Cause or effect, which is most important?


In HR we are always looking for the root cause of a problem so that we can address whatever is the fundamental issue and not just treat the symptoms.  However, a focus on the cause can sometimes lead to underestimating the effect the problem is having on a person, which is something I see people (not necessarily HR people) do all the time.

Some people have said to me, “How do you put up with listening to people moan about their insignificant problems all the time?” This bothers me because I never consider anyone’s problems insignificant and I wish other people didn’t either. What I focus on is the effect an issue or situation has on a person.  Whether someone is telling me about the serious illness they have just been diagnosed with, or about not liking the tone of voice a colleague uses when speaking to them, it is how the person responds to the situation they are in and the impact it has on them, that is important.  What is stressful and upsetting for one person may seem insignificant to another who may be dealing with a different set of problems, but whatever the cause, if someone is distressed or showing signs of stress and anxiety the effect on them is real and significant.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the seemingly minor concerns people speak to me about and concentrate on supporting the people experiencing a traumatic life event or some other major problem, but I never would.  Everything is relative and there will always be someone in the world experiencing something much worse than even the most horrible situations people find themselves in at work. That’s why it’s so important not to think “why are they going on about something so minor and ridiculous, I have much bigger problems and don’t make that kind of fuss”. Instead, we should look at that person’s reaction to the thing they are talking about. If they are agitated, distressed, upset or exhibiting other signs of stress, their problem is having a very real effect on their life and must be taken seriously.  They should be given time, understanding and support to help them to deal with or resolve the issue.

So if someone talks to you about an issue they have, don’t think about what the cause of the problem is and how important you think it is in the scheme of things.  If the effect the issue has on that person is significant then that is what is important and that should be the focus of how you help and support them through whatever the situation is.

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Email holiday? Switch off or keep up.


I was lucky enough to be able to take three weeks off in one go in August and for the first time in years I didn’t actually do any work or reply to any e-mails for that whole time. I managed to really relax and not think about the myriad of thing going on at work which was quite an achievement for me.  But what’s that you ask? Didn’t I just go back to find hundreds and hundreds of emails to wade through, undoing all the benefits of switching off while on holiday?

Actually no, I finally found a balance that works for me between not wanting to do any work in order to really relax, and wanting to check emails so as not to get stressed about what would greet me on my return to work. I didn’t look at my emails every day but when I had spare time I did look at what was there, deleting the rubbish, filing the messages that were just for information and didn’t need any action, and occasionally forwarding things that looked urgent to my team for them to deal with. But I didn’t reply to a single email for the full three weeks. In the past I have read my emails thoroughly and sent quick replies where I could just to get them out of the way. This time I read the subject lines, and enough to know whether to press delete or forward or not, but that was it. It meant that I didn’t get stressed wondering what might be in my inbox, but I also didn’t get pulled into the detail of what was going on at work, so I still felt like I had managed to switch off from it all.

This was a bit of a balancing act that may not work for everyone but if you, like me, struggle to decide whether it’s best to keep up with e-mails or completely switch off while on holiday, maybe next time you can try this compromise of managing but not dealing with emails and see if it leaves you feeling as relaxed and in control as it did me.


And another thing… – As I’m writing about managing emails there is one more thing I want to mention. It may be obvious to some of you but I am amazed at how many people don’t do this. People struggle to maintain a work-life balance and often colleagues say to me that the constant alerts on their phone telling them that another email has arrived causes them stress when they are trying to spend time with their family or eat dinner etc. Just knowing a new message has arrived makes them twitchy, wondering what it says, until they check their phone and look at it.

So what I say to them is, go into your phone settings and TURN OFF E-MAIL NOTIFICATIONS! Colleagues then tell me how much less stressed and more in control they feel after doing this one little thing. They still check their e-mails at home but they do it less often, and at times convenient to them. They are no longer constantly bothered by alerts and worrying about what a new messages say. If you haven’t already done this, do it now, it really does make a difference!

Photo credit: Jason Rogers

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10 ways to improve workplace communication


Finding ways to improve workplace communication is something I have been passionate about for a long time.  Just how much is being done where I work at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) was highlighted to me in a meeting I recently had.  I was contacted by someone in another University department who had been asking around for ideas on improving internal comms and was sent in my direction after being told ‘They’re doing loads of things on that at CJBS and are ahead of the game’.

On meeting with this University colleague (another Julie funnily enough) and talking through the things we do and the more that we want to do, I realised just how much we have going on in this area.  Julie went away with lots of ideas so I hope you find these examples useful too.

