The way we think about employees is outdated. So outdated, that you can easily trace its roots back to the early 1900s. So much has changed, but not much of how we treat the people who work with us.
Laurie Ruettimann is a coach and irreverent HR consultant who helped us think through a new approach to how we look at people.
Updating the way we look at employees
The term ‘employee’ now only covers one of many ways that someone is on a team. You might have contract workers, consultants, technology, and many other options.
There’s an unnecessary divide between all these humans. Non-employees often don’t get the protections and respect they need. And employees are often treated as if their time is owned by the company.
Laurie Ruettimann said, “Companies do see employees as items they own on a line item budget, and it’s up to us to really start to work to erode that understanding.”
Decoupling our compensation from only time is the right direction, but it is much more complex and takes a lot more structuring.
Taking risks and making changes
For the leader who wants to take a step in a new direction, it’s not as easy as it looks. Laurie Ruettimann said, “Many HR professionals think, I’m just going to implement this policy or this program that’s going to change stuff. And it doesn’t move the needle. It doesn’t do anything, because it’s HR focused and not worker focused. So the best way to do this is to really be in conversation with the people you’re trying to serve, and start there.”
Don’t just change and implement something because you heard it on a podcast. 🙂 Talk to the people who will actually be affected by it.
Another great tool that Laurie Ruettimann talked about was the premortem. It’s looking at a potential change/project/opportunity and asking, “Why is this likely to fail? What will be the most likely cause of death?” Then, you create paths that protect those scenarios from happening.
Stop letting bosses outsource human relationships
Laurie Ruettimann said that the origin of the HR department came when managers weren’t able to figure out how to deal with the people on their team. They outsourced that relationship to HR and assumed that if anything interpersonal went poorly, it was on HR to fix.
In today’s world, bosses need to reengage with team members at a personal level. They need to be responsible for their emotional wellbeing while at work.
This involves having a lot of honest, adult conversations about expectations and how we can work better together.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today we have an extremely special guest. Laurie Ruettimann is on the show. Hey, Laurie. How are you?
I’m great. Thanks for having me.
I’m very excited to have you here. Laurie Ruettimann is the host of Punk Rock HR, which is a fantastic podcast and one that’s a great one to listen to, also the author of “Betting On You,” which is a book that I’ve listened to and just had a lot of fun with, so many great stories in there. I feel like you have a story for every situation and they’re always so compelling.
Well, I don’t know about that. But I’ve lived a life. I’m 43 years old, and you collect that as you get older. So yeah, I’ve got some stories.
Yeah, excellent. Before we get too deep into this, let’s do our CAPTCHA question to make sure that you are indeed a human and not just a robot writing all those very interesting things. So your question is, have you ever collected anything in your life?
Sure. Yeah, years ago, I collected antique champagne flutes. And I don’t know why. I felt that would make me fancy. And no, it doesn’t, all the stuff that we never use. And so I went back and sold them all on eBay and made my money back. So it all worked out.
To somebody else who collects those things.
For sure. Some other weirdo. I don’t know.
Cool. That’s excellent. I didn’t really collect much as a kid. I find it interesting. I have children now that are about nine and seven. And now they’re losing all their teeth. And my parents gave me these half dollars whenever I lost my teeth. I just kept them all. I never spent them. I just thought they were cool. They were there. And so I have them for 30 years just with me. And then I’m giving them to my kids. They’re, like, oh, cool. And then they go and spend it and it’s gone. It’s like that’s fine. Your money. Do what you want to do.
Yeah, that’s right. What a nice tradition that they’re not going to keep up.
Yeah, wonderful. Laurie Ruettimann, we’re going to talk about the nature of employment, which you have a lot of experience in, a working history in HR and everything, but go ahead and just give a little background about who you are and what you bring to this conversation.
Yeah, I mean, no pressure. When people talk about themselves, it’s usually pretty boring. So I’ll try to not be boring. I did indeed work in human resources for a long time and still peripherally hang around that community because I’m passionate about fixing the world of work. But more and more, I don’t think companies can do this effectively on their own. And I think employees bear some of the burdens. So I believe that we fix work by fixing ourselves first. So that’s what I bring to all of my writing, my speaking, my coaching, my consulting, I really want to empower the workforce to be self leaders so that the two can meet in the middle and fix this mess that we have together as partners.
