How to Build a Values-Based HR Plan

I spent 20 years working in the Coca-Cola system, mostly as head of HR for Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), the mega-bottler. Coca-Cola Enterprises makes – you guessed it – Coca-Cola. Then it puts it in bottles and cans, warehouses those bottles and cans before putting them on trucks, drives the trucks to your neighborhood, takes the bottles off and puts them on the shelves of your local store. That’s what CCE does. Almost all of its 80,000 employees worldwide. The man or woman you see in a Coke uniform at the Kroger is probably a CCE employee. It is a proudly blue-collar company, as opposed to the more famous Coca-Cola Co., whose employee base is teeming with the highly-educated, manicured fingernail type (when I was at CCE, we didn’t have any Wharton MBAs  who fetched bottled water for supermodels during commercial shoots; trust me, I would have applied if we had).

Given our employee base, in HR we kept it simple and designed our people strategy accordingly. Rather than trying to jam in the “latest and greatest” strategic planning model and program peddled by high-priced HR consultants, we built ours from the ground up. We kept them simple by focusing on one thing: build programs that reflect the values of our employees and customers. Human values.

My message is this – in building an HR strategy, stay away from complicated, off-the-shelf programs peddled by the consultocracy. Focus instead upon a home-grown, values-based approach to HR planning. It is key to retaining the right people.

What do I mean by a values-based approach? Quite simply, it means treating treating everyone with values that are universally recognized, such as trust, respect and dignity. Sounds simplistic, but it is not –  employees yearn to live and work in such places. It doesn’t mean you sacrifice performance standards or ignore economic reality; it means you use values as your North Star in HR strategic planning.

Adopting  a values-based approach to HR planning is not expensive to implement, and it really works. It answers a lot of questions and solves a lot of issues. I am not a big believer in detailed policy manuals and encourage you to stay away from them. Deciding employee issues on the basis of what your common sense says is right – not what is politically correct, what the handbook might say, what your boss wants, or what you think the rules are or aren’t – will usually get you to the best place in the end. Mike Krzyzewski, the famed Duke basketball coach, says over-reliance on policies and procedures is an abdication of leadership. Instead, he counsels, instruct your players/employees to do what is “right,” and everything else takes care of itself. A values-based strategy, in other words.

Let me offer a specific example of bringing a values- based approach to HR strategy as it pertains to compensation and retention. When I was at CCE, we decided that, although we’d love everybody we hired to stay forever, we couldn’t design our HR policies to that end (unless you are in a business with which I am not familiar,  you probably can’t either). Why? First, it is unaffordable and unnecessary. Secondly, you don’t want employees who don’t respect your values to stick around simply because they can’t make as much somewhere else. So we targeted compensation policy around the middle of the market, and kept the people who loved having Coke written on their uniform, while hitting our financial targets.

You don’t need to pay at the top of the market, since the best long-term performers are not motivated by obtaining the absolute top salary they can possibly have or the richest dental plan or the most vacation days. People want a place they respect, want to work with people they like, want a place where integrity and honesty is valued in the culture. What great people want is a fair shake, nothing more, and nothing less — treat me fairly, compensate me fairly, give me decent benefits. Give me the opportunity to grow. Keep me away from toxic bosses. Don’t hide promotional opportunities from me.

Ask yourself a question here – would you take a job paying more money in a corporation that ignored some of the basic human values we’ve talked about? I don’t think so. Neither will the top people you need to grow your business.

Build  your HR strategies from a values-based foundation. That is how you attract and retain great people.