Category Archives: General Human Resources

Guest Post: Don’t fall victim to the technology talent ticking time bomb

With my limited spare time due to circumstances I’ve decided to engage in a blogging phenomenon called ‘Guest posts’. Today, I’m publishing the very first of these posts, courtesy of Thomsons Online Benefits.

I don’t want to deprive my readers of content because of my busy schedule, so I’m very pleased to write this short introduction to the post below. It’s not what I usually write about, but it is certainly an extremely interesting subject that has a lot of HR professionals scratching their heads. The article below sheds some light on said subject and offers a solution. I hope you enjoy it, and please, if you have any remarks or things to add feel free to do so in the comment section. After all, HR isn’t an exact science and some discussion could be to both our benefits.

Don’t fall victim to the technology talent ticking time bomb

It is hardly a secret that the IT industry is one of the quickest-growing areas of recruitment at a time when employment in many sectors has near enough ground to a halt.

The increasing reliance on technology means that the industry is constantly in demand of the bright young things who are going to be its next innovators. Indeed, recruitment professionals are forecasting employment of IT professionals will grow at nearly twice the UK average per annum in the years leading up to 2020.

In fact, one in 20 workers in the UK are currently employed in the IT and telecoms sector – a large percentage of the country’s workforce.

Despite this, it seems that all may not be well in paradise! Recent research from Thomsons Online Benefits has found that the majority of Generation Y employees are looking to switch jobs within the next two years. Such statistic is bound to concern HR professionals and get them to re-think the employee benefits schemes they offer. In an industry like IT, where experience is paramount, losing long-serving employees effectively means that businesses would lose years of investment in employee training.

So what happens when you try to hire new people to fill these vacancies left by former dissatisfied workers? Well, according to recent statistics there is simply no-one there to take on the job. Half of recruiters have said that they find filling positions in the IT and telecoms industry a challenge.

So, how can recruitment and retention be improved?

With employees in the IT and telecoms sector looking elsewhere for jobs, and no-one willing to fill the positions they leave, employers clearly need to tackle the issue of recruitment and employee retention. But how can they do this?

Well, it has been found that 73 per cent of employees consider other things more important than salary when looking to move job roles, indicating that employers who review their employee benefits package could see their recruitment and retention take a turn for the better.

Despite the importance of employee benefits and the effect improving them could have on many companies, there is a serious mismatch when it comes to the benefits schemes desired by employees and those actually offered by employers.

For example, while around 70 per cent of employees’ identify flexible working as one of the most important employee benefits, just fewer than 60 per cent of businesses actually offer these. On the other end of the spectrum, just ten per cent of employees named private medical cover as one of the top employee benefits they look for, but over 70 per cent of companies offered these.

Employers in the technology sector are clearly failing to do what they need to do when it comes to engaging their workforce, thereby cutting their chances of losing out on the best talent that could take their company to the top. Simply looking at the desires of employees, and shaping their employee benefits packages accordingly, could really help to turn this worrying trend around.

About the Author

Thomsons Online Benefits are experienced in flexible benefits scheme design, pensions and employee communication, our team of highly experienced consultants develop innovative programmes with clients that maximise the value of their reward spend.

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Avengers Assemble! – HR Edition

If you’ve seen Joss Whedon’s latest success film ‘The Avengers’ you probably noticed how the main characters end up working together to face challenges head on and succeed in conquering them in their own … ahem ‘unique’ way. It’s a great movie, with a lesson for business it seems!

Surprisingly, this is not unlike business. Every company, both large multinationals and small business owners alike need to have a so-called ‘dream team’. For the sake of the analogy, I’ll call them ‘Company Avengers’ from now on. Why do we need such ‘superheroes’ you ask? Here’s an easy answer for you: Because we face superhuman challenges in business today. Just think about the current economic and financial climate, corporate social responsibility, climate change, … The list goes on and on.

You often hear the phrase ‘People are your greatest asset’ which is of course true and I’m glad that more and more businesses start to realize this (some faster than others). This HR-catchphrase is true for all levels of employees in your business. But there is a core group for which this phrase rings even truer.

