HR needs a wakeup call. And not a gentle, soft-voiced, smells-like-bacon wakeup call. The human resources profession needs to get thrown out of bed onto the cold, hard floor by that drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket.”
That truth, says Ed Krow, principal at Lititz, Pennsylvania-based management consulting firm TurboExecs, is that the way HR professionals are doing things is broken, outdated, and, worst of all, out of touch with employees. And Krow’s prescription for figuring out how to apply company money toward the kinds of rewards employees really want is — and this is not hyperbole — radical for the field: Ask the employees what they want.
Krow will present “Total Rewards: A Generational Focus,” a workshop that looks at ways HR professionals can implement and manage rewards programs for employees across the diverse generational mix in today’s labor force, on Monday, June 8, at 5:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency. Cost: $50. Visit hrma-nj.shrm.org.
Krow grew up and still lives and works in central Pennsylvania. “I’m a Lancaster boy, but not Amish,” he says. As a kid, while his father supervised workers at a metal factory and his mother worked as an administrative assistant, Krow carved his own business niche early with a paper route.
This was no small thing for Krow. Though he didn’t understand it at the time, his job showed him the basics of running a business — delivering a product on a schedule, collecting, proving money received, and settling accounts. And the delivery aspect served him well when he got his first adult job, working for UPS, while he attended Millersville University.
Krow started college as a mathematics major, fully intent on teaching high school math and coaching baseball. Then he took calculus. Put off by the drudgery of a math degree, Krow ran into a minister from his church, whom he knew when he was a Cub Scout. The reverend pointed Krow to the then-burgeoning field of occupational safety and hygiene management, and Krow earned his bachelor’s in that subject in 1989.
At the time, UPS still required its office personnel to be drivers for a time before they could be culled for management. So Krow paid his dues on the road and says the experience gave him the intended lessons, mainly the one about understanding what the frontline grunts in the company face on a daily basis.
One day the HR manager asked him to be an assistant HR rep, like a “field HR guy,” Krow says. “I had no idea what to do.” But the manager figured his protege would learn it all soon enough, and that hunch turned out to be right. In 1995 Krow earned his master’s in safety science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He laughs when he realizes, “I’m formally educated in industrial safety, and I’ve never worked one day in it.”
Though he liked UPS, Krow felt by the end of the 1990s that a Fortune 500 was not where he wanted to stay. He had the option of a fantastic job with a big company in Baltimore or a smaller consulting firm near his home. Krow had always wanted to move more into consulting, so he opted to stay smaller, and almost immediately regretted it. But while working for this firm he had the freedom to start his own business, so he did. In 2000 he opened Human Resources Essentials in Lancaster. Meanwhile, he continued to teach at Millersville, where he has been an adjunct professor since 1996.
In 2012 Krow co-founded TurboExecs, which he says started as “a walking C-suite” loosely tied to two other companies. Over drinks, the three principals, Krow, Michelle McCall, and Patty Lawrence, decided to unify professionally.
The long career in HR has been good to Krow, who says the field appeals to his organized math brain as much as to his rebellious, no-Yes-Man side. It’s this latter one that often gets him crooked looks and institutionalized resistance to his observations that businesses are going about things very wrongly when it comes to rewards for employees. Especially because there is so much diversity in the workforce.
Times change. If you’re at least 20 years removed from college, consider for a moment how different you are as a person right now. At 46, Krow knows he doesn’t want the same things he wanted when he was 21. He also knows he still doesn’t want what he didn’t want then.
Let’s take the company picnic. Krow, like many people his age and younger, do not view the idea of spending off hours at a company function, socializing with the co-workers, very favorably. He has nothing against his co-workers, but the weekends, he says, are family time.
And yet, the company picnic remains a venerable institution. The problem, Krow says, is that HR executives, who typically dream up such employee-engagement events, aren’t listening when people tell them they couldn’t care less about a picnic. It’s a waste of money and it becomes an obligation.
And this isn’t Krow’s personal perspective. One firm he consulted started with a company picnic years ago, when the company was small and young. Several decades later, the company had grown huge. The firm changed the picnic to a trip to Hershey Park and asked that, though employees and kids go free, spouses pay $5 (tickets, by the way, are nearly $62 a person otherwise). The employees railed against having to pay, despite the deal. By the time the day at Hershey Park was over, the company had spent $50,000 for 30 percent of the employees to show up.
On the other end of this, this same company gave employees birthday card gift certificates to what Krow describes as a phenomenal Lancaster-area bakery. And more than 90 percent of employees cashed it in. This kind of thing, he says, is where the company needs to be focusing its rewards — on things employees actually like. And remember, finding out what that is as easy as walking around asking them.
It’s also essential to remember that not everyone will want the same thing, Krow says. And as a person ages in the workforce, what that person wants will change. But enough commonality shows up, regardless of which generation someone belongs to, when you listen, he says. It’s something he learned by walking around at UPS and getting to know 400 employees personally — an HR rep needs to talk to people, and to listen. Only then can the company know how to reward its employees.
It’s not all about money. Krow does a lot of speaking, and consequently has collected a ton of token gifts from organizations, emblazoned with logos. But at one speech, an old friend rewarded him with a fancy pepper shaker, which Krow, an avid cook and griller, loved.
As it turns out, that trinket is still Krow’s favorite gift for speaking, and that’s because, he says, the presenter of that gift knew him well enough to know that little things can be highly important to people. Rewards are not necessarily about the money, he says. A decent salary should cover that anyway. Rewards, instead, are about knowing what people actually value.
And by the way, try not to go into the generational issue armed with the standard chestnuts about what makes millennials different from gen-Xers from baby boomers. Just go in with your ears open and your mouth closed, Krow says. You’ll be surprised how much more efficiently a company runs.
Too many HR leaders are telling people what they should want and too few are finding out what would really work, he says. “Our profession needs a huge wakeup call. It’s a huge problem.”