Monday, January 25, 2010

In Praise of Pedantry

I just returned from a seminar on proposal writing, and something that was mentioned really didn't sit right with me.  Our presenter, who has significant qualifications, mentioned that spelling and grammar are important, but not that important.  Further, he suggested that you didn't need someone to proofread your proposal.  In his words, 'if it sound right to you, it's fine.'

Sadly, that is not fine, so I must object.

Now, I'm a little pedantic.  How pedantic?  Well, I use the word, pedantry.  Be that as it may, there is a valid case for employing proper grammar and syntax... even for you non-pedants out there.  Basically, the reason we have these rules of usage is so that everyone understands the meaning of each other's words.  Language can be quite ambiguous.  We rely on these rules to ensure that other people understand that which we write or say.  It is not enough that you understand the meaning; to adapt a phrase, it must sound right to your audience.

There's a Murphy's Law-esque phenomenon that afflicts many writers; it suggests that whenever you write a blog post correcting someone's grammar, you are destined to commit, at minimum, one grammatical faux pas.  Thus, I fully expect that there is some sort of mistake in this post.

And I will take such a mistake as further support for my argument.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Mathematics of the Familial Millstone

Evil HR Lady has an interesting letter from a reader seeking insight into a hiring decision her employer recently made.  It seems there was a candidate that should have been hired but wasn't.  It seems that she wasn't hired because her sister used to work for the company and left on bad terms.  It seems that there could have been no other reason not to give this person a job offer.

'Seems' is an interesting word.  It's a great way to kick off an investigation, but a lousy way to conclude one.

Here's what EHRL said (in part):
That said, unless you were in on the hiring discussions you can't know for sure that this happened. Why did they bring her in for an interview if they weren't going to hire her, based on her relative? That makes absolutely no sense. If they refused to interview her, the relationship could have been behind that, but have you checked the unemployment rates lately? Honestly, if I had 300 candidate resumes (not unusual lately) and one was the sister of the psychopath we had to fire two years ago, I wouldn't put her as my top choice unless her qualifications were so phenomenally above the other 299 people.

And that's my point right there: Yeah, it's possible that her relationship hurt her, but there are so many people for each available job that it's not likely the only reason.
Makes a lot of sense (as is to be expected from EHRL).  However, I do not think EHRL went quite far enough.  Sometimes, your personal and familial relationships are sufficient cause for not receiving a job offer (or in a situation I've seen, losing your job).  It is completely, utterly, 100% unfair to the candidate.

But it'd be completely, utterly, 100% unfair to those doing the hiring to force them to be blind to everything but a person's resume.

There's an old trope about, well, pretty much everything, but it gets applied to recruiting from time to time: recruiting isn't a science; it's an art.  Unfortunately, that's wrong.  It's neither; recruiting is, at times, mathematics.   It's risk/reward; it's balancing probabilities; it's playing the odds.  It's constructing an intangible metric that will maximize the probability that you will produce successful hires.  You can't do that by merely going through a checklist.

When constructing a team, ability, skills and experience are only part of the calculus.  One must take into account the dynamics of the working environment.  You've got to figure out if this new person will be a fit.  Employees do not always function rationally.  Their emotions guide them, and their productivity can be affected by endogenous and exogenous variables, tangible or not.  If an employee's relative holds a grudge against the company, it's not preposterous to imagine it could have a negative impact on the employee's productivity.  Further, it's not preposterous to think it could have a negative impact on the mood of the team, detracting from the productivity of the team as a whole.

Certainly, there's no guarantee that such an outcome would occur, but 'there's no guarantee that I will destroy the culture of your office' or 'it's possible that I won't be a huge distraction at work'  are not valid reasons to hire anyone.  As EHRL eludes to in her post, with two satisfactory candidates of similar experience and ability, why take the one that could become the office cancer.

