Dealing With HR Contradictions

It’s hard to know what to believe sometimes. In every field, there are multiple viewpoints. While there are groundswells and bandwagons galore, consensus is seldom, if ever, attainable. That’s why it’s important to realize there is more than one right answer to most questions and more than one solution to most problems, so butting heads doesn’t solve anything.

two cows butting headsPhoto by Andy Rogers, Wikimedia Commons

For example, here are three competing and sometimes contradictory themes I’ve come across recently in HR.

Best Friends at Work

Both Fast Company and Harvard Business Review have written recently on the topic of finding friends at work. In their article Why Having Friends at Work is So Important, Fast Company’s Lydia Dishman ties having workplace friends to happiness and engagement. In the HBR piece (In the Age of Loneliness, Connections at Work Matter), Tim Leberecht paints a picture of increasingly lonely people reaching out for connection in the workplace: not just any connection, but true social intimacy.

On the flipside of this theme, former principle with Gallup (whose research likely initiated the discussion), has become skeptical of the notion. His article (Stop Using Employee Friendships to Measure Engagement), also in the Harvard Business Review, suggests that employers should not be in the business of fostering friendship and social intimacy at work, but are better served by building a culture of collaboration and accountability.

Applicant Tracking Systems

The introduction of applicant tracking systems was met with excitement as visions of a more streamlined recruiting process danced in the heads of overworked recruiters. The Undeniable Reasons for embracing the technology were touted widely and the industry generally agreed that Every Recruiter Should Use an ATS.

Still, an increasing number of recruiters are expressing frustration with the limitations of their applicant tracking systems. ATS technology is exceptional at filtering through hundreds of resumes based on pre-defined parameters. But it’s much less effective at identifying the exceptional. It seems that even the perfect resume may be discarded by an ATS focused on weeding-out. Besides, candidate experience matters and many candidates hate that an applicant tracking system eliminates them from consideration based on their vocabulary, not to mention some abysmal usability.

Unlimited Vacation

Companies like Netflix and Gravity Payments see unlimited vacation days as a win/win policy. Employees benefit from the increased flexibility and feel more valued by their employers. At the same time, organizations can remove accrued vacation liability from their balance sheets and reduce administrative overhead. Everyone benefits from the morale boost that comes with a shift to outcome driven performance expectations and increased trust (according to one study, a 10% increase in workplace trust is worth a 30% increase in pay to employees!) Taking it one step further, Richard Branson sees unlimited vacation as simply a reflection of changing times, writing in his blog on the subject:

“Flexible working has revolutionized how, where and when we all do our jobs. So, if working nine to five no longer applies, then why should strict annual leave (vacation) policies?”

As usual, not everyone agrees with this rosy interpretation of unlimited PTO. Some detractors feel such a policy would be abused, costing employers a fortune in lost productivity. Others spring to the defense of employees who already under-utilize available vacation time, claiming that peer pressure and management’s “true expectations” will lead to even less vacation time being taken. A number of companies who’ve implemented the policy have found that employees take fewer vacations days or express confusion about how much vacation time is appropriate. Tribune Publishing Company had to rescind its unlimited PTO policy when employees decided to sue. It seems employees had been using accrued vacation days as a form of forced savings to be cashed in when they left the company. A small tech company in Berlin had to modify their unlimited vacation policy to a minimum vacation policy when employees were taking so little vacation time that it was leading to burnout.

What to Do When “It Depends”

There is always more than one side to every story. Whether a particular philosophy, technology or policy works in your organization depends on a lot of variables. Remember that every decision will have both intended and unintended consequences—and you will have to deal with both! With that in mind, when anticipating a significant change in your workplace, it pays to:

  • Consider the change thoughtfully from multiple angles before implementing,
  • Know (and be honest about) what you’re trying to accomplish,
  • Solicit (and listen to) input from those who will be affected,
  • Monitor both desired and unintended outcomes, and
  • Refine as required.


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