Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Authenticity (or, why I'm boycotting staff appreciation day)

I’ve just signed a contract with the University of Toronto Press to co-author an introduction to human resource management textbook. As we’ve been working through what topics the text will cover, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for examples of good and bad HR practice that might be interesting case studies.

Authenticity is a word that has had some traction in HR lately as companies grapple with the perennial issue of poor morale caused by economic instability. This Forbes article, for example, extolls the virtues of authenticity at work as a way to ensure worker high performance. But what is authenticity?
… Jay Canchola, an independent human resources consultant, says: “…From an employee point-of-view this turns out to mean that management is true to their word in all communications about the business, both good news and bad news. In other words there is no ‘double-talk.’”
I was thinking about this late last week when I got a series of reminders that Athabasca University was hosting its annual employee recognition event today. The purpose of the event is a bit unclear but it seems designed to celebrate achievements and recognize long-service and retirements—basically an employee appreciation luncheon.

After some thought, I’ve decided not to attend this event. My reason is that the notion that the university appreciates its staff sits uneasily with the university’s recent behaviour. For example, the university has tried to cut our wages by 5% at the bargaining table and has threatened (more) layoffs if we don’t comply. And the university has blamed its financial problems on staff greed, rather than the root causes of poor management and inadequate funding.

Less dramatic (but much more annoying) is that the university has failed to address very real complaints about the poor quality of its “improved” finance and HR systems. For example, it used to take 5 minutes to fill in an expense claim form and about two weeks to get paid. Now it can take up to 7 hours (yes, hours) over several days to fill in the form correctly and months to get reimbursed.

Basically the employer’s words (we appreciate you…) don’t jive with its behaviours (…but we’re gonna treat you poorly). The result is that the appreciation event looks like a sham exercise. Given that I have some discretion about whether or not to attend, I’ve decided to opt out.

While I doubt anyone will care (they may well even be happy I’m not there!), the underlying lack of authenticity can negatively affect morale and productivity. For example, a palpable sense of cynicism permeates most of the meetings I attend and discussions about fixing problems often end in disarray because most workers no longer believe that the employer is capable of taking (or even cares to take) effective action.

It will be interesting trying to explain the link between (in)authenticity, (il)legitimacy and (non)productivity in this new book. It will also be interesting to see if the research finds that the causality runs both ways. That is to say, inauthentic behaviour may degrade organizational performance but that does not necessarily mean that authentic behaviour can improve it (or reverse damage caused by earlier inauthenticity).

-- Bob Barnetson