s time to explore what we may have done to make work itself not really worth it.

Many people say that jobs they’ve held five years or more are much harder today, requiring more effort and producing less fulfillment. Why would that be? Let’s take a quick look at what may have changed about how we do our jobs and how we might attempt to make some improvements.

Recent technology has not improved much. Many agree that technology seemed to get better over time until about 2015, when software somehow got slower or weirder, problems increased, and things became more tedious. Suddenly, tech advances didn’t seem so advanced.

If we’re being honest, we might admit that software is not always the solution, especially when the software is not any better. To keep selling software, we have to give it more bells and whistles to compensate for the fact that it’s not much of a step forward. It’s like selling cereal. If all you have are carbs and sugar, you’ve got to put honey in it and a cute bear on the box (because honey is not sugar, and bears aren’t at all dangerous) to sell more of it. Lately, it seems some software is missing the basic functions—much like your first experience staring into a box of Grape Nuts cereal and realizing immediately there’s not a single grape or nut in there!

My aim is not to beat up the software (and apparently the cereal) industry. Some software giants are actually my clients. But a quick survey in most companies will tell you software used to be better. “Used to be better” should not be something we hear about technology.

Some great systems don’t work for humans. A job that requires a person to continually correct failures, with those failures often being the same failure requiring repeated correction, burns people out. It seems every industry has that one job that nobody can do for more than a year before quitting with extreme disgust. In such jobs, the system in general may be great in its effectiveness; it’s just not anything an actual person wants to do for a living.

Certain systems or supervisors can lead to an employee’s waning job performance or growing dissatisfaction. It’s called set-up-to-fail syndrome, and it’s certainly nothing new. What is new is that we’ve taught young employees to work smarter and not harder, and they were definitely listening: Today’s young workers will not put up with what a 26-year-old would put up with in 1998. And they shouldn’t. Things should, in fact, be better and easier.

Talent irrelevance keeps some great candidates pigeonholed. Sometimes you can’t be promoted to a job that maximizes your talent unless you’re good in areas where you don’t have any talent. That sounds convoluted, so I’ll provide an example. Kelsey is a teller who wants to be a sales rep at the bank. She has an excellent manner with customers and she’s a very good salesperson already, with many clients daily seeking her advice on new bank products. However, she’s not great with details and her money count is often off. She’s told she must improve a natural weakness before she can use her real strength: She can’t be a sales rep unless she’s a great teller. She quits, and someone who can’t sell but can count gets the sales job.

Irrelevant talent as a prerequisite is quite common. As antiquated as this mind-set might seem, many organizations heavily defend it. It’s like promoting someone to be a lifeguard because they’re really good at cleaning the pool—it’s ridiculous.

We’ve all learned the importance of leadership skills, employee engagement, and clear communication that creates a vision people can easily follow. As important as those three things are to keeping employees on the job, we have to make sure the job itself is worth having first. Great guidance and care don’t mean much when your basic existence is intolerable. It’s like kindly and clearly explaining where the fire exits are to a guy who’s already on fire.

As we all know, people are more likely to be committed when they feel appreciated. People who feel valued are much more likely to value their job and their direct supervisor. But as quiet quitting (reducing your efforts at work), boss blaming, and generational shaming become the trends, it is time to look at how we may have made the work itself the thing that is driving this “decade of our discontent.”

Hard to Hire

How to stop getting ghosted

24-year-old Hunter is confused. He’s looking for a job, but after two supposedly successful interviews he’s still in the hiring process. In fact, he is in the same multi-interview process with three other companies, all of which have told him repeatedly how interested they are in him. But if he is such a perfect fit for the corporate world, why is he still at home gaming online all day with dudes in Finland?

Hunter’s opinion is that these companies are much more interested in questioning his worthiness than understanding why he is right for the job. He feels undervalued by organizations that have not even hired him yet! He’s starting to think about quitting a job he has not officially been offered. He thinks, “Maybe I can just take some time off”—whatever that means when you don’t have a job—“or go back and get a master’s degree.”

Because Hunter lives at home (with parents who are actually kind of glad he still lives with them), he does not have any significant bills to pay. Getting a job is what society tells him he needs to do, but it is not in any way what he actually has to do. If you’re thinking Hunter’s circumstances are rare, you’re not aware of what is now a cultural norm; Pew Research reports that 52% of young adults (ages 18-29) in the U.S. now live with their parents.

