Nora Burns, founder and chief curiosity officer of The Leadership Experts, shares findings from her Undercover Candidate research, some of which she describes as horrifying! Listen in to hear this dynamic HR executive turned consultant talk about the cost of culture in advance of her keynote presentation at the 2024 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference March 25-28.
- Redefining Culture and Its Costs: Undercover Project Perspectives, aQ&A with Nora Burns
- 2024 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference
- The Leadership Experts
DMEC: Welcome to Absence Management Perspectives, a DMEC Podcast. The Disability Management Employer Coalition, or DMEC as we're known by most people, provides focused education, knowledge, and networking opportunities for absence and disability management professionals. DMEC has become a leading voice in the industry and represents more than 19,000 professionals from organizations of all sizes across the United States and Canada. This podcast series will focus on industry perspectives and provide the opportunity to delve more deeply into issues that affect DMEC members and the community as a whole. We're thrilled to have you with us and hope you'll visit us at www.dmec.org to get a full picture of what we have to offer, from webinars and publications to conferences, certifications, and much more. Let's get started and meet the people behind the processes.
Heather Grimshaw: Hi, we're glad you're listening. I'm Heather Grimshaw, communications manager for DMEC, and we've asked Nora Burns, founder and chief curiosity officer of the leadership experts, to join us and talk about the power of culture. Nora, who has human resources experience, is the keynote speaker for the 2024 DMEC FMLA Ada Employer Compliance Conference March 25 through the 20 eigth. Her presentation is titled the Cost of Culture, and she's agreed to share some insights with us prior to the event. In addition to the podcast, Nora agreed to answer a few DMEC questions, which we've published on the website. You'll find the URL in the notes section of this episode. So, Nora, to kick off our discussion today, I'm hoping you will talk about the four key attributes that create the quote unquote leadership echoes referenced in your presentation description.
Nora Burns: Hi. Yeah, I'm glad to the echoes and this really comes out of my research doing the undercover project as the undercover candidate and the undercover employee, which we will talk about in this episode. But the echoes really tie to four key elements that all of the stories, all of the lessons tie back to the first. The e stands for the experience, the experience of the candidate, of the employee as they're working in the organization. But their experience, the c is communication, and what a huge element communication is to your overall workplace culture, and it is an area that you, as a communications director, I'm sure appreciate. But the idea of employees need more and more information way more than what we think needs to be provided, and there's lots of opportunities and stories that tie to that in our research and that will be shared in the keynote. The h in the echo ties to the humanness and returning to the human element of work. We've gotten to a point where we tend to sometimes treat employees as widgets and as pieces in a puzzle and cogs in a wheel, and that doesn't help anybody. And it definitely doesn't foster a strong workplace culture and lots of stories tied to that. And then the “o” is to own it. It does not matter where you are in an organization structure, that you need to own your role in each of these components, that it is not only leadership's responsibility, although that's where the heavy lifting needs to take place. It is an ownership across the organization of making sure that those other three elements are going well and taking your own responsibility, not saying, oh, well, that's HR's responsibility, or that's Bob's responsibility or whatever it is. So that's where the echo comes in. And when we fix those four elements, we graduate to a new level of workplace culture.
Heather Grimshaw: I love all those different components. And yes, I agree 100% with the communications piece, of course, selfishly so. Looking at your keynote presentation overview, I was struck by a reference to how titles can, and I'm using air quotes here, define and claim people and lead them to feel, again, air quotes disconnected from their roots. Would you be willing to share an example of how an employer can adjust its approach to prevent this type of a disconnect?
Nora Burns: Yeah, this is really kind of the core and the heart of what I was doing as the undercover employee going back to the front line. I went back and worked frontline positions that I haven't been in those roles since I was in my early twenty? S and reconnecting to kind of the core of the organization, the customer facing role of the organization, and realizing how quickly we can get disconnected from really what our core business is. So I think that your titles can define and claim you in a couple of ways. One, I think they shield you from saying the whole not my job thing, which happens all the way up and down an organization's chain of command and from the first tier of an organizational chart to the top tier of the organizational chart. And I think it comes back to what the values of your organization are and to say, if our core value is to provide superior service, it does not matter if I'm the senior director of Yada Yada. If I've got a customer who's there who needs my attention, then that needs to happen. And finding ways to kind of break free of chains that say this is who you are and you're disconnected, you're more important or less important than what that role is. And we do it in both directions. We do it from saying just cutting off an employee on the front line, from sharing a really brilliant idea because they can't possibly know, even though there's so much brilliance there, to saying the person on the top tier of the organizational chart can't make any commentary about the customer experience because that's not where they work. So we just have to kind of break free and open up those communication chains.
