What’s wrong with free flu shot day?
In our book “The CMO of People” my co-author, Peter Navin relates the story of “Free Cookie Day”. When he joined one organization, he learned that one of the HR initiatives was to provide free cookies on Wednesday. The cookies were delivered to the lunchroom, employees would pick up a cookie then go back to their desk. That was it. It sounds nice but the business value was far from clear.
Not long after the book came out a business professional complained to me about their HR department’s “Free Flu Shot Day”. I could understand business managers frowning about the wisdom of spending money (and all told it amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars) on free cookies, but why would they be angered by the obviously beneficial free flu shot day?
The unflattering reaction was because it came across as yet another email from HR asking managers to do something that sounded “nice” with no apparent understanding that the managers’ days were already full, packed, over-stressed, hectic! It would be, in the manager’s mind, by no means easy to squeeze in time for a visit to the onsite clinic. It wasn’t the free flu shots that angered managers, it was an HR department that seemed disconnected from the harsh realities of the business.
Good intentions are overrated
HR’s activities are usually seeped in good intentions whether it be in the form of cookies or flu shots. It seems churlish to critique a department that is just trying to help. However, Dave Ulrich points out that the value of a gift is in the eye of the receiver; what you think your gift is worth doesn’t matter much. If the manager sees the flu shot as evidence that you don’t understand how hard their life is, then it’s not a valued gift. (On the other hand, a gift you might consider inconsequential, like a kind word at the right time, may carry a great deal of weight with an employee.)
HR needs to be more conscious of how our activities are judged by the receiver and how they are relevant to the business, and not feel offended if our good intentions are rebuffed.
What to do instead
Navin replaced free cookie day with events that emphasized friendly team-based competition. Teamwork and a competitive spirit were part of the culture Navin was building; leaders could easily see the business relevance of these enjoyable events. With the flu shots it should be easy to show the business relevance in terms of reduced sickness days or a culture that stresses employee wellness. However, for that to work HR would need to reach the stage where managers didn’t instinctively recoil whenever they saw an email from HR.
Frankly, it still hurts to think that HR gets criticized for a business-friendly and employee-friendly intervention like free flu shot day. It is probably unfair for managers to beat up HR for this sort of thing. However, there is a need for HR to stay closely attuned to how their actions are perceived by the business and take those perceptions seriously. HR can be respected and appreciated, but only if they show they understand the needs of managers and are acting to make the business more effective.