Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Into Africa

I spent approximately 3 ½ years working in Angola (West Africa) for Chevron, a global energy company. I primarily supported expatriate employees from a variety of countries who were responsible for oil exploration and production.

I worked a 28/28 schedule, which meant that I worked 7 days per week, 12 hours per day for 28 days and then had the following 28 days off. Great gig, I know.

Funeral Benefits – A Way of Life

It was common practice for the Angolan HR staff to assist the ~1,800 Angolan employees during the week and for my manager and I to assist the few Angolan employees who needed help on the weekends.

Early in my assignment, an employee showed up on a Saturday and announced that his wife had passed away. This was obviously terrible news and the employee notified us so we could issue funeral benefits.

It may sound unique for people in the U.S., Canada, or Europe but a funeral benefit was a common practice in the Angolan oil industry. With a large number of employees needing every bit of their income to support their families, the unplanned expense of a funeral could create a financial hardship. Funeral benefits included a coffin, burial sheets, and a credit at the company store where food was purchased so it could be offered to visiting family and friends.

The More the Merrier (Marry Her)?

The bereaved employee provided his employee ID and his spouse's name and I proceeded to look up his information. For some reason the spouse’s name didn't match and I asked my manager for assistance. His first question was, "Did you clarify which wife passed away?". I assumed he meant the current spouse versus an ex-wife. However, I learned that, amongst some Angolans, polygamy was practiced and an employee may have multiple wives (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy_in_Angola). While not legal, it was frequent enough due to several factors:
  • A widely accepted cultural norm;
  • A civil war lasting almost 27 years that killed over 500,000 people (many of them being men) and left a shortage of eligible bachelors; 
  • An average lifespan for Angolans at that time of only 42 years.
Because it was a common enough occurrence, employee benefits were designed to specifically address this. While polygamy was a cultural practice, benefits for subsequent spouses were not legally mandated. Benefits were offered for the immediate family and that only included the “primary” spouse who was listed as a dependent. The deceased wife was not a registered dependent so was not covered and I notified the employee of this.

My Way or the Global Highway?

We often think of diversity in terms of gender, race, age, and sexual orientation but, in our global economy, it also means cultural differences. While polygamy is an extreme example, many others exist: differences in personal space, respect and hierarchy, avoiding confrontation, humility vs. self-promotion, etc. It’s important to respect and acknowledge cultural practices that differ from our own.

It’s this respect of cultural diversity that can lead to greater understanding, teamwork, and stronger business results. Doing some research on a culture before interacting with employees from that country can avoid unintentional disrespect and allow all members of the team to fully engage and collaborate.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Little Bit About Me….

Some people get inspiration to make a change in their lives from poets, philosophers, the loss of a loved one, TED talks, and many other reasons. My epiphany actually came from a fortune cookie. I read my fortune while in the middle of 2017 budget planning. It said, “The greatest risk is not taking one”. I was missing passion for what I was doing and decided I needed something more fulfilling. So I eliminated my job in my budget, gained acceptance on the idea and left my role in January.

I’ve spent the last few months skiing, traveling, tackling a few house projects, and becoming more proficient at cooking dinner (thanks Blue Apron!). Now that I am reenergized and clear on my next career move, I have decided it’s time to focus on my job search….and have a little fun with this blog.

Update: I decided to take the summer off also so finally began my job search in earnest in the Fall once my daughter started school.

The Employee Playground

For my HR professional colleagues, I’m sure we’ve all experienced workplace matters that make us chuckle, roll our eyes, cringe, question the maturity of our employees, or maybe even wonder about the future of humanity. I recently began thinking about the many situations I’ve observed during my career and wanted to share a few. I’ll also try and help you justify why you’re reading this at work by adding some of the practical implications these matters create and how we can best address them. I call this blog The Employee Playground.

Passing Thoughts on Passing Gas

It’s not uncommon for someone to pass gas at work. According to Wikipedia, the average person farts 8-20 times per day. If we spend at least a third of our day at work, it’s highly likely that everyone has tooted at the office.

However, that same wiki claims over 99% of flatulence volume is comprised of non-smelly gases. That would make us assume it’s a small number of individuals who actually will offend a coworker when passing gas.

Work Stinks

A colleague once called me to her office and, upon my arrival, put a graph in front of me. It showed time intervals on one axis and time worked on the other. An engineer had provided it to her to illustrate an issue he was having with a fellow engineer he shared a cubicle with. As the engineer explained it, his cube partner had a serious gas problem and, every time he broke wind, it caused this engineer to leave his desk for a few minutes (keep in mind that this was a time before employees were as mobile as they are today).

The engineer created the graph to show the impact the gaseous colleague was having on his productivity. He explained that the dips in time worked each hour represented flatulence and his need to leave the cubicle - productive time that was lost like dust in the (foul) wind. He had obviously spent a lot of time illustrating the impact and used it as his justification for HR to speak with the offending employee. The graph became known as the “Fart Chart”.

Have a Conversation by Breaking Bread (but not cutting the cheese)

What the engineer hadn’t done was speak with his gassy cube mate about the issue and, instead, expected others to address the situation. Granted, speaking with his teammate was probably at the bottom of his list but imagine the time he could have saved by having this talk instead. We all know of employees who will avoid having a tough conversation at any cost. It happens at every level of an organization from the CEO on down.

In the matter of the Fart Chart (FC), the HR partner sat down with the FC creator and explained that he needed to speak with his peer first. She suggested various ways he could broach the subject and explain how he was being impacted. She also spent time talking through the types of reactions that may come from the person: acknowledgement, denial, embarrassment, anger, etc. and ways in which he could respond. Finally, the HR partner notified the manager of the situation, shared methods that could be used to assist with it, and what to do if matters escalated.

In the end, the engineer was very nervous about approaching his peer so the manager facilitated a discussion between the two of them. The gas man was extremely embarrassed and had been unaware he was having such an impact on his coworker. He committed to try and figure out what was causing the raging inferno in his digestive tract. As an interim step, he said he would leave the cube for more open environments whenever he felt the urge.

Breaking Wind Down Some Potential Actions

Perhaps the question to ask is how HR can help create a culture where the outcome would be different if a similar instance occurred. This would include cultivating an environment of mutual respect where concerns are addressed in an open and constructive manner. Where feedback and transparency are valued and employees have the skills to have even the toughest of conversations.

It’s not easy to achieve and may require training for managers and employees to learn how to have difficult conversations (there’s a reason Crucial Conversations® is an extremely popular book and training after all this time).

An emphasis on core values can also help. Some organizations include ones like Teamwork/Collaboration, Honesty, and Respect and have an expectation that all employees will demonstrate them on a daily basis. Zappos has a core value of “Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication” and that seems to get to the heart of what we’re talking about here.

Leaders could also be coached on how to build trusting relationships with their teams – to be visible and engaged so employees share their concerns. In essence, they should be living the core values every day.

End Up Smelling Like a Rose

It’s all about approaching the matter with sensitivity and respect. The worse thing that could have happened with the offending employee was him becoming the butt of jokes within his team.

By taking appropriate actions we can avoid having our employees tell us that our culture and work environment stinks.