Heather Grimshaw: I'm so intrigued by this primary research that you've done as the undercover candidate and understand your presentation is going to include some of the data that revealed interesting findings about employee recruitment and retention. And one of the things that you notice or note in your presentation description is what works for employers. Would you give us a sneak peek by sharing one takeaway?
Nora Burns: I will. To give the listeners a little bit of background. The undercover candidate project was that I went on over 250 job interviews, not as myself, not under my real name, under fake names, fake resumes, fake backgrounds, everything for positions across the country, from file clerk to director of operations, and everything in between. And I wanted to see what it was like on the candidates side of that table. When this project started, I realized it had been over a decade since I had been on a job interview, which felt kind of hypocritical given the fact that I help organizations design their hiring processes. And I am a huge advocate for shifting perspective in pretty much all areas of life. And how can you shift your perspective to see a different viewpoint of a problem, of a challenge, of an experience? And so that's what the backstory is when you say, what is undercover candidate? And now I'm well over 250 interviews, but I'm not changing the marketing material. But, for example, one thing that I saw repeatedly happen is, and I don't think anybody who's been on a job interview in the last couple of years is going to be surprised by this, is kind of the lack of respect shown to that candidate. They show up at a job interview ten minutes early to make sure they're on time, that they found it okay, and all of that. And then that 10:00 a.m. Interview doesn't happen until 10:10, 10:15, or 10:30, and they're just waiting. And then when the person does come out to interview them, they walk them down a hallway kind of looking for a room. They don't know where they're really going. They're trying to find a quiet space to have an interview they hasn't been prepared for. Right. It wasn't like they were really expected. And I liken all of these things that have to do with the hiring process to dating, there's some similarities that overlap. And if you were going to go on a first date with somebody and they showed up 10, 15, 20 minutes late, and then they acted like they didn't even read your dating profile or they didn't remember anything about what the person who introduced you told you about them, and they're like, I don't know, what should I ask you? You'd think, how quickly can I get out of this place? Right? And both of them are relationships. Right. The employment relationship and an intimate relationship. They're different codes, but they're both about relationships. And some of those same structures overlap. Are we leaving people waiting? Are we treating them with respect? Are we preparing for our time with them? Those things happen time and time again. Organizations that did it really well were very strong in their communication. You knew going into the interview how long that first interview was planning to last, who you would be meeting with, if it was a panel, that they would tell you the names and titles of all the people you'd be meeting with, so you could go on LinkedIn ahead of time and kind of get some information that you knew what to expect in terms of the next step and the step after that and how long their hiring process would land and would last through the whole thing. So strong communication was unfortunately the exception and not the rule. But it is definitely something that organizations can tune up to outpace their competition in their hiring processes.
Heather Grimshaw: That's such a good point. And I love the comparison to dating. I think that's brilliant. So many. Yeah, it's a really good point. And I think that most people, if not everyone, can understand what that feels like to show up early, as you noted. So that's really helpful. Thank you for that. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about this research, which I think is fascinating and obviously very telling. Can you share a little bit more about what led you to conduct the research as well as when it was conducted? Because it does sound like maybe it's ongoing. Is that fair?