In essence, a business is a group of people working towards one or more goals. Who sets these goals and targets? Who points everyone in the right direction? Who takes the tough decisions when necessary? The Company Avengers of course! Obviously, these people are centered in high or upper level management but this analogy can be applied to smaller projects or teams as well. I will not go into the details of identifying or assessing which individuals in your senior management are your personals ‘Avengers’, I’ll leave that to people with more experience on the matter.

I will however describe what profiles or characteristics these people have and what role HR plays in finding, retaining these people, and help translate their vision and guidance into reality

In essence, your team of ‘Avengers’ consists of people that are driven by an unyielding, almost fanatical commitment to reach goals to achieve mutual benefit. They channel this commitment through their own field of expertise and draw from many tools in order to advance the company as a whole. A dream team like this should be diverse and have people with expertise in various fields of expertise, varying in age and political conviction.

To draw on the ‘Avengers’ analogy further, here’s a breakdown of personalities you could (and should?) have in your dream team:

Steve Rogers/Captain America (idealist): This person is an idealist. He has the grand idea or mission statement that needs to be executed; only he doesn’t have the know-how or expertise to do so.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (the brain):  Can also be described as ‘the brain’. These are people that have a knack for translating ideas in strategies. He’s also the most light-hearted of your Avengers. His quick wit, brain and other skills are a great asset to the team.

Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (the looks): People with the right ‘looks’. They carry out the right image to all the stakeholders (both internal and external). (The analogy is far-fetched but I had to make it work …)

Bruce Banner/The Hulk (the muscle): Paired with the brains of the team, this person represents ‘the muscle’. Essentially, these are the people who get things done! They take huge workloads upon themselves and seem to thrive under all the pressure. They are not afraid to tackle any obstacle they com a across.

Nick Fury (the motivator): This person serves as the facilitator of the group. He’s the one motivating the team when needed and has a knack for finding the right pressure points to stimulate others.

Agent Phil Coulson (the binding agent): This type of person is very ‘down to earth’; they are both Clark Kent and Superman at once, swooping in wearing shirt and tie or blouse. They can work well in just about any situation laid out before them. Together with the facilitator he has the people skills to connect team members and hold them together.

That’s enough of the Avengers-analogy I believe. Let’s examine what role HR plays in this story. In essence, HR has a very important part to play in this story. Our primary goal is to facilitate the whole operation. We are the ones with the skills and expertise to hire, train, motivate and keep the right people for the right job/role. We enable the company, through good conduct and strong principles, to carry out the grand ideas and missions that the idealists in upper level management lay before the employees.

The implementation of a business strategy demands an optimal cooperation with the human work force. This is where the term ‘strategic HR’ comes into the picture. We’ve all read about it on websites, in books and HR magazines. Honestly, I believe that the term is used too loosely. Successful strategy implementation is an often overwhelming task. It’s one thing to get management on board, but motivating and creating the right culture for employees to get them to believe in their employer and strategy.

To be quite frank, this is a huge responsibility for the HR-team. One thing that we must remember at all times is this iconic quote from a movie: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And that, ladies and gentlemen is why I wrote this article. To remind you all that we have a major responsibility, not only to others but to ourselves, to ensure that (y)our company is heading in the right direction.

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Youth unemployment rears its ugly head – Part 2/2

<Disclaimer: This is part 2 of ‘Youth Unemployment Rears Its Ugly Head”. For part 1 click here>


Corporations and businesses are often portrayed as the boogeyman in this story, and it’s easy to see why. They need the right people for their job openings and are not afraid to turn someone down if they don’t meet the requirements. It’s a case of the bad overshadowing the good.

A lot of companies, such as the one where I work, give people (both young and old) plenty of opportunities and chances to develop their skills or gain more experience. When they hired me a couple of months ago, I was fresh out of school with no experience but they still gave me a chance and it has been great so far. My temporary contract is ending soon and I’m looking at opportunities for me to keep working for them.

That doesn’t take away the fact that a lot of companies can do more though. There is a basis of truth when people say that graduates without experience never get a chance. I believe that manager are starting to realize that they have to offer chances to young adults without experience. The mentality of ‘hiring skills’ is slowly fading away to make room for the ‘hire behavior’-mentality. Yes, hiring people without experience or the exact right set of skills for the job might cost you more but you’ll get so much more in return if you choose to invest in new (and old) human capital. Offering training programs will increase retention and motivate your workers.

