Avoiding Workplace Tsunamis: That’s My Big Lesson from SHRM Las Vegas

I just attended another SHRM national conference in Las Vegas.

I’ve been to many of them over the past 25 years and seen new issues and themes develop as globalization has increased, U.S. manufacturing has decreased, new laws have been passed, and Star Trek-type technologies have invaded the workplace. Concurrent sessions, keynotes. and trade show booths on top of (and sometimes ahead of) all these trends provide participants with new information to absorb, concepts to consider, and products and services to buy.

Yet, despite every novel challenge that HR professionals need to know about now, what’s most striking is that basic people issues remain the most critical area of concern year after year. While each annual conference brings new SHRM participants, many are returning veterans trying to address the same unsolved issues.

Same issues year after year

On Monday, I delivered a session dealing with inclusion and diversity and how they must be linked to tangible business imperatives important to senior and line leaders to gain traction and tangible results. One way or another, this has been a theme I’ve spoken about — as have many others — at multiple national and local SHRM meetings.

When presenting, I try to anticipate questions I’ll get which could take my organized presentation off into some murky conceptual swamp. I can recall a few which did just that. But this year, what I’ll remember is a familiar question I’ve heard my whole career.

Right before my session started, a participant asked me how to deal with doctors who are abusive and who remain on staff despite inappropriate and outrageous behavior. They keep their privileges due to the number of patients they admit irrespective of the harm they cause.

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I gave him a brief answer, but it made me think about how the same kinds of issues get raised at SHRM and in other HR forums year after year. Despite great speakers, glitzy presentations, and inspirational futurists, the most important issue that needs to be addressed is really not, “What do we do to deal with all the emerging trends issued above?” Rather, it’s how do we get leaders to understand how behavior — theirs and others — affects individuals?

Can we get leaders to heed the warnings?

I left Las Vegas early yesterday morning. On the way to the airport, I spoke to my cab driver, a retired financial analyst. In passing, he told me that an obelisk had been erected in Japan hundreds of years ago warning inhabitants of one village not to build their structures below a certain elevation because of the risk of tsunamis. The villagers took the message and escaped disaster. Others in different villages and in manufacturing facilities — most notably the Fukushima plant — did not. They paid a devastating price.

Likely, all the information presented at the SHRM conferences now, in the past, and into the future, will be of lesser benefit than if leaders heeded basic “ancient” lessons involving values, honesty and civility, all of which are older than warnings about tsunamis. When they don’t, our crises whether ethical, safety, or legal are just as predictable.

How can we get our leaders to heed warnings about how individuals should be treated on a daily basis no matter who they are and where they work, should be at top of mind for SHRM participants and other leaders. That’s how to avoid our own workplace catastrophes, and a keynote address which should be delivered at SHRM year after year.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI® eliinc.com, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at info@eliinc.com.