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A study of what makes the best employers 'irresistible'

The secret of what makes a company a best employer isn't HR technology choices, but management thinking, according to HR analyst Josh Bersin in his new book, 'Irresistible.'

Longtime HR analyst Josh Bersin has written a book about what separates the best employers from the rest.

He finds that it's not their technology choices or copying the practices of other companies. The best employers follow their unique business formulas as they build employee cultures based on trust and purpose, according to Bersin in his new book, Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World's Most Enduring, Employee-Focused Organizations. The book will be released Oct. 25.

Bersin, CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, discussed the book in this sprawling Q&A on the importance of trust and employee purpose, quiet quitting, and the rise in labor unions. Bersin also runs a training academy and is a frequent keynote speaker at HR conferences.

How are you defining an 'irresistible' HR organization?

Josh Bersin: We live in a world with a shortage of people, talent and skills. Most companies realize that only through their employees can they deliver great products and services to customers. An irresistible company is a magnet for great people and attracts and retains the most ambitious and highly skilled people in their market. As a result, it delivers outstanding financial results because they don't have high turnover, and they don't have to spend lots and lots of money on recruiting. They deliver and innovate great things for their customers by and through their employees.

A point you made in the book was that the 'most important factor in employee experience is not technology; it's trust.' The book describes cases where technology made a difference, such as improving teamwork. But are you warning your readers that HR technology is getting oversold as a remedy to many HR issues?

Book cover of Josh Bersin's 'Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World's Most Enduring Employee-Focused Organizations'

Bersin: Yes, absolutely. The book's foundation goes back to research I did many years ago, looking at Glassdoor data and data from hundreds and hundreds of companies. What you find is that the highest-performing -- or what I call enduring -- companies, those that survived multiple business cycles, are not necessarily the most advanced in technology, but they're very advanced in their management thinking. They're very advanced in their understanding and definition and curation of their culture. They spend a lot of money on employee development, listening to their employees, and respecting and trusting them. Technology is a piece of that, but technology alone doesn't create that kind of management culture.

Along those lines, you cited the example of Unilever, one of your high-performing companies, which trains thousands of employees in the value of purpose. You wrote that they asked employees to 'write a personal statement describing their life purpose, career purpose, and how they want to be remembered over time.' As you explain, this encourages employees to bring their authentic selves to work. Are you endorsing this approach?

Bersin: Actually, I am. The reason people go to work isn't just to make a paycheck. It's really to fulfill their aspirations. If you can attract people into the roles, the jobs and the companies that allow them to fulfill their purpose and aspirations, they will become high-performing employees. They will do creative, innovative, customer-centric things and will be a joy to work with. What Unilever did is something that a lot of companies do -- they try to align the purpose of the company to the purpose of the people. Today, with younger workers particularly concerned about the global environment, and issues like income inequality, diversity, inclusion and gender equality, companies have to be clear on their purpose to attract those ambitious, hardworking people. And that's what Unilever does. They make that a reality by coming up with a personal mission statement.

How do you explain rising union activity at companies that pride themselves as being best employers with good employee benefits and pay? Is the growth of union organizing a failure of HR management or leadership?

Bersin: The growth of unions signals that business leaders are not paying enough attention to the employee experience and the design of a company that works for employees. Everybody wants to design a company that's good for customers. But that's impossible if you don't design a company that's good for employees first.

The book explores gig work and the arrival of AI-driven platforms that can track certification, skills and experience. You note that these systems make it 'possible for you to work for Starbucks in the morning, Peet's in the afternoon, and Philz the next day.' Some workers might like this, but others might see it as dystopian. And it could be problematic for HR, with gig workers doing similar work for competitors. Is this trend good for society and employers?

Bersin: I would have said 10 or 15 years ago that this is not a good trend. But the cat's out of the bag, and the pandemic accelerated it. Once people started working at home and having more mobility through gig work, they found that they could optimize their lives around scheduling, pay or work issues by having multiple clients or multiple layers. This is just the reality, and employers have to be comfortable with this model. It doesn't work for every job or every company, but it's very common now, especially for technical, design and project work.

Something that has emerged since the pandemic is quiet quitting, which refers to underperforming and disengaged employees. According to surveys, this is a particular problem recognized by HR managers. Is it experienced by the best employers -- the companies you have defined as irresistible?

Bersin: This is not a new problem -- it just has a new name. If you look at the employee engagement data for decades from Gallup and others, about a third of employees are disengaged at any time. The data is very consistent. Year after year, about a third are very happy, a third are reasonably happy, and a third unhappy. The reason for that is everybody goes through a career journey. At different points in your career, you end up in jobs that are not a good fit. Maybe your family has reached a point where you've got young kids at home, you're going through a divorce, you have an illness -- and you can't work that hard, you can't travel, you can't do some things that your employer asked. So you have to spend less time on work. During those periods, people do disengage.

My argument with the term quiet quitting is that if you do it quietly, you disrespect your employer and yourself. What irresistible companies try to do is open up the line of communication so that when an employee feels like they're unhappy, they can discuss the issues. The manager can make decisions on how to improve the situation or not. Sometimes people are just in the wrong job. But sitting around quietly disengaged, not doing the job to 100%, not feeling good about it and not feeling good about your career isn't good for anybody.

The big realization for me in this book is that there is no best practice.
Josh BersinHR analyst and author

In researching this book, did you discover something that caused a shift in thinking about how you consider HR?

Bersin: The big realization for me in this book is that there is no best practice. You can't copy what another did and say, 'We're going to do that.' These irresistible companies are very creative and inventive and innovative in their thinking about how they will manage their people. They don't copy what Starbucks, Google or GE did. They learn from what other companies have done and come up with unique solutions for their company, workforce and market. Great companies are unique, they're special, and they do things that are unique to them. The magic of being irresistible is being true to yourself. Usually, companies don't vary that far from their founding principles that made them successful when they were small. Build the irresistible strategy around the things that make you great in your market.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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