Blog: The (funny) business of HR awards

Strategic HR

The (funny) business of HR awards

HR awards have proliferated greatly but several have been tarnished by providing fame on a 'pay-as-you-go plan' to recipients while raking in profits for the organizers. How can this trend be reversed so that awards once again signal extraordinary accomplishment in HR?
The (funny) business of HR awards

There are many good reasons awards and honors exist. They have been at the apex of social recognition before history began to be recorded and certainly before money became the preferred means of transferring and storing value. Repeated public recognition translated to status and met several needs that most humans have. "Given that … an individual’s position in status hierarchies has consequences for access to sexual partners and other fitness-relevant resources, humans likely possess evolved psychological mechanisms for status-striving and navigating status hierarchies."1 Thus, even in tribal and social animal groups, and down to our own time, the individual higher in the pecking order finds it easier to satisfy needs for food, safety and sex, than those not so esteemed.

Not all the awards are peddled for favors or cash. To establish and maintain at least some credibility for the awards, a few genuinely outstanding practitioners are inveigled into accepting the awards

In the case of HR professionals, esteem based on public recognition doesn’t only meet the recipients’ needs. It provides useful signaling for the HR community at large. Even the best networked of us can make sound judgments about the worth of a just few dozen fellow professionals – certainly no higher than Dunbar’s limit of 150 people. A well-executed award scheme can provide us with a map of the most respected practitioners around the country (or globe) and where their particular talents lie. Such a map can be immensely helpful for us to pick people to work with, involve in professional bodies, consult, listen to or read.

For each award, the jury must be presented with at least three unranked and unscored candidate organizations or individuals with qualitative narratives, preferably drawn from independent testimonies and 360-type feedback

Lastly, awards are remarkably cost-efficient value creators for the awarding institution. "The material costs of awards may be very low, or even nil, for the donor… but the value to the recipients may be very high when awards signal high social status."3 Of course, there is an initial investment in establishing the awareness, credibility and prestige of the award but, thereafter, the prime skills are of organization and execution and the value for the recipient has little to do with the material worth of the award. 

Sounds win-win for the receiver, the giver and the professional community. What could possibly go wrong?

Effortless Awards

Finding short-cuts to acquire prestigious positions and honors, which normally require years of effort and exceptional achievements, is a universal phenomenon. Some possible reasons why we are particularly adept at discovering the shortest of such cuts have been given in an earlier column.4

Hard work and honesty are essential but not sufficient for deserving awards for HR excellence. Some of the other ingredients are:

  • Conceptual Creativity and Thought Leadership
  • CEO Chemistry with the CHRO
  • Conspicuous Competencies (at the highest levels of proficiency)

None of these can be commandeered into existence simply by exceptional effort. Understandably then, those who must have awards but lack any of the bright triad we have listed must look outside the 'genuine' envelope. Fortunately for them, there is a legion of award purveyors who can meet every possible taste (except that for genuineness).

Of course, these Awards/Services Selling Entrepreneurial Set-ups (ASSES for short) are not in the business of satisfying the appetites of award-hungry HR practitioners for free. The major revenue generators in the ASSES’ business model are award nomination fees (totally disproportionate to the expenses incurred in the evaluation), payments for any reports that are detailed enough to be actionable, sponsorships and advertisements (usually for the award distribution event) and fees for services (purportedly unlinked to the award and often provided by a Chinese walled part of the ASSES). 

Not all awards are peddled for favours or cash. To establish and maintain at least some credibility for the awards, a few genuinely outstanding practitioners are inveigled into accepting the awards. But these stalwarts don’t get off scot-free: they pay with a part of their hard-won reputations when they become unofficial poster boys for the ASSES. But there is a limit to which even this ploy can work. This business model is such a money spinner (because it taps into the virtually inexhaustible cupidity of HR practitioners for fame) and there are such low barriers to entry that every Raja Tom, Rajkumar Dick and Darbari Harry wants to muscle into the action. And proliferation is the kiss of death to the exclusivity that makes awards prized. "… when several institutions are able to hand out similar awards, a typical public good situation arises. A particular donor takes into account only its own costs of providing the awards, not the costs of diminishing quality that fall upon all donors handing out awards… Each donor therefore has too low an incentive to keep the number of awards down, and thereby keep their quality up."3 This also leads to ever narrower slices of HR activity for which awards are concocted.

Worse than the tragedy of the commons which ASSES bring on themselves is the tragedy of inflation eating away the value of genuine awards. Even awards from the most reputed awarding institutions lose their worth as the general HR audience becomes more and more jaded by the continual multiplication of awards. In the worst case, institutions that were more restrained and genuine at one time join the ASSES’ money-making bandwagon. 

Self-discipline by Recipients

Recently there was a list of the most influential HR thinkers in India. Four of them were in a small WhatsApp group of HR leaders to which I belong and the rest of us naturally congratulated them on the honor. Pat came the reply from one of them, who is perhaps the most highly regarded personage in HR in the country today, thanking us for our felicitations but explaining that he had turned down the anointment since the firm organizing the award had business dealings with the group where he is the CHRO. This leader is met with thunderous applause whenever he appears in any HR forum. Would it not be wonderful if people chose to emulate him instead of just applauding him?

