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Leader’s Pulse: HR Issues For Tech Managers And Leaders

HR issues will negatively impact team dynamics.

HR can send shivers down the spine of many Tech Team Leaders. They are a complicated set of topics, especially for people and technology. Geeks have always posed unique issues and many small tech companies and start-ups do not have a strong centralized HR team but continue to distribute HR tasks to individual Leads and Managers. Larger organizations will have a strong centralized HR team but will still continue to distribute some tasks out to various tech teams. Regardless of the size of your organization, the management of HR issues will have a very large impact on your leadership ability, credibility, and ability to keep the team productive.

To state the importance of these topics is redundant and unnecessary. It’s already well established that any HR issues that are mishandled can open the company up to litigation, liability, punitive damages, and other varieties of litigation. A bigger concern that isn’t so obvious is that mishandling these situations can result in an even greater negative impact than expected. If your company has stories or gossip, it can be only a few keystrokes away from being published on blog posts, comments, or news on any social media platform (i.e. Facebook, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, mainstream media) about any topic ranging from the mistreatment of employees, bad HR policies, or bungled hiring and firing. Whether true or not, this will adversely affect your ability to attract the staff you need in a tight job market. Both your personal reputation and your company’s reputation regarding HR practices is far more readily available today not only by word-of-mouth, but from a dozen other sources.

The goal of this article is not to coach you through every potential HR pitfall. It is to list issues you may or may not be aware of and also to discuss some of their manifestations, particular to tech workers. This article will also discuss leading test workers and some of the new frontiers of employee relations in the new work reality.

“HR Issues”: Job Satisfaction

Why is this so special or unique to tech companies and knowledge workers? In addition to the unique balance many tech teams have with HR (or lack of HR), tech workers are demanding different relationships today. The famous days of IBM lifetime employment, EDS-Perot Systems’ wear a tie to work every day are ancient history and a joke to tech workers today.

There is a tight job market for tech workers globally. Tech workers are very often in the driver’s seat for employment. The conventional wisdom is that they can seemingly get jobs wherever and whenever they want. Because of this shortage, retention is also a challenge—they must be coddled and pampered, or you will lose the technical expertise you need and it may take a while to hire new staff to replace them.

How true this is depends on many things: your location, the industry you are in, the work environment, how cool your product is, how cool your company is, whether or not you’re doing technically challenging work and having a strong manager/leadership team are all factors for employee satisfaction. Talented tech employees don’t want to waste their time, they want to be challenged and continue to grow.  And good employees will not suffer due to a poor manager/leader. In this case, not to say it isn’t, salary is rarely a consideration.

Tech workers are consistently looking for other job attributes to be happy, such as flexible working hours, easy commute, and free food perks just to list a few examples.  Salary deserves your special study and is more complicated than most people think. One note regarding salary is that it consistently ranks low on job satisfaction surveys for tech workers. Believe it or not, go look it up. Equally important to the company is keeping your team productive. Getting work done, and keeping products moving out is your main focus.

HR issues kill productivity, team work, and communication. I have seen teams fall apart quickly when issues are not dealt with or there is a lack of trust. Many leaders never recover or regain respect from a bungled “people issue”. If nothing else, keep this in mind: happy team, happy manager. When your team is productive, communicating, and collaborating, it’s great for the company and it’s great for you.

“HR Issues”: Team Dynamics

Knowledge workers have always been particularly sensitive to the idea of having fair treatment. If there is a problem person on the team and it’s not getting addressed, in that way you are giving that person preferential treatment. The rest of the team will not see that as tolerable and will become resentful at you for not dealing with it. Being fair is sometimes difficult. It’s mainly perception-based. Perception is often different from reality. Transparency is key to the perception of fairness.

