The Dripping Tap – A Tale for the Small Business Owner

May 27, 2019

“What on earth has a dripping tap got to do with HR?” you might be asking yourself.  Surely this is the domain of a plumber, not an HR professional!  Well of course, in literal terms you’d be right, but think of the analogy: You’ve got a dripping tap; what do you do?

  • Put a bucket under the tap and mop the floor from time to time to dry any splashes or spills?
  • Fix the tap to stop it dripping?

Both are logical and effective options as each prevents the dripping water from spilling over the floor, but there are different pros and cons of each option, with each requiring a different set of skills, knowledge and equipment to implement.

So how does this relate to HR?

Using a bucket to catch the drips

This is the option that so long as we own a bucket any of us can do, right?  We require no other equipment and certainly no special skills or knowledge.  Think of the dripping tap as HR challenges in your business.  You can deal with these yourself, responding to each challenge, issue or problem as it arises.  On their own, none is outside your capability – after all, you’re good at dealing with people.

Maybe over a 3-month period, the sequence of issues looks something like:

  • Week 1: Vacancy to recruit to
  • Week 2: Driver off sick
  • Week 3: Receptionist arrives late, the third day he’s been late this week
  • Week 4: Bad atmosphere in the office, you’re not sure what’s happened but there appear to be 2 distinct ‘camps’ forming
  • Week 5: Driver off sick again
  • Week 6: Receptionist resigns, leaving you with a key position to fill
  • Week 7: Driver off sick again
  • Week 8: Grievance submitted by Administrator alleging bullying from the Office Manager
  • Week 9: Complaint made from a key customer about one of your staff
  • Week 10: Outstanding debt from overdue invoices rises beyond an acceptable level.  On investigation, no invoices have been chased in the past 3-weeks
  • Week 11: Driver off sick again
  • Week 12: Driver submits a note from his GP confirming he has been diagnosed with stress and anxiety

How long can you continue to deal with this level of issue within the business?  Whilst none are especially difficult to deal with, some are a lot more time consuming than others and some carry more risk than others.  Also, whilst you’re spending time dealing with them, you’re not doing what you do best….…..focusing on running your business.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could actually stop these problems from arising in the first place?

Fixing the Tap

The other option is to fix the tap.  Here, we’re addressing the root cause of the issue (e.g. a worn washer) rather than the symptom.  However, to do this, we need a different level of skill, knowledge and equipment at our disposal.  This sounds more expensive in the short-term (as you’ll probably need to hire a plumber), but it will enable you to fix the problem once and for all, without worrying about when the bucket is going to overflow or whether someone might trip over it.

Faced with the 3-month sequence of challenges listed above, the ‘bucket’ option is simply to deal with each issue as it arises.  The ‘fix the tap’ option is to consider why this sequence of events has occurred:

  • Why are key staff resigning?
  • Why is the rate of short-term sickness so high?
  • What was the root cause of the bad atmosphere in the office and the grievance?
  • Why are complaints being made by customers?
  • Why are staff not performing as you expect?

Taking a step back and thinking about the answers to these questions will help to identify solutions that will prevent the problems from occurring in the first place.  Using data to identify trends and ‘hot spots’ is often a good approach.  In addition:

  • Do you have a robust set of HR Policies and Procedures in place that are fit for your organisation? Are your employment contracts up-to-date and do they provide the necessary protections for your business and your staff?  These provide the basic framework within which employment issues must be considered and managed.
  • What’s the culture like in your business? As your business grows, it requires more focused effort to maintain the same culture and values that existed when you first started out.  How do you set and maintain the right culture?
  • Are your Managers and staff trained to the right levels?
  • Do you manage performance and monitor whether your expectations are being met? Do you consider not only what someone does, but also how they do it?  Behaviour plays an instrumental part in determining the culture of an organisation and heavily influences relationships in the workplace.  Performance expectations should be set to determine not only what an employee should achieve but also the behavioural element of how they should go about it.
  • Do you conduct exit interviews to find out why staff have resigned? This can often be too late to stop them from leaving but will provide valuable insight into their reasons, which may help retain other key staff.
  • What happens when a member of staff phones in sick? What procedure do you follow and what happens when they come back to work?  Do you monitor sickness absence levels?  Do you conduct return to work discussions?
  • Do you fully understand the impact on your business of all the issues that have arisen? For example, cashflow issues as a result of delayed payment of invoices, additional cost of having to hire an Agency Driver to cover sickness, risk of losing customers as a result of complaints and the cost of hiring new recruits (in terms of advertising, your time and the effort of training to the new employee until they are fully up-to-speed).

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list but identifies some of the potential underpinning issues that may be at the root cause of what’s been happening.

In reality, the scenario above is perhaps quite unlikely, but it serves to illustrate the point.  There may not be too many situations where you need specialist HR intervention, but they can creep up on you and you can suddenly find that you have a difficult problem to resolve, perhaps between two colleagues, or with a colleague who has a long term accident or illness, or just a case of poor performance.  And the cumulative effect of several issues of this type should not be underestimated.

These are the issues that can quickly mire you down and take up your valuable business growth opportunities; too much focusing on internal issues and not looking outwardly at the customer, your target market and what competitors are doing, isn’t the best approach.  A good relationship with a competent and experienced HR specialist will allow you to hand these off so that the professional can deal with them in a way that will remain in line with your business ethos.

Once you have this in place, you may want to develop a more sophisticated approach, perhaps recognising the direct link between high productivity and engagement.  How will a performance management process (or appraisal system) help, how do you reward and recognise excellence whilst maintaining fairness and what about training and development to show your employees that you are serious about growing their skills for both your advantage and theirs.  As Richard Branson famously said, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a report in September 2017 on “People Skills: Building ambition and HR capability in small UK firms”.  This concluded, “…. tangible improvements to SME employment practices can be delivered through this model, which in turn provides a foundation for more transformational change and greater business confidence”. Furthermore, respondents participating in the pilot were unanimous in reporting the substantial difference that the HR interventions had made to their business.’

People are probably the most significant investment you will make, so why would you risk not getting it right?

 

Article by Adam Davey, Director – Petaurum Solutions Ltd – “Making HR Simple”

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