1.  Working groups

Each working group has been set up to bring together a diverse group of people from across CJBS with a commen interest or set of skills in a particular area of strategic importance to the School, regardless of their position in the organisation.  They are given clear direction to come up with proposals and actions and not to be a talking shop.  We currently have working groups on internal communications, social media, faculty liaison and planning and online learning. These working groups not only address key strategic issues for the school, they bring together staff and faculty who would not necessarily normally interact for a common purpose, improving communication and collaboration between different parts of the school.

Some brilliant initiatives have already come from these working groups, some of which are mentioned later.

2.  Job swap and secondment scheme

This scheme was launched to encourage staff to experience working in different parts of the business school.  It is a development opportunity for individuals to help them to learn new skills and gain experience in areas they may not have exposure to in their current role, but it is also a chance to enhance collective understanding of different parts of the school.  Someone seconded to a role in a different department not only learns about what is going on in another area but they share their experiences of the area they normally work in and when they go back to their normal job they share their experiences of the secondment too, spreading the knowledge of what  is going on across CJBS.

I also plan to expand this scheme to include work shadowing which will involve less of a time commitment than secondments and job swaps, and does not require there to be a vacancy so hopefully will encourage more take up.  Shadowing colleagues even for short periods of time will still encourage better understanding and communication.

3.  Friday coffee

origin_12913240794Every Friday at 11am all staff and faculty are invited to come for free coffee, tea and biscuits in our common room for an informal opportunity to mix with each other, chat and socialise.  It is always popular and often cited in exit interviews as something people really value for bringing people together and getting them talking to each other.

4.  Staff meetings

Following a recommendation that came out of the internal communications working group the all staff and all faculty meetings we hold two or three times a year are now more interactive.  As well as involving presentations providing information and updates, the meetings now include break out groups to gather views and ideas on key strategic issues, and we also plan to provide some interative training opportunities as part of these meetings in the future too.  The purpose of this is to encourage participation and bottom up communication from staff rather than just provide top down information to them, and this has been well received.

5.  Managers Meetings

When I joined CJBS the termly managers meetings were run to provide information and updates to staff with line management responsibilities and to chastise those who had not done their duty by being up to date with completing appraisals etc. While I still use them to provide information on changes to HR procedures and on new initiatives, I have redirected their focus to be about information sharing and discussion.  At the start of the meeting each manager around the table has 2 minutes to give a quick update on the 3 key things in their area that they are working on, to give a taste to everyone there of what is going on across the school.

In addition every other meeting is attended by the Director of CJBS who seeks their input on key topics and encourages discussion.  This gives an opportunity for these managers to not only share with their peers information on what they are doing, and gain an understanding of what others are doing, but also to contribute to school wide matters. In a recent feedback session the updates from managers at these meetings were cited by some staff as their main source of information about what is happening across CJBS so they have become a key communication tool.

6.  Recognition awards


I have introduced recognition awards for staff who are nominated by colleagues for demonstrating admirable qualities such as collaborative behaviour and helpfulness.  The prize is a small gift of their choice but the important thing is to be called up to be given a certificate by the Director at a staff meeting and quotes from the nominations read out.  As well as recognising individuals it reinforces the behaviours we value and reward and that we want people to replicate. We follow up with news items and photos about the award recipients to spread this message further.


7.  Training

Providing development opportunities is important in its own right but the training programmes I have been involved in putting together have also been about giving staff the opportunity to mix with and get to know colleagues they may not normally have much interaction with. Four training programmes have been run in the last six years that have brought together groups of participants for a series of sessions over several months. The feedback after every single one has been that while the participants felt they had learnt new skills and developed as a result of the course, the key thing cited that they found most beneficial was getting to know their colleagues, finding out what they do and forming new bonds with people that often continued beyond the end of the course.

8.  Meet the team lunches

I can’t claim credit for this great initiative which enabled people to see the real face of the Director of CJBS and ask him anything they wanted to. Lunches were arranged with small groups of staff at a time to give them the chance to tell the Director about what they do and to ask him about things they were interested in. Questions could be anything at all, from ‘How long do you plan to stay here as our Director?’ to ‘What is your favourite restaurant in Cambridge’ and he was happy to answer them all! Staff really appreciated the Director taking the time to do this and he got a lot out of it himself. I would definitely recommend having this kind of opportunity for informal interactions and discussions with the boss to any organisation.

9.  Social media


Unlike some businesses who ban their staff from using social media we actually encourage the use of it. Many staff need to use social media channels in their day to day work anyway, for marketing purposes or keeping in touch with students and alumni for example. We try to use a variety of mediums for internal communications so that staff can keep informed and also share information. We still communicate a lot if key info via email but also have our own intranet where not only resources such as forms and procedures can be found, but also news and updates on key projects. There are also Yammer groups where ideas are shared and discussions on different topics take place.  A whole host of information is shared on Twitter and Facebook and we plan to set up a LinkedIn group for staff too. This may appear to be a bit scattergun but different people prefer different platforms so we don’t want to dictate which they have to use, instead we try to communicate with them using whichever social media channels they are using anyway, in order to reach and engage more staff.

