It was another great year for HR Tech, the world’s leading business conference & expo on technology for Human Resource executives and professionals. From meeting with customers and software vendor CEOs to conversing with attendees at our booth, this year’s conference was packed with great sessions and networking.

For me, it was a chance to learn the latest HR trends and meet a variety of people in the industry.  I wound up with remarkable access to a host of different companies ranging from internet unicorns to Fortune 50 household brands.

Unlike most of the year, when you’re busy with day-to-day business operations, HR Tech gives you an opportunity to chat face to face. 15 minutes in the hall. A second lunch. Breakfast (my least favorite time, but my most interesting meeting this week.) There’s only one constant: It’s non-stop.

One of the overriding themes this year for me was culture. A poor culture results in unhappy employees who will bolt for the door like 500-meter Olympic athletes. Culture is no longer confined within your company’s four walls. Social media will out a bad culture, impacting the ability to attract good candidates. So, inspired by the conference, I’ve come up with four steps to fix a cultural beacon out of focus.

4 Steps to Fix Your Culture.

1. Evaluate Your Application Process

Online applicant solutions are necessary, but too much automation or rigid process can result in a less than optimal candidate pool. For example, automated screening questionnaires typically have ‘knockout questions,’ which range from GPA and experience to skills and competencies. The expectation is that unqualified candidates are filtered out, allowing hiring managers to focus on only the highest skilled applicants. Unfortunately, too tight of a filter will eliminate some of the unique talent that an organization may desperately need.

Problem: Constraining the hiring profile too tightly or sourcing from only one channel may result in a one-dimensional employee population — which in turn limits the sparks of creativity and invention that come with a more varied employee population. The June 2014 Harvard Business Review theme was talent, and in Claudio Fernández-Aráoz’s Big Idea article entitled “21st Century Talent Spotting”, the author makes a convincing case to not hire for skills, but for abilities:

Now we’re at the dawn of a fourth era, in which the focus must shift to potential. In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment (VUCA is the military-acronym-turned-corporate-buzzword), competency-based appraisals and appointments are increasingly insufficient. What makes someone successful in a particular role today might not tomorrow if the competitive environment shifts, the company’s strategy changes, or he or she must collaborate with or manage a different group of colleagues. So the question is not whether your company’s employees and leaders have the right skills; it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones.

Solution: Ensure you have multiple channels for acquiring candidates and relax the KO questions. Incorporate formal cognitive and personality assessments. Consider an employee referral program potentially with monetary rewards. The reward should be based on the appetite for talent.


2. Assess your company culture.

Great Cultures produce great brand advocates. After having dinner with a couple of HR folks from one of the technical unicorns, I was ready to go to work for them. Your professionals travel to conferences and rub shoulders with potential employees you’re trying to find. What are they saying about you? Employees working in great cultures can’t help but share their good experiences. If your culture is negative, that will also be shared, but it won’t be a good reflection on you.

Problem: The good, smart employees you are trying to recruit will not leave their old jobs for better pay, nor better positions if their current employer has a great culture. You’ll also waste a lot of money and time trying to recruit good employees if your culture is sub-standard.

Solution: You don’t have to provide unlimited PTO to have a great culture. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re not hearing that you have a great culture, you probably don’t. Surveys are one way to find out, but the best approach is to talk to your employees. They may be reluctant to open up at first, so you’ll need to come up with a way they’ll feel safe to tell you what they really think.

Tip: Ask them to tell you three things they like and three things they don’t like about working at your company. Be prepared, you may not like some of the answers. But take action on the common ones – if it is not fixable, at least give employees a reasonable explanation.


3. Embrace Mistakes

While at the meeting, I had dinner with a VP of HR who completed a global HR rollout a couple of months ago. She was brought in specifically for the rollout, as she’s had experience running HR shops at other major companies.

Being an international technology manufacturer, the company’s future rests on its ability to innovate and hit the market with the right product. Unfortunately, it has a zero tolerance culture for new rollouts, discouraging risks and innovation.

Companies need to let their smart people make smart decisions. If you are hearing “I need to get approval on that” way too often for minor decisions, your culture is being very inefficient AND killing any innovation. No-one is going to stick their neck out in a punitive culture. “Keep yourt head down!” is the message they’re getting.

Problem: Employees don’t want to stick their neck out and make the sometimes difficult decision necessary for innovation because of criticism from past experiences.

Solution: Ensure your employees know that reasonable mistakes will be tolerated. Provide some guidance on what those are.

Tip: If you work at a company in which you have to produce a perfect product the first time, you’re probably going to come up with a very conservative nextgen product. Think Blackberry’s incremental changes to it’s devices vs. Apple’s continual innovation and redefinition of not only the mobile market, but the music industry as well.


4. Get Scientific with it:

I spent time at HR Tech looking specifically at tools to assess and encourage teams and culture.  I give particular weight to products that are based on current research into cognitive and behavioral sciences.

One such product is TeamRelate by Related Matters. Co-founder Jon Harris introduced me to the work of behavioral scientist Mark Vickers, Ph.D., author of the science behind Team Relate. The program starts with a 15-minute assessment, and you are presented with a list of four  traits that define your primary drivers. Once the whole team has been assessed, interesting comparisons can be drawn regarding high performers and ways to improve communication between people with different mindsets. We’re going to try this one at Sability, so I’ll let you know how it goes!

Another was 10Rule. This was an assessment-based system that provides a science-based mechanism for not only assessing applicants and employees, but helping improve employee performance drivers through coaching exercises. I found this concept intensely interesting – so much so that we are strongly considering piloting this solution internally too.

Finally, Sability’s current applicant assessment solution is BestWork Data. We’ve been using this applicant solution for several years. Incorporating assessments into our hiring process has increased quality and resulted in a much more efficient process. Whats key here is that we are looking for personality traits that match our top performers, not hiring cookie-cutter applicants with almost identical resumes.

Problem: Employee satisfaction data is either missing or gathered through old-school surveys. Surveys provide data, but unless they are professionally written and statistically validated, the data is suspect. In addition, it’s a guessing game about how to fix any issues or address negative information.

Solution: Proper monitoring requires objective, scientifically-based data. Only consider solutions with proper scientific pedigrees, and make sure you understand the assumptions and science behind your instrument.

Getting the correct set of assessments in place will provide a great snapshot of the culture of your organization, but some tools will take the next step and help move your organization’s culture in the right direction.


Now back to my favorite meeting that I referenced earlier.  I had a chance to meet Laurie Ruettimann, aka Punk Rock HR, aka The Cynical Girl. I’ve been reading her blog for years, and finally had a chance to sit down with her and talk shop.  It was one of the highlights of the trip.

That’s it. I could go on and on and there’s a fair amount of material I’ve left on the cutting- room floor. But I still seem to be on Vegas time. It’s midnight there, which means it’s pretty late back here in Atlanta. If you have any questions or would like to hear more about the topics above, leave me a comment below.

Thanks for reading!


Scott Brown, Sability CEO and Founder

For more than 20 years, Scott Brown has been a well-known consultant, executive, and innovator in optimizing the deployment of Human Capital Management (HCM) and Workforce Management (WFM) systems. Early in his career, he became focused on finding a better way to create links between employees and management and between employees and technology; all while providing managers with tools and information which they can manage.

He founded Sability as an HCM consultant delivering end-to-end support — from planning to cutover — to insure maximum capture of ROI. This results-oriented approach has helped Sability grow substantially since it was initially launched. His firm has been providing tactical and strategic human capital consulting services to enterprise and mid-market firms across the US and Canada for the past 21 years.