The simplest way to break out of the declining spiral of award worths (which is the concomitant of the upward spirals of award proliferation and commercialization) is for those whose names are used to bolster the value of relatively unknown awards (as well as others who contribute to the revenues of ASSES) to turn down the honors or payment requests in certain circumstances: 

  • First, as my renowned friend did in the example quoted at the start of this section, is to refuse to receive an award from a firm which provides any commercial service to one’s own. To this I would add, as an absolute no-no, accepting awards from ASSES who have a reputation for degrading their currency. The master-practitioners of this white-scroll trade are well known in the HR community. Avoid these 'awardpreneurs' if you don’t want your name to be a sniggering stock in the HR community.
  • Second, is to refuse to nominate oneself for an award or to pay exorbitant processing fees. This denial can be practiced even by those who are not so famous (in fact the famous ones are asked for neither fees nor self-nominations). Naturally, it is to those who are yet to be recognized in the profession that awards matter most but they need to realize they are better off without an award rather than in the possession of one which is known for its purchasability. 
  • The other quid pro quo to be guarded against is the sponsorship or advertisement support given to ASSES or award events organized by them. There are few funnier pictures than of people receiving awards on stages where their platinum sponsorship is blazoned, in huge letters, across the backdrop.

What has been written here about individuals applies equally to awards that are given to firms for an activity, sub-function, initiative or the entire corporate entity. After all it is in the hands of individual CHROs to participate in and accept awards after assessing their provenance and quality.

Borders for Awarders 

While self-restraint by award recipients is a prerequisite for any retardation of the galloping inflation that degrades HR awards, lasting change in the system will require ASSES to change too. Aesop has a fable where an ass is able to command the respect due to a lion simply by donning a lion’s skin – till he opens his mouth! The ASSES in our narrative, of course, have their mouths perpetually open (to cajole participation, ingest fat fees or hector those who will not join the jamboree) and, for those who are even minimally perceptive, their royal façade doesn’t last more than a single award event. 

In their hearts, many ASSES would welcome the respect and prestige of giving genuinely prized awards. For those of them who wish to start on the Road to Damascus there are just three borders or Laxman rekhas (with apologies for mixing religious metaphors) that they must resolve never to cross again. 

Perhaps the most important for establishing the credibility of awards is the manner in which ASSES pick and deal with their juries

The first step on the path to respectability is to stop charging fees for nominations or to make them nominal and verifiably related to the expenses of the judging process. No sponsorships, advertisements or payments in any other guise should be sought or obtained from individuals or firms that are being considered for the awards. 

Somewhat less direct but equally unacceptable are the services of various sorts proffered by ASSES or their Chinese-walled consultancies. Some of these services brazenly promise to make the firm ready for the award itself. In such cases there must be a significant moratorium (I would suggest a minimum of two years) on any business dealings with the individual or organization both before and after the date of the award. If ASSES find it impractical to conform to this guideline, it is a signal that there is conflict of interest between the award judgment and their other lines of business. They need to choose which one they stay with and which they relinquish. 

Perhaps the most important for establishing the credibility of awards is the manner in which ASSES pick and deal with their juries. People are perennially puzzled about the worthiness of the names on award juries and the dreadful choices that are announced. The reason is not far to seek. Even if jury members are willing and able to spend quality time on the judging process, much of the cooking has been done in advance and there is no way they can access the raw data based on which the pre-jury teams have arrived at their scores. In such situations, jury members can either rubber-stamp the pre-decided awardees or resign their places on the jury – something most people find messy and undignified. One way to stop this jury-manipulation is to have the jury presented with at least three unranked and unscored candidate organizations or individuals for each award. The short-list must be accompanied with qualitative narratives, preferably drawn from independent testimonies and 360-type feedback. The jury would then be free to choose from or rank the three entirely at its discretion. The total number of people or companies evaluated and placed before the jury must also be publicly disclosed. If there are not adequate quality entries to have three deserving of each award, that award should not be allotted at all. This will also impose a salutary restraint on the heedless proliferation of awards. 

The Nobel Solution

If all the changes suggested for ASSES seem difficult to the point of impracticality, it’s because they are. Why would a commercially run award machine give up its license to print money just to ensure the value of awards stays high? The ASSES’ eco-system will not reform or have a shakeout till there are one or two HR award granters that leave no commercial footprint at all. 

The model we need is not far to seek. I am not presuming that HR for business enterprises is in the exalted realm of the fundamental disciplines that are considered worthy of Nobel prizes but there is nothing to prevent us (as so many other disciplines have done5 with more or less faithfulness to the original model) from adopting the principles governing the Nobel awards. At their core they boil down to just two:

  • A substantial corpus available from inception so that the award does not need to muddy itself in commercial transactions or obligations of any sort.
  • A nomination, sifting and judging process that is rigorous and uninfluenceable. There have been accusations that the Nobel itself hasn’t always lived up to these standards6 but our concern is with the normative principle. 

Step one, then, is to encourage a visionary business house, individual or set of them to create a fund that permits total independence of judgement in granting HR awards. Next would come the building of the body that that would undertake the task of obtaining nominations, vetting them and assembling an unimpeachable jury. It is conceivable that one of the professional bodies or chambers of commerce that are already running award programs of their own could be chosen as the execution vehicle, provided they give up the fee and monetization structures most of these bodies too have adopted in recent years. So how about it Mr ________. Would you like to see the most prestigious HR awards in the world named after you or your firm?

 

Notes

  1. Mark van Vugt and Joshua M Tybur, The Evolutionary Foundations of Hierarchy: Status, Dominance, Prestige, and Leadership, Chapter in D M Buss (editor), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (Second Edition), Wiley, 2015.
  2. Christopher von Rueden, Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan, Why do men seek status? Fitness payoffs to dominance and prestige, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 22 July 2011, 278(1715): 2223–2232.
  3. Bruno S Frey, Giving and Receiving Awards, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Volume: 1 issue: 4, 1 December 2006.
  4. Visty Banaji, Gaming goals can kill businesses, People Matters, 25th November 2019.
  5. Wikipedia, List of prizes known as the Nobel of a field.
  6. Burton Feldman, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige, Hachette Book Group, 2000.
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Topics: Strategic HR, #Awards

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