My favorite axiom in hiring and firing is hire slowly, fire quickly! If there is a problem team member, the longer that employee stays around, the more poisonous it can be to the rest of the team. If the team likes the person who needs to be let go and isn’t fired immediately, it’ll be like slowly pulling off a Band-Aid, and it will be excruciating for everyone. If the team does not like that person, it can have a long-term deleterious impact on team chemistry if you keep them around too long. And all of these situations will impact the teams’ overall performance which will reflect badly on you.

This is very difficult to put into practice for some team Leads and Managers. Unfilled staff positions can hold back a project, can take a long time to fill, or may be “impossible” to fill. Sometimes firing decisions are more complicated than they may seem. Also, it should be noted that some hiring decisions that satisfy an immediate need are not always beneficial for the team for the long-term. Team dynamics can be equally important to hiring/firing as the performance of the staff is put under the microscope. As with all of these situations…Get help!

Even in large organizations, some tech managers think the HR team handles all HR issues. Not true.

When I say HR it means: team building, training & retention, and solving disputes, not only just hiring and firing. Every manager will face these and for most of us, these will be the biggest tests of our leadership. If for no other reason, it is a manager’s job to keep the team productive and focused on their day-to-day tasks. There are no issues a leader will face that will distract the team more than HR problems.

“HR Issues”: Developing Emotional Intelligence 

An important aspect to keep in mind—maybe more so than a list of potential issues and pitfalls is your awareness that issues exist! Hiring and firing are obvious. Job satisfaction and team dynamics are not so obvious. You will need to hone your Emotional Intelligence skills and focus on listening. Reading body language and subtle signs are good indicators that things may not be right or as you thought they were. Emotional Intelligence and listening deserves its own article. The key takeaway I want to bring up here is that you need to be aware that there are issues or problems. Be careful where you get your information. Gossip can sometimes be inert. It can be helpful to get information out but take note—Gossip is very often biased, negative, destructive, and most often, untrue! Be an excellent listener.

A Partial List of HR Issues that Managers need to be Aware of

I first want to lay out many of the HR topics for every tech leader to understand. I will not be discussing every issue. That would need its own book or HR team and will differ from country to country, state to state depending on Employee Laws. There will be just a few topics we will discuss in this article.

These are some issues you need to know about as a manager and/or leader:

  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Employee retention
  • Performance reviews/feedback
  • Resolving people’s conflicts
  • Employee satisfaction & perks for tech workers ( that notion that nerds and geeks have different expectations than other workers)
  • Recognition & reward, aside from salary
  • Productivity—time management
  • Teamwork/team building/team spirit/commitment
  • Employee engagement/experience and team culture
  • Leadership development and succession planning
  • Employee training and development
  • Competitive Compensation and Benefits package
  • Compliance and “Managing within the Law”

In a global workplace:

  • Collaborating and team building in a global work place
  • Hiring and competing for employees offshore
  • For US companies, changes to US immigration practices (impacts to H-1b and green cards)
  • Cross-cultural work

In other Leader’s Pulse Articles  I have already discussed:

Recommendations:

My first and most important recommendation on any of these topics is to get help! Get help from HR staff, if they are available. Get help from your manager or dept. head. I do not expect most tech leaders to already have great people and leader skills. Our industry has always prioritized tech ability over communication and people skills for promotion and leadership positions. What this means is most tech workers need to do a lot of work on their own to improve their people skills. Leadership is a behavior, not just a position. Leaders are not always born that way, but they can learn leadership behaviors. Other ways to become more knowledgeable and aware of these issues include reading up on these topics, take part in trainings on people issues and tech workers, read books. Even reading our Leader’s Pulse series can go a long way.

Transparency is key.

Communicate often and openly.

According to Wikipedia, Corporate Transparency describes “the extent to which a corporation’s actions are observable by outsiders. This is a consequence of regulations, local norms, and the set of information, privacy, and business policies concerning corporate decision-making and operations openness to employees, stakeholders, shareholders and the general public. From the perspective of outsiders, transparency can be defined simply at the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from the corporation”.