10.  Senior management buy in

It was clear by the end of the meeting I had with Julie that the biggest thing she was jealous of was the support I have from the Director of CJBS for initiatives to improve communication across the School.  Her main concern was getting buy in from her head of department who did not think internal comms was important or something he should be spending any of his time on. She said she didn’t think she would ever get him to take the time to come to managers meetings or something like our Friday coffee’s, let alone do meet the team lunches which would be a huge investment of time. We are very lucky at CJBS that the Director and senior management recognise the importance of good workplace communications and support initiatives to improve them. If like Julie you don’t have that though I still think it is possible to put in place some of the initiatives I have mentioned here. Julie and I discussed how she shouldn’t talk about improving communication, which her boss thought of as a waste of time, but instead she should talk about improving collaboration, which is one of the desired outcomes of improving internal communications anyway.  Telling him that putting some of these initiatives in place would result in more collaboration between staff and therefore they would be identifying more synergies across the organisation, improving efficiency by minimising duplication and ultimately resulting in cost savings. If you can bring the argument back to saving money you can usually get the senior management buy in you need!

Phew, as you can see there really is so much going on at CJBS to improve workplace communications but we are still far from perfect in this area and there is so much more I want to do.

photo credit: stavos via photopin cc
photo credit: Flооd via photopin cc



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Personal v professional on social media

Drinks at work
For me, the focus of the eight week Social Media Driving Licence (SMDL) course I have just completed has always been about changing my use of social media from purely personal to professional as well, but it has ended up doing this in ways I hadn’t expected it to at the beginning.

I did the SMDL course in order to start using social media more effectively in my job, for example to learn about tools I could use in recruitment as I had already been talking to my team about our need to supplement our traditional advertising methods with better use of social media.  As I had hoped, the course has given me more confidence and provided me with the tools, to think how to do this effectively, and I plan to use LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook for starters to aid our recruitment efforts.  In addition to this however, the course took an unexpected turn when I started thinking about my personal v professional presence online, which has always reflected how I see the personal and professional sides of my life.  I see them as just that, sides.  I have a personal side which is just who I am but as a private person only those close to me really get to see it, and I have a work side which is intrinsically professional and also reserved.  I have always separated them, not because I feel I have anything to hide but because I’m just not a natural sharer.

The SMDL has forced me to really think about whether I should keep my personal and professional presence on social media separate, and even whether in reality I actually can keep them separate even if I want to.  During the course I decided that in order to use social media more effectively in my job I needed to use twitter in a more professional way.  I thought of setting up a new twitter account to follow and reach out to fellow HR professionals, retaining my existing personal account to use to continue joking around with my friends.  However one key message of the course has been to not have a social media presence that is dry and characterless and purely functional, which is exactly what a professional only twitter account of mine would have become.  So I took a deep breath and instead changed my twitter handle to JulieBrownHR (see my earlier blog on this) but retained the same single twitter account.  I now also follow, and have been followed back, by a number of people in HR or HR related roles, as well as colleagues at CJBS, and I am posting more HR related content, but I am still joking with my friends on there and posting about things I am doing out of work too.  I have to admit that this makes twitter a less comfortable place for me than it used to be and I’m not sure I have got the balance right yet between letting my personality come through and being casual while engaging in a professional way with people and issues I find interesting from a work perspective.  However I am convinced that I will find the right balance that works for me eventually and will keep plugging away at it until I do.

I also want to try to strike this balance when blogging, which I intend to continue doing now that the course has finished, in order to share my thoughts on HR matters, hopefully in an interesting and informative way.  I could easily write about these things without letting any of my personality come through in my writing, but I have learnt from the SMDL that if I can put a bit more of myself into what I put out there it will be more engaging and more people will come back to read more.  That is certainly my experience of reading other people’s blogs.

On top of all this, something even more surprising has happened to me over the last eight weeks of the course.  Thinking about how to balance my personal and professional sides online has also got me thinking about how to do it in the real world (not that the online world isn’t real but you know what I mean!).  I already have less of a work/personal split in my life than I used to.  Up until the last couple of years I had work clothes and non-work clothes and I would never dream of wearing an item of work clothing out of work, and vice versa.  Now there is quite a big overlap between the two which I think reflects how I feel more relaxed about being myself at work.  I want to build on that by letting my personality come through a bit more in my interactions with colleagues, so they can see that I do actually have a sense of humour and interests and a life that isn’t all about hiring and firing people (‘cos that’s all we HR people do obviously!).  I don’t expect to find it a comfortable experience to do this and I know it won’t come naturally to me.   I will never completely combine what were my very distinct and separate personal and professional sides as I don’t think that is possible for me, or appropriate in my line of work actually, but I am certainly going to try to blur the lines a bit more.