As I mentioned, I have known people in this type of situation.  It sucks; it really does.  Judged solely through the eyes of the jilted candidate (who knows that she'd be a great employee and that there'd be no taint from a disgruntled relative) this is an egregious wrong.  However, if we take away the certainty of it - and the hiring process is riddled with uncertainties - no longer does the hiring manager seem like such an ogre.  If we step back, we see that the manager is just a person trying to deal with the imperfections of life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Case for (Seemingly) Unfounded Optimism

A little over a week ago, a contract opportunity came out from a government agency.  For a whole host of reasons, we didn't think we had much of a shot (short response time, some ultra-specific requirements, experienced competition, etc).  Nonetheless, we did our due diligence, and we contacted probably 20 to 30 consultants.  Of that, only three thought they would meet all the criteria for which our client was asking.  And even then, one of them removed himself from contention just a few hours later.

So, I was down to two.  Both were experienced, solid candidates, with whom we had previously worked.  Eventually, we settled on one candidate to represent.  We'd been given a handful of days to generate a proposal and time was slowly fading away on us.

Even our candidate had the same reservations about the viability of this opportunity.  Nonetheless, like us, he decided to take a shot.

I knew - knew - that we weren't going to get this.  I also knew that our candidate could do the job and could meet all the requirements.  There was no internal conflict; these thoughts were completely reconcilable.  Unfortunately, the reconciliation was obvious.  The optimism could not win out.

The IT consulting market in Ottawa has been pretty dead for the past year.  We have seen fewer and fewer opportunities, and more and more consultants desperate for work.  Prices for consultants dropped rapidly, with senior consultants taking rates that intermediate consultants may have balked at in 2008.  Firms are slashing mark ups; no more is the much sought after 18% to 20% margin realistic.  Competition brought on by a buyer's market has brought everyone's expectations to Death Valley-like levels.  Optimism is in short supply.

Had the market been better, optimism would have been an abundant commodity.  The most public of public goods, it would have been for all and for as much as anyone desired.

Time ran out on me for this proposal.  I worked with our candidate.  We covered all the requirements and ensured that he was satisfactory.  We began building and formatting the proposal.  But time was scarce.  We'd been given so little time to respond that any snags were giant setbacks.  We approached the deadline and there was much more that I wanted to do to make the proposal perfect.  Don't get me wrong, it was fine; it was satisfactory.  I wanted it to be perfect.  (Did I mention the state of the market?)

Had the market been better, we'd have had no worry about this opportunity.  Upon seeing all the challenges and disincentives to respond, we would have disregarded this request, instead working on requests from other clients - requests that seemed viable.

Had the market been better, we never would have won this contract.  Score one for the contrarian case for optimism.

Labour Board Karma*

A few months ago, I mentioned that one of our former employees launched a complaint against us with the Ministry of Labour (yet still thought it wise to come visit us and pretend like everything was just fine).  I won't get into the specifics of the case, but this employee was let go for cause.  There's really no way an impartial juror could think otherwise.  Nonetheless, we didn't want to take any chances, and we knew that our former employee made a very sympathetic figure.

Consequently, I spent weeks preparing our case.  I went through email logs, financial records, computer files and personnel files.  It took quite a while, but I was able to present the labour board with a response that consisted of, approximately, 80 pages.  Through her complaint, among other issues, the former employee had put a tremendous administrative strain on our office.  No ethereal form of justice could possibly allow a finding against us.

Today we received a response.  Justice, you'll be happy to know, is alive and well.

*And, yes, before Mrs. JMR, a student of theology, objects, I know that this is totally not what Karma is.  I just wanted a title.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Unfolding Mystery of the ESA: Bill 139

Temporary Help.

Say it.  Say it so many times that it has lost all meaning.  Say it until the permanence of opacity.  Say it one more time.  Now you know the effect of Bill 139 on the consulting industry.

I don't mean that to be flippant or derogatory; I just mean that this bill has been passed with very poor definitions.  In certain situations, the meaning is clear.  If you run a temp agency, the bill applies; if you run a consulting agency, well, then maybe it applies, depending on a four test common law application, depending on the integration, dependency, control, appearance, whether we apply Sagaz or Re Becker Milk Co... (mumbles and trails off incoherently).