Yeah, and your book definitely speaks to that. “Betting On You” is about people to take responsibility, not necessarily to abdicate big corporations for a lot of the harm that they’re causing. But just to realize that you don’t have to follow the exact path that’s been given in front of you. It’s a great message.
So let’s dive into it. Laurie Ruettimann, what do you think is the relationship between employee and employer? Is it the same as it’s always been for the last few decades? Or is it more toxic and damaging now than ever before?
I think we’re talking about the toxicity and the damage more than we’ve ever talked about it before. I think it’s interesting. It’s changing because fewer and fewer of us are actually legally employees. We will be contractors or consultants or part timers. But this pool of employees is shrinking. And so when we talk about the employee experience, it’s often an elite thing that we’re talking about, exclusive, and not really indicative of how young men and women are working in our society, and even older individuals are working in our society. So I just want to start right there and say that the word employee is changing a lot. And I don’t know what you think about that, Neil. What are your thoughts?
I mean, I’ve stopped using employee in a lot of my writing. I just say team member, mostly I’m writing to people who tend to just lead teams of 10 to 20 people or so. And it’s often a combination of contractors, of other people who are fully employed, so to speak, by the company. I also want to get to the place where we think about a team as also the technology that’s on your team as well. So I feel like that, yeah, there’s something that just seems a little icky about that word employee to me right now.
But yet, it’s a really important word because it confers legal status on someone and it says what you can do with that person and what you can’t do with that person. And so, I’ve worked in so many environments where they had contractors and consultants park in the far parking lot and come in through the back door, and yet they can’t run their business without those consultants and contractors. So these constructs that we have around people and work are stupid. They’re based on financial constructs that we’ve created. They’re reaffirmed by court decisions, and I think they’re not sustainable for the future of work. And so I think there’s going to be a reckoning around what we call workers and how we treat people going forward. Because right now, if you’re a contractor or a consultant, and you’re facing discrimination or bias or harassment, there are different ways to mediate that than if you’re a full-time employee. And that doesn’t seem fair. Humans are humans. So I just think work needs to catch up. And I’m hoping it happens sooner rather than later.
Yeah. And we shouldn’t definitely not rely on laws to catch up. Laws lag decades behind where they should be.
Sure. But if you’re an employer, and you get too far ahead of the legislation, you can start to be held liable for treating people like employees, even though for all intents and purposes, they really are your employees. You direct their time. You direct their energy. Their days, their moods are dictated by the vibe at work. So I don’t know. I mean, I get why people don’t want to get ahead of it. They don’t want to be responsible here in America for compensation at a certain level, benefits, retirement benefits. But all of this is so stupid.
Yeah. And honestly, that benefits discussion, I feel like the whole conversation, specifically here in the US, totally changes when you take off the healthcare discussion.
Healthcare and retirement, yeah.
Yeah, Laurie Ruettimann, once you remove those two pieces, okay, now we can breathe a little bit and really have an honest conversation. And yeah, we’re not there yet. But hopefully, we can get there.
Yeah, yeah. The other thing I like is this ongoing discussion around universal basic income, because what if we gave people a stipend, a dividend, a real return on their investment in American businesses and technologies? What if we just gave them an allowance because we have been building companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon for all these years. So we give everybody this basic universal piece of income, I think it frees people up to be a contractor, to be a consultant, to go buy their health insurance in the free market, to plan for retirement a little bit differently, and to actually do work that puts them at that intersection of purpose and meaning. But not a lot of people like this idea of giving away money every month, even though it’s our money. And it’s actually a return on investment. It’s a wealth tax, so to speak, on all of these amazing companies that we as workers have helped to build by going on Facebook and clicking ads and paying attention. So I think there’s room in the discussion and the future of work for universal basic income, but not today.