Between long, often confusing hiring practices that make sensitive young people feel “pre- rejected” and minimum motivation to get out and start an independent life, companies will need to dramatically and quickly change their approach to hiring. Below are three tips that have proved effective in helping organizations hire the young workers they need right now. 

  1. Hire faster. These days, if you cannot make a decision on a candidate after two interviews, the issue is likely your hiring process and not the candidate. If you don’t speed up your hiring, expect to be ghosted often, even by those who’ve accepted the job. Remember that when you’re young, the future is next week.
  2. Engage at first sight. Make it extremely obvious how valuable these promising young candidates are to your organization and how their specific talents and abilities can help your company to succeed. Also let them know how their job (and they themselves) will make a difference in the world. People in their 20s are very literal; they will not believe you genuinely value them unless you specifically state it.
    2.5. Pause for the cause. Making young candidates watch an 18-minute orientation video that they cannot pause is a guaranteed way to make them not feel valuable during recruiting or onboarding. Considering they can pause Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and every other video on earth, it makes them feel you don’t know who they are. If there’s one cause all young people can get behind, it’s the pause.
  3. Remove repetition. Young candidates complain of being strung along. Giving them Birkman-ish tests and assessments that ask the exact same questions you asked in a phone/onsite interview makes them feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Make sure your hiring process moves forward in an orderly fashion and it’s not just a random “gauntlet” of approval.

With the complexities of young people believing the company they’re applying to should have unwavering fairness and a flexible work environment, the real barrier to finding good people (according to the most qualified candidates themselves) is that getting hired seems unnecessarily demoralizing and annoying. And that’s not paraphrasing—that’s exactly what they’ve said! In a series of casual interviews over six months, we were shocked to hear repeatedly from 20- to 32-year-old job candidates that the interview process was humiliating, something they’d prefer not to do if they could find a way around it. Not only did the bad job-search experience drive many to consider doing something with their future besides working; it also was the leading cause of underemployment for those with educations in specific fields. In short, don’t be surprised to learn that your Uber driver has a master’s degree.

We’re not totally off base if we blame employee shortages on the employees themselves. And there’s certainly some truth to the lack of candidates out there: almost half (48%) of unemployed young adults are not looking for a full-time job, reports the Brookings Institute. But it’s interesting that so many of those candidates point to the hiring process as the real culprit. Admittedly, it’s not easy to match the expectations of those who’ve been groomed to expect a lot. Still, we must make sure that in our desperate attempt to get it right, we have not actually increased our chances of getting it wrong.

A Hopefully “Not-Too-Brave” New World

3 things we learned (relearned) about safety from COVID    

Over the past couple of years, more people than ever think safety is important — even Jimmy, who never wore his safety glasses when the boss wasn’t looking and once proclaimed “I am way too smart to get hurt”, is now talking about situational awareness and PPE. During the height of the pandemic, without warning, he was spraying hand sanitizer on other people’s hands!

Although this heightened awareness of safety seems beneficial for getting people to buy into a safety culture, we have to wonder if this will improve things long term. Here are three things that should take us beyond COVID and into a world with a new belief in the importance of safety.

  1. Safety can be rolled out quickly and effectively. The time of COVID has proven that it does not take a year to build a sustainable safety culture (and that sometimes impatience is a virtue).
  2. Direct/frontline supervisor buy-in is the absolute key to a daily, boots-on-the-ground safety culture. If frontline leaders have employee engagement skills, then your safety program will stick! If you want your culture to be sticky, you have to spread it through the right people (okay, I could have worded that differently).
  3. Safety is part of who we are — survivors. The human race (and even Jimmy) has the ability to adapt, and we have seen how being set in our ways leads to failure. In short, complacency breeds arrogance: when you stop getting better, you start screwing up!

As we cautiously (and I’m using the word “cautiously” cautiously) move into the post-COVID world, we come out much safer than we went in! The goal now is to implement what we know will work. Equally as important, we emerge with a new mission to finally see safety as something we all believe is a core value that individuals (and organizations) can make happen every day.

Safety Programs: