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Keep It Simple

A man wearing glasses and a blue shirt.

This article is excerpted from Chapter 15 of HR On Purpose!! Developing Deliberate People Passion (SHRM Books, 2017), written by Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP. 

I've seen human resources evolve over my career. It's the only industry and profession that I've been in for 30-plus years. It's fascinating to see what started as personnel is now focused on talent and humanizing the workplace. 

One thing that has unfortunately become a stereotype of HR is the stacks and stacks of layers that we add to everything we touch. There has been, and continues to be, a tendency to create massive programs, manuals, policies, and procedures to make sure that every possible work situation is captured, identified, and categorized. It's tiring and cumbersome. No wonder more people leave HR than stay in the profession. 

This doesn't have to be our approach or how we should be defined. However, it takes a very intentional personal step to break with tradition and go against the flow. Most HR people are more content to ride the stream and deftly negotiate the ebbs and flows of people and organizations. What I'm going to suggest is that you jump out of your boat of comfort and fully immerse yourself in changing how HR is practiced. 

Employee engagement is where I want you to start. It is a reality of organizations that the more employees are engaged in what they do in their roles, the more likely they are to perform, stay with the company, and even encourage others to join them. A multitude of blogs, webinars, conferences, and presentations promise to improve engagement in your company. People either offer a "silver bullet" approach or a five- to seven-step guarantee that never fails. 

Neither works. We're talking about people, not another programmatic effort. 

It astonishes me that companies are willing to invest thousands of dollars in some off-the-shelf program to get people to be more engaged. If one attempt fails, we are tasked with finding the next, great vendor that will make it stick—this time. The endless cycle of churning is another stereotype and pitfall of HR in organizations, and it has to stop. 

The radical step I'm encouraging you to consider, and then act on, is to simplify your approach.

Reading this, you're probably thinking that simplification is an easy out or a way to cut corners. It's some sort of HR shtick or parlor trick that won't yield legitimate, measurable results. I beg to differ and can show you an example of how simplification works and continues to evolve. 

The way I define "engagement" is this: The more employees are connected to the work they do and to the organization as a whole, the more engaged they are. 

That's it. Now, producing this connectivity takes extensive, intentional effort and a willingness to redefine the norms within a company culture. It goes against every fiber of how you've been taught as an HR professional and how others practice in more traditional ways. You see, we tend to jump to the desired result we want (employee engagement), and we rush through the steps we could take to involve employees and connect them to the company. 

Let me show you how it can work: I work for a regional family pizzeria that has been in business for 60-plus years in the Greater Cincinnati area. The company is a local icon and a staple of the community. We have great team members, and we wanted to make sure we recognized them for all that they do for us.

We had practiced traditional recognition of our team members based on their years of service by having a massive, formal sit-down dinner at a local conference center. Remember that we have people who work in shifts on various days and at various times. No two team members work the same schedule. However, we asked them all to meet us at a location that wasn't their place of work at a time convenient to corporate leadership (me included). 

Don't get me wrong: The banquets were wonderful when it came to the feel, environment, food, and the personal recognition given to folks who had reached 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 years of service. However, after every banquet, the corporate leaders and the team members felt that it was somewhat "icky" (that's an official HR term). We were going through the motions of recognition, but it didn't reflect the warm, inviting, family-oriented culture of our restaurants and our brand.

One year the day after yet another recognition soiree, my boss came to my office and said, "This doesn't feel right. Everything seems forced, and people are uncomfortable. I want you to change it so that we're truly recognizing our people." 

I asked if I had any boundaries or if I could be creative in doing this. He said that I had a clean slate, but that it had to be sustainable and matter to people. Not an easy task. My staff and I looked at various options and ideas, but each became just as layered and cumbersome as what we were doing. So I took the step to simplify it and strip it down completely. 

The program that I came up with is to give team members a gift card that they could use however they choose, a card from the CEO and president thanking them for their years of service, balloons, and a bag of smiley-face cookies. You see, our culture follows the mantra to "Reach Out and Make Smiles," so the cookies worked. 

The second, and most critical, component of this program is that I visit team members during their shift regardless of the time, location, or date they work. I want to thank them for the work they do at their workplace because that is where they have performed their work for at least the past five years.

My boss loves it, and it has been our recognition program ever since. In fact, team members at our locations now anticipate receiving their cookies and wonder when that guy from HR is coming to visit. We have grand celebrations that are personal, one-on-one, and genuine. I've experienced reactions ranging from surprise to warm hugs, and even tears. All for balloons and cookies. 

Employees will NEVER be engaged unless HR is engaged first and models that engagement by taking it directly to where the employees work. The model takes a ton of my time, but it's worth every moment.

Step back, HR, from what you're currently doing when it comes to recognition. Deconstruct it and evaluate what you're really doing when you recognize employees. People are yearning to be acknowledged for who they are and what they do. Engage them by being engaged yourself. When you do, you will transform them and your organization. 

An accomplished speaker, writer, and thought leader on human resource management for more than 30 years, Steve Browne is dedicated to connecting the global HR community and helping it learn and grow together. A longtime HR professional, he is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Board of Directors and facilitates a monthly HR roundtable, the weekly HR Internet forum "HR Net," and a nationally recognized HR blog, Everyday People. 

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