I don’t think there’s just room. I think it’s going to have to be part of it. I don’t see a promising future without establishing that floor, so to speak, of saying, look, this is what we feel like people need. And we’re fine giving away money, that’s not a problem, as long as it goes to wealthy companies, like sure, give them as much as they need to get out of it. But when it comes to actually figuring out how can we make this work for us, which is in line with the whole conversation we’re having in terms of, hey, we can demand more. We can make this better for everybody. It doesn’t have to just work for a few people.
So let’s talk about the dynamic, Laurie Ruettimann. Again, I think a lot of people, they get a little scared of, okay, I don’t want to be a contractor because there’s some uncertainty there. I don’t want to be a consultant of that. So I like the security of the employee model. But then other people feel the opposite way that they want that freedom, but that there’s something in, and I’ll just say, I even hate to say a company’s mind, because we’re always talking about humans and individuals making these decisions. But there’s almost a sense of, okay, if you’re my employee, okay, that’s good, because I own you. I can direct you around and you have to do what I say and I have more control over you. And that ownership is like, man, that goes deep into some scary places. What do you feel about that?
Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think it’s hard to change the mindset of a company and a structure and of leadership. But you can change your own mindset just by thinking to yourself, I’m my own boss, I’m my own leader, I espouse this idea of self leadership, which is really the art and science of individual accountability. So if you show up with a work ethic, and you lean into your knowledge, skills, and abilities, and you have a little bit of professional detachment, where you treat your workers as if they’re your clients, and not like your family, you can go pretty far. You can really understand that you are in charge of your own day, your schedule, your work output, and then you stop looking to corporate leaders for answers. And you actually give them permission to not be your dad, to not be your mom, to not boss you around, because you’re so on top of your own game, they don’t even need to do it. And then when they hassle you about taking time off, you can point to all the amazing things you’ve done on your own without direction, say, listen, I’ve got this. I deserve my time off. So I think you’re right. Companies do see employees as items they own on a line item budget, and it’s up to us to really start to work to erode that understanding.
Yeah, and not only do they, I mean, owning them as a person is a horrible thought. But I feel like more specifically, they feel like they own their time.
Sure they do. Yeah, they’re paying for it, yeah.
I’ve paid for this many hours. That’s part of the package that we agreed to. And I feel like the sooner we can break that, the sooner, the better. Like you said, we need to say, look, I hired you to do a job. I hired you to accomplish an objective or push us there, push us forward. What you do with your time is not part of this contract.
Well, except it depends how it is, depending on how you’re classified or what your compensation philosophy is at your organization. So if you’ve got a comp team that really sees a full-time worker as putting in 2080 hours a year, or whatever the magic number is, and you start to break that down, it’s all very time based instead of results oriented. It’s very difficult to think about a results oriented workforce. And many smart people have been trying to do this for years. Because result oriented workforces mean that we have to talk about performance, measurement, bias, discrimination, expectations, communication. These are all very complex human things to talk about, let alone corporate things to talk about, and who’s got an HR department sophisticated enough to do that right now? Very few companies. So I mean, it’s challenging, but for the smart person who wants to tackle this, boy, greenfields, nothing but opportunity.
So what do you say, Laurie Ruettimann, because a lot of the people listening to the show and that are part of our community tend to be CEOs of smaller companies that are 25 to 200 employees. And they may be willing to say, I’ll be the guinea pig here, I’m going to try to make it work. How would you advise them in terms of really trying out this road?
Yeah, I think we practice in the small moments to nail it in the big moments. So rather than rolling out some program, even if you only have 10 employees, you can start by having a conversation, an open, transparent conversation. You can start by generating ideas from your workforce base, and not really just throwing something at the workforce. So many HR professionals think, I’m just going to implement this policy or this program that’s going to change stuff. And it doesn’t move the needle. It doesn’t do anything, because it’s HR focused and not worker focused. So the best way to do this is to really be in conversation with the people you’re trying to serve, and start there. But it’s definitely not easy. But if you’ve got a really good idea, or a different way of thinking about things, get your workforce involved and ask this one question, how will this go wrong? This is something I talk about in my book a lot, instead of avoid failure, or at least fail in new and interesting ways, don’t fail in the same ways over and over again. So if you and your workforce can really brainstorm how this can go poorly, it means you’re giving yourself a greater opportunity for things to go well.
Yeah, and walk us through the idea of the premortem because I think that’s an important topic for people.