HR issues does not only mean managing down to your staff. Managing up is critical. Alerting your manager and company leaders is a top priority. It is not an admission of weakness that you may not be able to handle an HR issue within your team. Your manager may see it completely different than you. C-level leaders may see larger issues than you both do. By being transparent you can focus/identify the larger issue (if any) and find a solution that makes sense for the team and the business.

Example Issues 

In my experience, what I am referring to as HR situations are the ultimate test of both your management skills and leadership ability. Your team will most likely forever judge you by the dignity, grace, firmness and discipline with which you handle these situations. These are the times where you have to put “being a friend” and “being one of us” to the side.

This is not about hiring/firing—in many cases, they are the easy items. So what are we talking about with HR situations?

Some manifestations of HR and Team problems include:

These are a few HR situations:

  • Unhealthy work/life balance.
  • Simmering resentment that “people don’t understand.”
  • How difficult product development is, or can be.
  • My opinion does not matter. Examples include:

⇒ Marketing/Product Management schedule always wins!

I don’t care what you say —this is going live on Friday.”

  • Teams that mistrust management…leaders are unable to walk the talk.
  • A problem staff member getting all the attention while the rest of the team suffers.
  • Any simmering issues that are not addressed that everyone knows about and can lead to gossip.
  • Playing “favorites” with home teams, or with the tech gurus and the rest of the team sees it.
  • Lean Startup management: where staff is purposefully overtasked for a protracted period.
  • All kinds of team makeup/diversity possibilities: A team that is made up of eight young white American males and one Indian woman.

The New Frontier:

In addition to the past traditional HR issues, the new employee/employer reality has brought new issues to the forefront. Some teams have already been dealing with these situations but they are becoming significantly more widespread. They are challenging many aspects on how we relate as a group or team and how we lead.

  • Unlimited vacation.
  • Working from home and impact on the rest of the team.
  • Leading Millennials-a mixed workforce of millennials, Gen X and Y and baby boomers while mixing “knowledge workers/digital workers and non-knowledge workers.
  • Diversity (teams, leadership and pay.)
  • #MeToo….going forward.
  • Corporate social responsibility (Not just the work opportunity/experiences, but the purpose of the work or the company.)
  • The long term impacts of the Gig economy- Changing workforce ( the move from permanent full-time employees to an increased workforce with short term/temp staff hired with a focus on completing a specific skill or task.)
  • The new reality of teams in distributed, global, Gig/part-time or work from home situations.

Summary

Leading and managing is not easy. You always need to be on top of your game when it comes to people and people issues.

Your ability as a leader will be on full display to the team while you are dealing with HR issues. And they will talk about it and your ability or shortcomings behind your back. It’s how teams work.

Do not let issues fester as they will always get worse. Tackling tough issues head-on shows your team that you are reliable, and will have their back when issues arise and that you are a trusted leader. Be quick to get help. Transparency up and down is essential and must be managed.

As the saying goes, people don’t quit companies-they quit managers.

In Part 2 on this topic we will go into detail on a few particular items with unique problems for tech leaders.

  • Some example situations.
  • Hiring/Firing.
  • Productivity & Time Management.
  • Some specific reminders for HR issues and Knowledge Workers.

 

 

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Michael Hackett
Michael is a co-founder of LogiGear Corporation, and has over two decades of experience in software engineering in banking, securities, healthcare and consumer electronics. Michael is a Certified Scrum Master and has co-authored two books on software testing. Testing Applications on the Web: Test Planning for Mobile and Internet-Based Systems (Wiley, 2nd ed. 2003), and Global Software Test Automation (Happy About Publishing, 2006).He is a founding member of the Board of Advisors at the University of California Berkeley Extension and has taught for the Certificate in Software Quality Engineering and Management at the University of California Santa Cruz Extension. As a member of IEEE, his training courses have brought Silicon Valley testing expertise to over 16 countries. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

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