Nora Burns: It is ongoing. Yeah. I didn't anticipate that. I didn't anticipate it actually becoming a 250 plus job interview practice and project. My initial intent when I was sitting around that conference room talking to a client about redesigning their hiring process, the initial idea came to me that I would just go do a handful of interviews, maybe six interviews, just to be on the other side of the table so that it would help my consulting practice and I decided on Colorado Springs. I'm based in Denver, Colorado, so I thought, well, Colorado Springs is far enough away that it's less likely that an HR executive walking through the lobby would recognize me, but it's still close enough that I can drive down for an interview without it being too big of an ask. I targeted Colorado Springs for the first half dozen interviews, and I was, quite frankly, horrified by what I experienced. And I really thought I was going to convince myself that we didn't need to do as much hiring training as I had been doing in the past and providing hiring tools about ask this, not that kind of a thing. I thought, surely people have figured some of those things out. But I was asked questions in those first six interviews that were, if they made a hiring decision on the information provided, would have been illegal. Definitely that bordered on unethical. And most of them were just lazy, quite frankly. I had a group interview, I don't mean a panel interview or a team interview, where multiple members of the organization are present to interview one candidate. I mean, there were six or seven of us that were candidates in the room being interviewed at one time. And it was for a receptionist position. This was not for a sales position, which might, you might be able to make that argument. I didn't want to take the time to interview each person individually, so it was super awkward. And the bigger challenge here is that this was actually a healthcare provider. This was a healthcare provider. And so not only did I leave there having a horrible feeling as a candidate, I realized I would never go there, I would never be a patient of theirs because I thought you're looking for shortcuts, and I don't want to be a shortcut. And we see that in a lot of practices where if you're interviewing in hospitality or in retail, you're interviewing potential customers. And so you can lose both a candidate and a customer at the same time. But it's also true in corporations. That's where it started. And then I'm a data junkie. And so I realized I needed a bigger sample size. And so I talked with my business coach, and I talked with a couple of HR pros and some ethicists around what would be the rules that I would put in play for this project, and committed to doing 100 interviews, decided it had to be across multiple states so that we didn't have a bias around one particular area of the country. And I flew myself to every interview. I didn't take as much as a cup of coffee, like if we met at a coffee shop. Also, please stop interviewing people at coffee shops unless you're hiring for a coffee shop. But I would buy my own coffee. I would put it myself up at the hotel. Right. I didn't want any financial loss to the organization kind of a thing. So we set up some rules like that. And then along the way, I made sure to drop lines that suggested I was not a sure thing. Right? Like, “I don't know if I'm really going to move to Nebraska or I'm still considering if I'm going to relocate to Atlanta or I'm talking to three other companies, or the interview that I had yesterday.” Right? So making sure that they knew that I was to not hang your hope on me as a candidate. Right. So that I could withdraw myself and that they would still have strong candidates. So there were some things like that, some barriers and some boundaries that I gave myself around this. But it is ongoing. I actually have two interviews scheduled next week. And then now organizations will hire us to come in and go through the hiring process. And without anybody in the HR team knowing, c suite usually hires us. And without HR knowing, without the hiring managers knowing. We have a couple of rules around that in that nobody gets fired unless it's egregious conduct. Right. If somebody hits on our candidate or tries to sell them drugs or something like that, that has not yet happened. I'm putting yet in there. If it's egregious conduct, that's one thing. But if it's simply bad hiring or bad interview questions or anything like that, that's all trained, that you can all be trained. And so that's one of the rules when we come in and we do an audit, unless egregious behavior happens, this is for development and not for disposal of employees.
Heather Grimshaw: That's fantastic. Yeah. And I do love the yet. So one of my questions for you was when you had reached the cut off or that deciding moment when you knew you had enough fodder for your consulting work. Since this is ongoing, have you identified any kind of a cut off when you think you would stop that undercover type work? Or do you envision this forever ongoing?
Nora Burns: I have no idea. I won't put an end date on it. It continues to be of interest. It continues to show new trends in the workplace, especially on the candidate side, where we do the bulk of the work, just because it's a much bigger lift to go through into the organization, go through their orientation process and all of that. And that's usually like step two. We need to start with a hiring process. So most of the auditing work and the consultancy work we do still is first on hiring and then we go into onboarding. But I cannot imagine when it will end. I think that there is a real need for it. It is a unique take on human resources and workplace culture. I was shocked that nobody else was doing it before I started the research, and I think it gives us a window into what the real life experience is. There is a huge disconnect between kind of what we say corporate wise we're going to do and then what actually happens on the frontline. And we need to bridge that and help people have the resources to do what we're asking them to do. And you don't know that until you've gone through the process.
Heather Grimshaw: I think that's such a great point. Not only that disconnect, but also as you're noting that undercover work both on the hiring side as well as the onboarding side, and I can only imagine that listeners are going to have sweaty palms thinking, oh, my gosh, wait a minute. I'm looking forward to learning more about this in your presentation. And my last question for you is, were there any findings from your initial undercover project research, since this is ongoing, that surprised you?