Yeah, I love it. It’s an old stoic idea, Aristotle, Seneca, all the dudes back then thought about how to avoid failure. And they would flash forward into the future as a thought exercise and say, okay, I’m about to go give a speech or I’m about to go off into a battle like Marcus Aurelius. How do I tackle this? How do I make sure I don’t fail. And they would make a list of the ways they thought they would fail. And then they would try to disintermediate that before they actually did the thing they wanted to do. And if you can just flash forward and predict how you’re going to fail, and start to tick off the list and tackle these things before you do it, you give yourself a chance of success that’s greater. I’m always botching this. I’m better at writing it. You give yourself a 30% greater chance of success. And so that’s a competitive advantage I love. So a company like NASA, Cisco, IBM, NASA is not a company. But before they do anything in this world now, they ask themselves, how will this fail? And they try to fix it, because they know how important it is. It can be life and death. It could be the difference between having a profitable quarter and a terrible quarter. Or it can just be an issue around employee morale. Why do you want to fail at something over and over again? You want to succeed.
Yeah, excellent. So one of the things in your book, Laurie Ruettimann, I don’t know if I got this stat right with it. But you talked about coaching people to say instead of feeling like you always need to give your 100% effort at work and give everything you have to say would you be okay with 70%. 72% is a number that came out. That sounds great talking to an individual. Walk us through talking to one of these leaders of a company to be like, yeah, actually, I would also like that for my employees to give me 72% of what they can do.
Yeah, most people show up and give 100% and it’s terrible. Yeah, no, it’s not great. Or they overstate their 100%. I’m giving 110%. It’s like, oh, man, you are not. And a lot of people feel that when they hit a wall or a roadblock, they just need to muscle through it, and you hit the Law of Diminishing Returns. More effort, more energy is not going to move the needle forward. Actually stepping back, looking at what’s going on in your life, looking at your behaviors, looking at all the other things around you affecting performance may be the right tactic to take so that when you do come back to it, you don’t just hit it again at 110%. But maybe you go slow to go fast. And that’s the idea behind this.
So whenever I have a leader in my office, virtually or not, who’s complaining about the workforce challenges, problems, profitability, spending a couple more hours at work obsessing about this is a waste of time. What can you do to rest your brain, rest your body, and come at this fresh. And so those are the conversations that I have. And it’s the same thing with a burned out worker. Some of our best workers are going at it too much, right? They’re spending too much time on the job. And so it’s really important to start sending the message that, go take your vacation, work those 40 hours or whatever I pay you to work and don’t feel like you have to participate in this culture of presenteeism, because it’s actually eroding your performance.
Michael Jordan knows this. It’s not like he ever… he practiced and gave 110%. But he didn’t only practice. In fact, Michael Jordan did a lot of other things, right? Same thing with Tiger Woods, same thing with all the greats who are at the top of their game, they just don’t do the thing they’re doing. They develop their underdeveloped personal lives, and they have other things going on so that when they do do the thing they’re passionate about, they bring all that data and information to their game, to their craft, to their art, and they perform at a higher level.
I mean, you mentioned Michael Jordan, I just remembered the documentary that just came out where he’s like, every game, he’s talking about going out and playing golf. That’s his thing.
Michael Jordan is a complicated man, and we should all be at that level.
Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, that’s a great thing to think through. And we’ve talked to other guests about the idea of oscillation, and basically, every part of your body goes up and down. Your breathing, your heart rate, your brainwaves, everything about you. And yet, at the office, we feel like it’s got to be up and to the right, consistently all the time. And we’ve got to break that. That’s a good one. So let’s think about the difference between a team leader, like you have a very genuine person who’s in a management role, or in a leader role, who’s trying to get someone to do better and work harder, versus one that seems to always have this like, okay, but you didn’t do this, or you could do more, or you could do more, and is always pushing that. So how would you describe that difference between that toxic relationship where you’re never going to please this person, they’re always going to want more, they’re never going to be happy, versus, no, this is actually a coach role that does push me and make me better.
