What Are the Biggest Challenges You’re Facing in the Workplace Today?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started developing a friendship with a gentleman who teaches at a local university. I had seen him from a distance nearly every time I’ve been at the gym since Cindy and I moved our membership there six months or so ago, but we just hadn’t crossed paths directly until recently. As it turns out, we have quite a few mutual friends - one of which is very special to both of us. Once we made that connection, each conversation we’ve had since has been pretty fluid!

As we talked earlier this week, Ken asked about the work Cindy and I do. I gave him  my 30 second elevator response so I wouldn’t hold him up from his workout but he immediately followed that with this question: “What are the biggest challenges you’re seeing companies face in the workplace today?”

My simple, one-word response led to a much more involved conversation. What was that response? ACCOUNTABILITY

We ended up chatting in more detail about several things that we both believe contribute to the lack of accountability that so many organizations, and society as a whole, struggles with today. I’ll circle back to more of that soon. For now though, I think you’ll enjoy the story he shared with me about how he kicked off the semester with his students for the spring semester of ‘21…

Ken had surgery to repair his right rotator cuff just before the semester began. The school offered him the chance to skip the semester entirely to heal but he declined. Since you likely don’t know Ken (yet), I’m guessing that seems like overkill - or maybe just a typical government approach. While it may actually be somewhat normal in a government job, it most certainly was not overkill to offer that to Ken! 

In 2001, a film was released called Black Hawk Down chronicling the events that unfolded in Mogadishu in October 1993. I saw the movie, and soon after that became friends with a gentleman who was part of the Marine Expeditionary Unit that was sent into Somali immediately after the Black Hawk Down incident to rescue as many souls as possible and to secure the region. Ken was there shortly after working for the International Rescue Committee when the vehicle he was in hit a landmine, ultimately resulting in the loss of both his legs.

Wait a minute, time-out Wes… Didn’t you say you saw him in the gym nearly every time you were there? I most certainly did! Ken has prosthetic legs today and puts more time in on the elliptical machines than I do. He also lifts pretty heavy too! But between having been a college nose guard at the University of Colorado and taking a fall when one of his prosthetic legs fell off, the rotator cuff needed some work.

So back to what he told his students… With two prosthetic legs and his right arm tied to a pillow, he was down to one limb. But he still refused the time away to recoup! In the first session he had with each group of students that semester, he told them that they’d better have a damn good excuse for not performing in that class; if he could make it through being down to one good arm, he felt confident that they should be OK too…

When he shared that with me, I immediately told him how much I believed that example had to have impacted their entire lives moving forward. He assured me that he was just feeling a little punchy and didn’t really plan on that but he indeed hoped it made some kind of difference.

Here’s the thing, how many scenarios can you think of RIGHT NOW where people aren’t held accountable to perform to the level that’s expected of them and have far less reason than Ken would have had to skip teaching that semester? There aren’t enough hours in any given day for me to list all I can think of. And I’m completely convinced that this lack of accountability is the biggest challenge nearly all of us are facing in the workplace today! Moving forward, we’ll dig into a few things that are driving that lack of accountability and in a page that follows this one, we’ll work through what we can do as leaders to keep it from permeating the culture in our organizations!

Walk Softly, and Don’t Upset Anyone!

With that story about how my friend provided his students with a priceless life lesson fresh in your mind, let’s dig into what I believe is one of the biggest challenges in the workplace today: too many lawyers! If you’re an NCIS fan, think Rule #13… “Never involve lawyers!” To that end, I remember having a friend tell me years ago that 98% of attorneys make the other 2% look bad. The best part of him sharing that with me was that he’s a partner with one of the largest law firms in the US. Since he deals with far more attorneys than I ever plan to, I’ll have to take his word for it!

Seriously though, I’m not really suggesting that lawyers themselves are the root of all workplace evil today. I do, however, believe they have a direct connection with one of the biggest issues plaguing our country’s workforce. As a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, since that’s where I maintain a professional credential, I get daily update newsletters detailing some of the hottest topics related to employment law. One of the most frequent things I see referenced are actions that are grounds for lawsuits against employers. Quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons I made the decision to move away from being a full time human resource practitioner several years ago!