Nora Burns: Oh, yes, I continue to be surprised. That's why I said yet in the earlier I'm not going to say it's never going to happen. Every time I think something's not going to happen, it happens. I've been surprised by a lot of things. I was surprised by how many times I was asked as a candidate if I was going to have kids or if I had kids or what my spouse would think of the long hours, things that should have not been asked after 1964, things that just have no business in the job interview, people asking me what I do for fun and people who know better should have asking me what I do for fun, people with VP of HR titles asking me as a candidate what I do for fun. And the reality is that what I do for fun is simply none of your business because all it can do is derail the process and add huge bias to it that has nothing to do with my qualifications for the job. Because if I say, well, I'm really active in the LGBTQ community and then you don't hire me, how are you going to prove that that's not why? Right. You can't un-ring that bell. Or if I say, I don't really have time for fun, I've got seven kids at home right now. We've got a family status protection, or I'm very active in my church or my synagogue or all of these things just take us down dangerous paths, even if it goes the other way, where I say, oh, I love sailing. And the boss is like, me too. Now, we've got a halo bias, we've got a positive bias, and you can offer me a job when I have no real credentials for it. So I was surprised by the questions that are still being asked. And as the undercover employee, I was absolutely shocked and dismayed that I was sexually harassed at every single job. Oh, my gosh, say that again. Every single job. As the undercover employee, I worked at five different Fortune 500 organizations that did not know me as a former Fortune 200 executive who saw me in one of a long line of polyester uniform wearing employees. Now, some of that was minor, more low key sexual harassment, but sexual harassment nonetheless, up to the point of physical assault. And I am a person who has been doing sexual harassment training and investigations for 20 years. I am the authority that comes in and helps people to understand how to navigate this, how to protect employees for employees, how to navigate it, and how to report it and what have you. And as it turns out, very few people would bother to harass the head of HR. But you put me into a frontline, first tier organizational chart position, working late hours and fair game, and I was really surprised. And I can tell you there's no way that most executives would recognize how much that happens. I was shocked, and it's an area of expertise for me. So those were the things that surprised me the absolute most. That, and on the positive side, and I have a positive element there. Some negative elements on the positive side, I was delighted by how much brilliance there is on the front line that is all too often underappreciated but really brilliant solutions to problems. People who are really willing to put their energy and their creativity and their innovation to work to solve big and little problems on the front line. I was absolutely delighted by that. So those are some of the things I was surprised by.
Heather Grimshaw: I appreciate you sharing that delight. I think the reference to the sexual harassment is shocking, and maybe it shouldn't be shocking, but it is shocking. And I'm glad I was on mute because I gasped when you shared that. And I think I'm glad to know that you're doing what you're doing to raise awareness about these issues and protect people as well as organizations and to elevate awareness of it.
Nora Burns: Yeah, there's definitely a greater need for awareness, and you can't see me. Those of you listening to this podcast, you can't see me, but all of these happened to a middle-aged woman. So often people are like, oh, it's only the really beautiful and the young who are on the receiving end of any of that. And that's just, I will not curse on your podcast, but it is that curse word. The truth is harassment and discrimination issues are about power. It's not about other things. It's about power and being able to demonstrate power and authority over someone. And in each of the cases that I went through, I can see that. I know I have the intellectual and the analytical information to be able to see that path, but it doesn't change how it feels to the receiving employee. And the harder part is how poorly organizations handled the complaints. Right? Like, in one case, I quit over it because it was very egregious. And as I was telling them why I was quitting, I said, do you want me to document this? Because you can take me out of an HR role, but I'm still an HR pro, right? So I'm standing there as this employee on the front line quitting over harassment, and I'm prompting them to say, do you want me to report this? I'm literally standing next to the we have zero tolerance policy sign while I'm doing this. And the person says, oh, no, I'll take care of it. And I just think, oh, that's not going to get taken care of. Yeah, now I've got, unfortunately, story after story about that. But that was absolutely shocking. And a reminder that doing online click through harassment prevention policy. Like click, click, read the PDF sign here is not sufficient in order to change a culture that has already become ensnared with harassment language and activity.
Heather Grimshaw: It's such a good point. And I think there is a real danger to assume that people know more than they do. To your point about asking questions and just assuming that certain questions wouldn't have been asked after 1965 is what I think you said. So I'm really looking forward to your presentation, Nora, and so appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions and give folks a little bit of a sneak peek.
Nora Burns: Sneak peek and sign up. If you haven't registered yet, why not get in there? I'm not like coming in and going out the same hour, right? Like I'm going to be around. So sign-up register, be there for the keynote. Come and talk to me afterwards. Let's invigorate some of those workplace cultures. Let's make things better.
Heather Grimshaw: I love that. We will include the link to the conference. Nora's presentation is on March 25, and we will also include the URL to the Q and A that Nora has agreed to do with us in that note section of this episode as well. So thank you again, Nora.
Nora Burns: You're welcome.