Oh, good question. A lot of people ask me a similar question, which is, how can I get my CEO to see the value of X? Or how can I get my HR team to offer Y and Z? You can’t get anybody to do anything in this world. They have to come to it on their own. So I think really understanding that, whether you’re at work and you own the person and their time, or you just have a relationship with them, how can I get my parents to understand, I don’t want to go to college, I want to do a gap year and explore my craft. You can’t get anybody to do anything. And sometimes the more you push, the less likely they are to say yes, or the less likely they are to hear you. So sometimes the only thing you can do is demonstrate what you’re trying to do through your actions.
So if you’re trying to get somebody to do something at work, the best way is to emulate it, is to demonstrate it. There are so many bosses who are like, I know this person is great, I just want to get them to do something, well, show them how to do it or partner them with someone who can lead the way through example. I think those are really great ways to do that. And if you have a supervisor who’s constantly on your case to get you to do something, I think you can have an honest conversation about that as well. So I don’t know if that answers your question. But I have had bosses who have been on my ass for the dumbest things. Like, alright, today’s the day we’re going to sit down, we’re going to talk about this. Why is this so important to you? What am I missing? Am I really missing this? Is this really a thing? Help me understand. Because I was an adult, and confident, I just went at it. I just asked those honest questions. Help me understand what the deficit is. So I think what we’re talking about here, Neil, is really communication. But what do you think about all that?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a lot of communication and being honest and open. I wish we could have more adult conversations like that. I wish more people had them.
Well, we can. We can just try and you could do the premortem before you have it. How is this going to fail? What’s the worst that’s going to happen if my boss and I have a really honest conversation around performance and expectations? Will I really get fired? Do you know how hard it is to get fired in America? I do because I worked in human resources. You can’t fire anybody. So I think taking more risks and trying to get to the heart of the conflict is really what we’re going for here.
Yeah. So Laurie Ruettimann, put us out a little bit in the future. We’re thinking about the future of work a little bit here. Just like five years from now, what do you feel like are some trends you see moving in a positive direction that you genuinely hope we move to and how will we get to that place?
Yeah, I’m working with a lot of technology companies that are really focused on human centered technology, not HR technology. So the world of work is really self service. And it’s personalized to your work experience. So you come to work as a contractor, consultant, employee, and your onboarding is really tailored to you, your experience is tailor to you, your training is tailored to you. All of this is done behind the scenes, and it also learns based on your performance, and it’s not like there’s some HR calendar anymore. And then you’re not rushing to get things done at the end of the quarter, at the end of the year. Because all of this is about the world of work, and not the world of HR. Some I’m excited about that. Performance for the sake of understanding someone’s performance instead of ticking a box to get a number to then figure out compensation is a cool idea. So I’m excited about work tech versus HR tech. I don’t know. Have you seen any of that, Neil, in your experience?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen a lot of HR tools out there. And their job was to make the HR team’s job easier, not to make the employee experience any better, or to change it all, just to automate a few of those processes that comes through. So I would love to see that change, and that to be more of like, no, this is actually a different approach. I want to ask you, are you comfortable with the idea of a company that totally, let’s say, there’s some semi intelligence, AI that just takes over the HR department, that’s the new boss. Are we in a better place or a worse place?
We are in a better place if there is an HR department that’s focused on empowering, enabling, and coaching, and not on ticking a box, making sure people fill out forms and do processes for the sake of doing things. So I’m okay with that. And I also think the opportunity for AI and machine learning is to get rid of some of the stuff that we’re doing in HR, because has it really ever proven to be effective. So some of the training that we do, some of the learning that we make people go through, we can actually potentially measure that and see does that move the needle on company performance. And I have to say, I am on retainer with SAP and SuccessFactors. So I’m a little biased, but I get to see cool tech from them from Workday, from Ultimate Software, from Khronos Group, which are now the same, from all the companies out there, and also smaller companies as well. And this is really where it’s going to take out some of this rote stuff that HR is doing, and to automate it, to digitize it, to personalize it. And then further down to really ask the question, is this even important? Why are we doing it? So that’s the kind of stuff I’m excited about.
When you think back to that first HR hire that the world ever did, what caused that? We have people sitting around and realized, oh, we need somebody to help us with this.
