What We Still Don’t Get in HR: You Can’t Turn Fish Into Monkeys

© Okea - Fotolia.com
© Okea - Fotolia.com

Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Albert Einstein

Its about that time when the HR conference season gets into full swing, so I’m beginning to prepare myself for the hundreds of conversations I’ll have with great HR Pros all over the world. One thing that I will hear over and over, and more than anything else is: “HR just doesn’t get…”

To be honest I think HR gets a whole bunch, but I think many of us lack the courage it takes, at the right time, to show how much we actually get, and so we sit there with our mouths closed and let others have this perception we don’t get it. But we do get it – we just weren’t able or ready to put our necks on the line at that moment.

Changing jobs, changing skills

I do agree, though, that there are still certain things we struggle with in HR.

For me the above quote from Albert Einstein sums up what we still struggle to appreciate in HR – we hire people for one set of skills, then upon arrival or at another point in their tenure, expect them to perform a different set of skills. This happens every day in our organizations, and it’s a classic reason why most people fail in your organization. I bet if you went back and measured your last 100 terminations in your organizations – 60 percent of your terms would fall into this category – the person wasn’t performing – but the job they were asked to do was different from what they were hired to do.

So, what is it that we still don’t get in HR?

In HR, we don’t get the fact that we hire for a certain set of skills. The job changes, so we need a new set of skills.

Training and Development is still living in this dream that they can drastically change adult learners by having a four-hour training session and having each participant sign a sheet saying they received the training. Then, we all sit around a conference table analyzing our turnover and wondering what happened, and why all these people magically turned into bad performers. It’s not them – it’s us!

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Fish won’t turn into monkeys – and neither will employees

So, what can we do about it?

The first step is realizing that HR, and the organization, are part of the problem. You can’t hire a bunch of fish because you need great swimming skills, then change the skill need to climbing and expect your fish to turn into monkeys. It has never worked and it will never work – even if you change your department’s title from Training to Organizational Development.

So, do you just fire everyone and start over? Maybe — if the skill need changed that drastically. More realistically, we have to have better expectations on the amount of time and effort it is going to take to get people back to “average” performance, not “great” performance. Setting realistic expectations with your operations partners will give you better insight to what route your organization is willing to suffer through.

Either way, there will be some suffering – so plan on it, prepare for it – then go buy a bunch of bananas, because if your organization wants those fish learn how to climb, they’re going to be hungry!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


1 Comment on “What We Still Don’t Get in HR: You Can’t Turn Fish Into Monkeys

  1. Really interesting insight Tim.  Every student I come across would prefer to be a swiss army knife, which is great.  Though, unless they are extremely diligent about triple majoring, this is not quite realistic.  I always say a better way to accomplish a diversified skill set is to get involved early with internships.  A good intern program acts to shuffle the candidate around the company and get them comfortable in multiple facets.  As this practice progresses I feel like Gen Y might become more less likely to get pushed out of their future positions due to a shift in necessary skill set.  What do you think, are the growing number of internship programs helping this issue?


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