So the SMDL, has not just changed my use of social media for the better over the last eight weeks, it has fundamentally changed my life!


 Image credit:  Drew Leavy via flickr

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Being a good citizen on social media


This week on the Social Media Driving Licence I was interested to learn about Creative Commons and finding images covered by this licencing that it is OK to use, and also how to reference these images.  I am going to try to continue blogging after the course has finished, writing about HR topics and sharing my thoughts with others in my profession and anyone else that may be interested.  I am therefore concious that I need to do this blogging thing properly, including being a good citizen and referencing the work of others that I use and crediting images correctly.

I was pleased to find out how easy it is to search on Flickr and photopin for images that are Creative Commons licenced, and I particularly liked the function in photopin to just copy the HTML for attribution and paste it at the bottom of your blog post to credit the photo you have used, so I don’t even have to think about the correct wording to use or links to insert.

There were lots of other tips and tools covered in this week’s session, some of which I already knew, such as how to be a good citizen on twitter but I had no idea for example that you could search google images using an image which is actually really handy to know.

Now we are reaching the end of the course I realise I have far more knowledge than I did when we started about the social media space and how I can get more involved in it, and with the information and tools we have been given there is no excuse not to be a good citizen as I continue to develop my use of social media.

photo credit: lolololori via photopin cc

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Still not feeling the love for Google+

The latest session of the Social Media Driving Licence I have been undertaking was all about Google.  I already have a gmail address but it is the e-mail I use to sign up for things where I know I will get spam e-mail as a result (so for competitions etc) and I never actually check my gmail account, ever.  I have had a look at Google hangouts before as well but with so few people I know using Google+ I thought they were rather pointless.

Still, I went into the SMDL session with an open mind, I do after all use Google the search engine every day and also use Google maps sometimes.  It was interesting to learn about Google Drive and I can certainly see how it could be a useful tool.  I remain entirely unconvinced by Google hangouts however and don’t see that it really does anything (anything I would use anyway) more than facebook.  When Google calendars we mentioned I couldn’t help thinking that I don’t want another calendar as one is enough or I will get confused (I’m easily confused!).

So my conculsion after testing out Google+ is that however useful Google Drive could be it is not by itself enough to encourage me back to my Google+ account, which will now go back to being entirely unused and unloved.  Sorry Google+ but you just aren’t for

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The use of social media in HR at CJBS


Advertising vacancies

Recording a podcast about the use of social media in HR for the Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) Social Media Driving Licence got me thinking about how much more we can do to utilise social media, especially in relation to recruitment.  I already have plans to advertise and promote vacancies on more social media channels than we currently do and am keen to make sure we do this in the right way and with enough resources to back it up (Meaning I have to wait until my team is back up to full strength before we have the time to dedicate to doing this properly).

But it’s not just about advertising..

What really interests me however is how candidates are using social media and what that means we should be doing more of at CJBS.  As I say in the podcast, many candidates, when deciding whether to apply for a role with us and when they are preparing to come for an interview, will look at what is being said about our working environment on social media.  Within the school there is an awareness that students do this before deciding whether to come on one of our programmes, and there is therefore a lot of interaction on social media between programme staff, alumni, students and prospective students.  However we haven’t yet tapped into this opportunity in terms of staff and prospective staff.

What can we do?

What I would like to see more of is staff blogging, tweeting and generally commenting on the experience of working at CJBS.  If a mix of staff and faculty do so we will build up a rich range of views and experiences that can be found and seen by candidates thinking about joining us.  From the posts of the people who work at CJBS these candidates can get an understanding of what our working culture and environment are like and whether they think it will suit them.  This is really valuable for attracting the right people who will succeed and thrive in our organisation.  Recruitment is not just about choosing the right person for a job, we also need to make the candidates want to join us, and even more importantly to stay and to succeed in the role.  So the more we can do to understand each other before either party commits to an employment relationship, the better.

I need your help!

So if you are reading this and are a member of CJBS staff or faculty (and yes I am talking in particular to my fellow SMDL participants!), get blogging and tweeting and sharing on a wide range of social media channels how you feel about working at the business school, what it is like and in particular what is great about it.  People thinking about coming to work for us will go looking for and find out what you are saying, and if you say some really good stuff I may even start pointing candidates towards your posts as well!





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