No, no, I know what caused it. It was back right around the turn of the 20th century. So 19-something, and they created a personnel department because leaders who were dudes were like, we don’t like people, we’re not good with people. And I think now that that’s just the opposite of what a leader should be, if you’re not good with people, you’re not a leader. If you don’t like getting your hands dirty with human emotions, well, you don’t deserve to be a CEO. If you want to outsource that emotional relationship, so what they did was they got a mom. The CEOs were the dads, the patriarchs, and the matriarch in this very white heteronormative explanation that I’m giving, was the very first HR lady. I cannot remember her name. But my friend, Jennifer McClure, who is a coach.
We got her on the show, yeah.
Yeah, she does an amazing presentation on the beginnings of human resources. And it was right around the turn of the century. And it was this woman in a very long frock with a tight bun. And she was the first HR lady. And from there, it became about making sure people didn’t unionize. They didn’t threaten the organization, that if there was harassment, it was just taken care of so the CEO didn’t have to worry about it. And I think we’ve come a long way in over 100 years, but it’s time to give the emotional responsibility back to leaders.
Yeah, 100%. I feel like if HR didn’t exist today, and teams were working through this stuff, you would expect that team leader to say, hey, this is your responsibility. You need that emotional side of understand those things. And then on the other side, if you want to track days off, you’re going to track PTO, we’re going to give that to a machine because they’re going to do that awesome. And we’re running out of stuff that HR can do at that point. It’s going to take a long time for it. I mean, I think recruiting is a different talent that’s separate from there that could still use a lot of human input. But I don’t know, Laurie Ruettimann. Where does that leave HR?
Yeah, I mean, I think recruiting could use less human input, to be honest with you, because we tend to recruit for our biases and for our preferences, so I think there could be some help there. But who builds the algorithms is the question that becomes interesting. I will say this. I remember, years ago, I worked for a man who noticed one of his employees was taking a lot of sick days on a Friday. And he asked me, why didn’t HR catch this? I’m like because what, I’m not in your office? And also, maybe she’s sick every Friday. Why don’t we have a conversation like this? Turns out she wasn’t. She was trying to extend her weekend. But it’s not my responsibility to do that. But now the promise of technology is to capture some of that stuff, and to question it earlier so that we’re not six months into it wondering if an employee has been scamming us.
I think that’s a great place to wrap up the show. There’s so much to think about when it comes to the future of work, when it comes to the future of HR, which may be in jeopardy if people actually listen to us.
Or it’s just going to change or be different.
I think putting a lot of that responsibility back onto an actual leader and say, hey, you’re probably less responsible for getting the work done. Getting the work done is the people you hired to do. That’s their job. You’re in charge of leading them as humans and all the mess that comes with that. But that’s why we’re paying you, so do that. And then let’s bring in technology to cover up a lot of that other stuff that goes through.
Love it, we just solve all the problems.
Great. Well, I’m going to retire so.
You and me both. Everybody, just get a copy of my book and read it on the beach. That’s what I’m doing.
Yeah, or listen to it. You do just such a nice job because you actually read it yourself. Was that tough?
I did. It was interesting, because I did it during COVID. So I had to do it here in my home office. I’m a podcaster so I have all the tools and equipment. I didn’t get the body language and the experience of being in a studio. So that was a little challenging, but I got to use my podcast voice and hopefully be entertaining. So thank you for downloading the audio book.
Yeah, it was very entertaining. Definitely. Great. Laurie Ruettimann, thanks so much for being on the show. We appreciate it. We definitely like a lot of what you’re saying and it’s totally in line with what we’re trying to direct people towards. So thanks for being a part of all this.
Yeah, thanks for doing the work that you’re doing, too.
Laurie Ruettimann is a former human resources leader turned writer, entrepreneur, and speaker. CNN recognized her as one of the top five career advisers in the United States, and her work has been featured on NPR, The New Yorker, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Vox. She frequently delivers keynote speeches at business and management events around the world and hosts a popular podcast focused on fixing work. She lives with her husband and cats in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Laurie keynotes events all around the world and is featured on major media websites where she shares wisdom about HR, hiring trends, and technology. Her book “Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career” was published by Henry Holt & Company in January 2021.