Okay, to begin with, a quick background.  Bill 139 attempts to give temporary workers the same rights and protections afforded by law to permanent employees.  This means such things as receiving holiday pay, vacation pay and notice of termination (or payment in lieu).  It also means that after six months, the temporary help agency cannot prevent the client from hiring the temporary worker as a permanent employee.  So far, so good.  Well, one could rightfully debate the merit of the bill, but I think we all get the basic idea: temps need protection from exploitation (that's the non-cynical explanation and, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to run with it).

The problem comes with firms, like my current employer, who are not really temporary help agencies.  We are not body shops that farm out desperate low-skilled workers.  We do not trade in what is the generally perceived definition of a temp.  We trade in the services of highly skilled (and deservedly highly paid) professionals.

Unfortunately, it is unclear if Bill 139 makes such a distinction (though, for some reason, it makes an explicit exception for home-care professionals... I have no idea why).  It could be that this new law will make all or most consultants employees.  Unfortunately, there is no way to know this.  Neither the ESA nor the Ministry of Labour is willing to make a definitive statement as to what constitutes an employee.  To a certain extent, this is understandable.  Employment and work dynamics are changing so much these days that rules that had been in place for decades may no longer be applicable.  Attempting to define 'employees' may be near impossible.

In Ontario's common law, there are numerous tests and criteria that are laid out to make such a determination.  Unfortunately, none of the tests are considered definitive and the list of criteria is not considered to be exhaustive.  The common law does not give appropriate guidance to firms and consultants.  Worse yet, Bill 139 seems to be, at least in part, an attempt to codify the common law.  Institutionalized Uncertainty:  it's all the rage at Queen's Park this season.

One blog post is not sufficient space to fully explore all the issues surrounding Bill 139, but I will leave you with one final thought:  The Ministry of Labour has responded to an inquiry I made about the nature of employment of an independent consultant; an agent of the Ministry wrote, "[s]uch a ruling can only be made by an Employment Standards Officer following an investigation into a complaint, by an arbitrator when a grievance has been filed by an employee..."

So, the only way to determine if a consultant is an employee is to lose a complaint lodged against you through the Ministry of Labour.  For those companies who wish to abide by the law, this is of little comfort.

Stay tuned...

Monday, January 18, 2010

I Really Should See this Movie

These days, I don't have a lot of time to pay attention to what movies are playing.  Mrs. JMR and I have a lot of other commitments, and, generally, those things we do for fun are going to be toddler-appropriate.  Consequently, I didn't pay much attention when the recent George Clooney flick, Up In The Air, was released.  It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I learned that it was about something near and dear to my heart, sacking people.

From what I've read, it's a quirky movie that's more about human connections than employee terminations (and understandably so).  And, apparently, it's pretty good, having just won the Golden Globe for best screenplay, and employing (no pun intended) one of the more amiable actors working today.  Aside from all this, I'm interested to see how they deal with someone who's job it is to terminate people.  It's been my experience that there is a general misunderstanding of the realm of employee terminations.  I have been involved in the terminations of probably 20 to 30 people - certainly not a lot, but enough to gain a little insight into process.

Conducting terminations isn't easy, and it certainly isn't for everyone.  It requires a seemingly paradoxical mix of empathy, detachment and the possession of a thick skin.  To be properly motivated, one has to keep in mind the big picture, the fact that properly conducted terminations positively affect the workings of the company; to be efficient and effective, one has to remained focus on the narrowly-defined issues at hand, not allowing the employee to derail the process.

In the past, I have willingly taken on the role of terminating employees.  I have done this because I was confident that I could handle the situation with tact, ensuring a respectful termination for the employee while also safeguarding the interests of the company.  In fact, I'd be willing to have an Up In The Air-type job.  I would have no problem being employed to terminate people... as long as I was also able to guide the company in their processes that lead to termination.  Properly employed, such processes should benefit everyone at the company.  They should lead to fewer terminations, and that's what every company should want.

So, maybe, in the coming months I'll watch the movie.  And maybe I'll start a new feature at JMR, movie reviews.