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Peters brings his message of destruction to Atlanta


From an article in the current issue of People Management magazine:

At the Society for Human Resource Management's 51st annual conference, personnel professionals were advised to 'neglect' all but the best people in the organisation. Steve Crabb reports

It is necessary to destroy in order to create, last month’s SHRM conference was told. The basic moral delivered by Tom Peters (pictured), the opening keynote speaker, was: “If we are smart, we are agents of destruction.”

The business world is now changing incredibly quickly, he pointed out, with a new millionaire being created every 10 minutes in Silicon Valley. As a result, he urged HR practitioners to concentrate their attentions on the “coolest dude or dudette” in the organisation, and “practice strategic benign neglect” with the rest, adding that “mediocre success is the most purely obscene phrase I’ve ever heard”.

“Those who try to sugar-coat the message… will find themselves unemployed and their companies shrivelled out of all recognition,” he added.

A more idealistic picture was painted by a former Hewlett-Packard executive, Jim Collins, who told delegates that organisations that simply aspire to make money, without addressing their core values, are unlikely to become “truly great”. There was also a hint of Hewlett-Packard in his recommendation that companies should be “rigorous, but not ruthless in getting the right people on the bus,” while getting “rid of the wrong people”.

But most sessions concentrated on practical issues a world away from the strategic themes of the keynote speakers. Two strands in particular recurred: the difficulty of recruiting and retaining the right people, and problems navigating legal minefields, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and union recognition laws.

In a session entitled “Remotivating the baby-boomer generation”, for example, consultant Richard Pimentel suggested that “a hot economy means that you are hiring people that you would have called the police on a few years ago”.

The baby boomers - the 78 million US workers born between 1946 and 1964, or “between the end of the second world war and the release of the Beatles’ Revolver album”, as Pimentel put it - were now entering their fifties and were increasingly opting for early retirement. “Some of the best and the brightest are leaving because they are fed up,” he told delegates. “We used to feel secure, because we knew that only the dead wood left. Now only the dead wood stays.”

In the past, most companies retained the bulk of their 50-somethings by slotting them into middle management jobs, Pimentel pointed out. Now that this was no longer an option, employers would need to find new methods of retaining and motivating their best baby boomers - including flexible benefits such as eldercare.

Yet the dire warnings of Peters and Pimentel were relatively mild compared to the employment dilemmas presented by Christopher Bell, of law firm Jackson Lewis, who explained what the ADA meant for employees with psychiatric disabilities. He told delegates that they needed to train their supervisors not to write down comments such as “X is crazy”, or even to refer staff for counselling on the grounds that they “need treatment”, because employees could claim protection under the act if they could show they were regarded as having a problem, regardless of whether they did or not.

Bell cited a number of hair-raising examples of organisations that had been caught out under the act. One in particular stood out: following an illness, a school janitor returned to work, but said that he could no longer clean halls, windows or anything on the premises apart from stairs. The school asked him to undertake a “fitness for work” test, and, when he failed to attend, he was dismissed. The janitor sued and won, because under the ADA his employer should have tried harder to accommodate his illness.


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