Friday, 1 March 2013

Make sure you ask the right questions!


Although I had no idea that such places existed, I recently stumbled across an online discussion forum for Air Traffic Controllers. I guess like most of us they need a place to debate what is on their minds in what is without doubt a stressful and critical job.

But I was actually very alarmed at what I read there.

Rather than debate about pilot safety issues, and how emerging technology can be harnessed to improve performance within their roles (which was what I was expecting, to be honest) the most lively debate seemed to be about whether it was acceptable for Air Traffic Controllers to use over-familiar terminology such as "love" and "darling" when speaking to pilots as they descended into busy airports with their aircraft filled to capacity with passengers.

I'll have to admit that I found such a debate a bit of a worry. These are the people into whose hands I entrust my personal safety every time I set foot in an aircraft, and I was disappointed that such an important group of people were using a public forum to discuss something that is, in my view, trivial and inconsequential. I guess that I was expecting something a bit more serious and significant from such a critical profession.

OK. There's only one further thing that I need to say about what you've just read: not one word of it is true.

If there is a discussion forum for Air Traffic Controllers (as I'm sure there is), I have no idea where to find it, and I'm sure that any issue that they discuss will have a lot more (deliberate pun alter) gravity than the use of over-familiar terminology with their pilots.

But what sadly is true is the fact that there are numerous HR discussion forums (some within the broad confines of the CIPD's website) where one of the most active debates over the last few weeks has been whether it is acceptable to put kisses (xxx) at the end of a business e-mail.

The debate has attracted more comments than all the discussions on performance management, finding mentors for top talent in large organisations, and the application of recent thinking in neuroscience to employee learning put together.

I'm not saying for one moment that there isn't a place for such trivial questions as whether a sign-off snog is acceptable in some circumstances, but surely it's not in an open forum such as the ones described above.

As an HR profession we are judged as much by the questions we raise as the answers that we give to them. If we wish those around us (many of whom are already sceptical of the contribution that we bring to the workplace) to believe that the most pressing issue of the day for HR is e-mail sign-off etiquette, then fine.

But if, as I hope we do, we'd actually like to be thought of as a profession that is raising some serious and significant issues that are worthy of public debate, we need to be careful of how we portray ourselves in public.

Ask a trivial question, and people will regard you as trivial. Ask a serious question and people will be more likely to take you seriously.

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