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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Love Your Integrity? Love Your Auditor!

If you're in the business world more than five minutes you've probably been audited or even investigated. This experience ranges from when you started running a cash register in an entry-level position and having someone spot-balance your till, all the way up to having an auditor or investigator dispatched to investigate some perceived or suspected irregularity. My first response to this as a junior staff member was to be offended; after all, I know my integrity and intentions so what makes someone think otherwise? As you grow your career and have staff, especially if you have a hand-picked and trusted staff like I have, its easy to take up their cause and be offended on their behalf. The plain truth is that this is one area where you have to grow thick skin and love your auditors as yourself.

Not only should you not mind audits or investigations (this is assuming you're conducting your business as you should be) but you should welcome them. Here's why:
  1. Audits Protect You From Rumors - No matter where you work or what you do, people are going to gossip and its not always going to be charitable. At times that gossip is going to turn to suspicions about your honesty or integrity. Being periodically audited, and welcoming those audits each and every time, blunts the gossip and never allows it to gain traction.
  2. Audits Help You Get Better - I've never had an audit or investigation of any kind that showed an irregularity or dishonesty, but every audit I've ever had showed me some area of needed improvement. If you can effectively shake off the righteous indignation from being audited, and focus instead on what needs to be improved, you get better at what you do.
  3. Audits Build Your Brand - If they're done right, and unfortunately they aren't always, completed and clean audits build your personal brand and reputation among the auditors. This also leads to less frequent audits.
  4. You Really Have No Other Choice - Being audited or investigated is a win/lose proposition with no viable middle option. If you welcome the scrutiny and come away with nothing worse than a list of things you could do better, you win. If you come away with this same list but resist and object, the auditors walk away mumbling to themselves and others that they still have suspicions because of how you objected. In that case, the brand damage is done without just cause and, really, you did that to yourself through your reaction.

That said, here's a word to auditors.

  1. Your purpose is to make sure the business is operating smoothly and efficiently. Its not to catch someone doing something wrong, although clearly that should be reported should you find it.
  2. You have a responsibility to be respectful of the chain of command and inform HR and the department head of the area being audited of your activities in advance. You don't have "super jurisdiction" that allows you to unilaterally snoop on suspicion.
  3. You have a responsibility to be accurate and to conduct your audit thoroughly. You have no less than people's reputations and livelihoods on the line and sloppy work should be intolerable.
  4. You have a responsibility to accept the results of your own audit and not continue to mouth unproven suspicions about the people who you investigate.

Properly authorized and executed scrutiny should be a blessing to the organization in which its done. It should be conducted in a way that brings honor to the organization, and it should be welcomed by those being scrutinized as a chance to build your brand and that of the company. If everyone is doing what they should, facts are truly friendly.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Slow Economy Facts and How to Help Your Staff

If someone were to ask me what I really believe in and know to be true, along with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Communion of the Saints, and the power of prayer I would list The Business Cycle. Anybody whose been in business for long has seen it for themselves and heard the age-old phrase, "What comes up must go down". The fact that "everybody knows that" however, is an assumption we can't make because a lot of your young staffers have never seen a down cycle. They hear the hystrionics of the mass media and believe we're all going to die broke, and very soon. Here are some facts to help you and your staff through the trough and back up to the inevitable peak.

Take a good macroeconomics course and you'll hear that full employment in this country is an unemployment rate of 4 - 4.5%. That's because, historically, about that percentage of the U.S. population is in transition at any given time. By transition I mean just coming out of college, just quit their job to go back to college, quit one job but hasn't yet started an already-secured successor job, left the workforce to have children, just became and empty nester and now trying to get back into the workforce, etc... This time last year the unemployment rate for metro Nashville was 3.7%, which explains all those "Help Wanted" signs you saw around town. This year we're up to (Gasp!) about 5%. On a population base of 625,000 (nearest estimate I can find on-line) the difference between 4.5% and 5% unemployment is 3,125 people out of work who want to work. In other words, the sky is not exactly falling no matter what you see on the 6:00 news. And, oh yeah, you still see help wanted signs around town.