Through the years that I’ve been actively engaged in the human resources field, even at the level I am now, there’s seemed to have been an overwhelming push to cater to any given whim of any employee with even the slightest amount of perceived disadvantage - regardless of where that perceived disadvantage may be rooted. If we think back to Ken refusing to skip the semester even when he was down to one limb, one would hope that at least a few of those perceived disadvantages would be dispelled… 

If you’ve ever watched ION or MeTV on a weekday afternoon (we don’t watch it but we do keep it on with hopes of preventing the dogs from barking at every sound they hear outside throughout the day), you have some perspective for how many lawyers are out there. And with what I’d expect to be a fairly substantial price tag on the schooling required to be in one of those roles, it makes at least a little bit of sense as to why 30-40 commercials in every 30 minute program have a line that sounds something like “Were you injured in an accident? Let us help…”

I’m clearly exaggerating the lawyer part, but I’m convinced that a real issue anyone in a leadership role faces on a daily basis is the tip-toeing we need to do to avoid a potential lawsuit - whether its from Marks & Harrison or some government entity looking to cripple the businesses paying for their very existence. 

As it relates to the staffing process, getting an actual representation of the candidates being screened for a job is nearly impossible; don’t ask this question, stay away from that topic, a positive reference can lead to a lawsuit, a negative reference can result in slander, and even a lot of skills based assessments have become taboo… 

When there’s more stringent rules on what an employer can do to legally provide someone with an opportunity to feed their family than there are for what the employee can be required to do to earn their wage, I’d say it’s a legitimate challenge in the workplace!

As a quick side note, I was given a statistic a few years ago by a peer in a role directly tied to workforce development. He shared that in Virginia at that time, there was one attorney for every seventy people but only one plumber for every thousand people! My immediate, and far too sarcastic response was that we probably don’t have enough plumbers in Virginia to clean up all the crap the attorneys create! In all seriousness though, I think those numbers are a symptom of an even bigger issue we’re all facing in the workplace today!

Square Pegs and Round Holes…

A lot of lawyers and only a few plumbers… Again, just a symptom of what I believe is a far bigger issue!

Somewhere between 1992 & 1994, as I had entered the workforce and was beginning to consider what my next steps would be after high school, my dad lined up some time for me to talk with his boss who had responsibility for all regional operations for one of the largest poultry companies in the area at that time. Close to 30 years later, I remember one specific thing from that conversation… Danny told me that I needed some kind of degree, even if it was in basket weaving, to have a real shot at being successful in most any field. Quite frankly, I thought that was a bit ironic since the unspoken message I was hearing from nearly all of the teachers and guidance counselors at my high school was that without a degree, all I’d be qualified for is working in a chicken plant!

Before you get the wrong impression, let me be very clear that I’m not suggesting there’s a single thing wrong with the poultry industry! Not only did that field provide a roof over my head and food to eat growing up, it plays a major role in Virginia’s overall economy. I don’t want to think about how different (and not in a good way) our lives would be in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley without all that industry does for us.

The real issue I’m calling attention to here is how we, as a culture, have been forcing square pegs into round holes for more than three decades. At some point, there were bound to be consequences - and it certainly looks like that point is NOW!

The same fellow I mentioned earlier who shared those stats with me about the number of attorneys and plumbers in Virginia also told me that out of every ten people entering the workforce, one would need an advanced degree (Masters or Doctorate), two would need a Bachelor's degree, and seven would need training for skilled or semi-skilled labor. Since he made his living in academia, I suppose I can understand his perspective - it’s just not the reality I’ve seen while helping fill more than one thousand positions for companies I’ve worked for or with… I’d go so far as to say that 17 out 20 being trained for skilled or semi-skilled labor may still be a bit light!

Around the same time he shared those numbers with me, I was invited to sit in on a workforce development meeting with Virginia’s sitting governor. While it was supposed to be by invitation only, a few folks still managed to make it in without one and aired their dirty laundry. A middle-aged lady raised concern about how the younger lady with her, who had just graduated from a four year university with a degree in English Literature, had only been able to find work in food service. Interestingly enough, that same week I had hired a high school graduate with a master’s license in a specific skilled trade for $35/hr and a company vehicle…

While I agreed with very little of that particular former governor’s politics, his response may have been the only thing I’ve ever heard him say that I could get behind. I don’t remember his specific verbiage but it was something about supply and demand, and her particular degree may not be in very high demand in the business community…

Here’s the thing, I’ve helped recruit and hire supervisors, managers, accountants, engineers, architects, project managers, estimators, and various other high level professionals where a very specific course of study was necessary. In scouring the internet for candidates to fill those roles and setting the search parameters to include a bachelor’s degree, I’ve seen countless liberal arts majors whose only work history was in retail or food service. Again, I’m not throwing stones at anyone’s choice in education or any industry. I am concerned, however, that the push to get any ole degree, even if it’s in basket weaving, has become one of the biggest challenges we’re facing in the workforce today, and that could also be a significant contributing factor to the issues we’re seeing where student debt can’t be repaid. I’ve never known a master electrician who’s been concerned about paying off student loans!

And I believe that ties right in with the accountability piece we looked at to start, not to mention the mental health issues impacting so many people today, so we’ll pick up there next time!