A recession has a technical definition; two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. To date, in 2007 and so far in 2008, we have yet to have even one quarter of negative growth. What you see and what you're feeling in the local economy, with light traffic and half-empty restaurants (and book stores), is a slow-down but not negative momentum. The slow down is more the product of anxiety and higher energy prices, but its not an economy going backwards. Think of it this way; the same amount of money is flowing through the local economy; its just that a much larger percentage is being spent at the pump at the expense of restaurants, book stores, etc... The jobs, and aggregate income, are still here and the depths of the slow-down, or whether it becomes a real recession, will depend upon how quickly people find ways to use less gasoline and reclaim those dollars for their other spending. There's hopeful signs of this today, as the price of oil is down $14 in three days over increased U.S. petroleum inventory. Its a sign that people are finding ways to use less due to the high cost.

It Depends on Your Age
The last mild recession we had in this country was the post-9/11 recession of 2002. Assuming that you were 23 when you entered the workforce (a Freshman at 18 and 5 years to graduate and find your first job), that means that anybody on your staff who is 28 or under was not in the workforce when we last had a slow economy. That recession was mild compared to the Jimmy Carter recession of 1981/82. Using the same age assumptions, that means that nobody on your staff under 47 has been in the workforce during a prolonged recession. The Reagan/Clinton/G.H.W. Bush economies were so good over such a long period of time, that you have people in your work groups right now that are seeing recessionary signs for the first time in their working lives.

This makes it incumbent on those of us who've lived through this all before to help educate, reassure, and encourage those who haven't. This doesn't mean being Mary Sunshine and telling them that everything is going to be alright; things could get worse before they get better and job loss in such times is always a possibility. The encouragement, though, is that things do get better and history proves this to be the case. The best remedy for job anxiety at times like these is to look for ways to save money, both personally and professionally, and for new ways to add value. Stepping into the challenges with courage distinguishes those who do and helps make careers; sitting around a dark office talking about how bad things are neither shows courage nor adds value.

Oh yeah, and one more thing; turn off the TV until after the election. You're not going to die broke anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Thomas Nelson Work From Home Test

I generally am loathe to talk about something new before its tested and fully functional. However, at last week's Publishing Compensation meetings I heard several comments about why we're not talking about our telecommuting pilot program. I haven't been because its a test, meaning we don't know what we don't know and are trying to learn. Still, the enthusiasm for the test is such that a lot of people apparently want to know about it.

We began a pilot program in HR about 9 or 10 months ago, without telling anybody (including the ELT and my boss the CEO) what we were doing. The idea was this: if a face-to-face service department like HR could leverage the technology available to us with zero additional investment and no drop-off in service, then almost any business unit in the company could do the same. None of us own laptops, none of us carry a blackberry, and we committed no funds to the program. Instead, we worked with our IT department (and what great partners they are!) to install VPN software on our home PCs, an internal IM client (Pandion) on our work PCs, and otherwise we simply changed the methods by which we did our job. I offered the opportunity to work from home up to three half-days to my staff, and the three hourly team members declined citing that their work couldn't be done from home, and the three salaried staffers took me up on my offer.

We had some rough spots and a lot of kinks to iron out (this was a test, after all...) but at the eight month mark we felt good enough about the results to write it all up and make a recommendation to the ELT. Now, every EVP has been assigned by the CEO to identify a test group or groups in their division and we should be underway with those tests in 1 - 2 weeks.

Meanwhile, in the HR department, we're trying to stay ahead of the divisional tests and continue to experiment with new technologies and methods. I have offered 4 10-hour shifts to my hourly staff who can't work from home, in order to give them relief from high gas prices. I have expanded the salaried staff to two full days off-site, and installed web cams for my assistant, the salaried staff, and me. This cost us about $500 and is the first money we've spent on the test. IT installed these in such a way that they can be used at work then easily removed and taken home for off-site work. IT then installed Skype and Oovoo for video conferencing, and I've installed AIM Pro (the business version of AOL Instant Messenger) and Yahoo Messenger, both with one-click video conferencing. Starting next week, we will have all our departmental meetings with one or more members joining in via video conference. Also starting next week, we will have face-to-face video interviews with candidates before paying to have them travel to Nashville.

Where's this going? Well, its too early to tell just yet...its a test! What I hope to see out of this is in the short-term is relief for our staff from high commuting costs. What I'd like to see in the intermediate term is a 30% reduction in occupancy costs (see my earlier blog on that topic) in Nashville, which would give us savings literally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Long-term, I'd like to see the critical learning of how to work together, virtually, across-town translate into learning how to work with each other cross-country (hello, virtual office in New York!) and then internationally. These skills will hasten the realization of our having operations all over the world (which we do to some extent now) that are fully integrated and aligned with each other and corporate headquarters. But for now, this is only a test....