Look, there isn’t a collective hive mind in the world of business that can instruct every manager and CEO to look into hiring and training adults, but I believe we could all benefit from having our noses pointed in that direction. Either way, I’m hopeful for the future.

Unemployment man!


Of course, there are certain things job seekers can do that help increase their chances on today’s labour market. It would be wrong of me to only point the finger at the society, companies and government. I don’t want to blame anyone or point out faults, it’s just that recent graduates really have no idea how to behave on the labour market or in professional life. That is something they can change through a few simple actions.

First of all, a lot of resumes I see are just plain bad. Graduates often have a nice amount of skills and competences to build on through their years of education and traineeships, but they lack the finesse to write it down on paper and make a killer resume. Typos and a poor lay-out are all too common. Pair that with missing or incomplete information and you have all the ingredients needed to make a bad first impression. It’s essential to have all the right information on your resume and still have it look great, professional. It needs to stand out from the rest of them, or else you won’t get noticed so easily. Now, I’m not saying people should make weird, over-the-top video resumes like Barney Stinson from CBS’ ‘How I Met Your Mother’:

Nonetheless, more attention should be paid to a resume. Let’s segway into my next point (which ties back to employment agencies and schools). There should be a mandatory job application training, whether in school or through one of the related employment services. Job application training will teach you the most basic skills needed to help you with your first steps onto the labour market.

There’s a lot of things applicants can do themselves to find a job more easily, I’m not going to (and I can’t) sum them all up but just know that if you’re a job seeker that has trouble finding a job, look to yourself first instead of blaming it on someone else.

My own suggestions

Now that I’ve summed up some initiatives and actions taken by the major players in today’s job market it’s time to highlight some of my own ideas on how to tackle youth unemployment.

First of all, take risks. I see a lot of my peers applying for a job in their own field of education. That’s only natural, but when you’ve been unemployed for months and haven’t even come close to landing a job it’s time to be bolder. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard: “To boldly go where no one has gone before”. That’s a bit of an overstatement of course, but it gets my point across. And remember, your first job doesn’t have to be your dream job. It’s meant as a stepping stone to what you want out of your (professional) life.

Secondly, companies should offer more chances to young graduates like I’ve mentioned before. Yes, it might cost more, but you still have an unspoken duty to society and your company. Not giving young adults a chance is bad for business in the long run. So don’t always hire the skills you need, hire the right behavior and teach them the skills they need. There’s plenty of financial support to do that here in Belgium (and in other countries).

Whatever you might think of HR, I believe it is and always will be a team effort. It’s a joint effort both on a ‘small’ scale like in a company or on a large-scale between various actors (such as governments, companies, schools and work agencies) in a country, state or region. It would benefit all stakeholders if we could all try to work together more. Like a well-oiled machine, every cog has to do its job so that the next cog can do theirs. If every little wheel in the machine tries to do its own thing thinking that they are operating in a vacuum it won’t work properly. It’s not different, in my opinion, for tackling (youth) unemployment.


I realize that I might sound like an elitist jerk who criticizes everything, but I’m only trying to open your eyes to make you see that changes have to be made now.

 If you think about it, most of the measures I summed up in part 1 and part 2 of this article actually take steps in the direction of a more cooperative and flexible environment for job seekers of all ages and backgrounds. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something to admire and strive for. We all just have to work on it some more.

Do you know of any initiatives that your company, organisation, region or country is taking to tackle (youth) unemployment? Comment below and let me know.

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Youth unemployment rears its ugly head – Part 1/2

<Disclaimer: This article will be split into 2 parts, because of the sheer length of it>

Youth unemployment is the buzzword of the last month here in Belgium, and it’s easy to see why. The youth unemployment (Just to clarify: by youth unemployment I mean those under 25 years of age) rate keeps rising month after month to almost 18% of all job seekers between 18 and 25, which up to 19,8% higher than before the crisis. The economic crisis really hit the labor market hard (even more so in some regions of the country), and it doesn’t look good for the near future either.

Unemployment is, and always will be, a stain on society but even more so when we’re talking about youth unemployment. Being unemployed weighs heavy on the shoulders of young job seekers. Not only is our budding self-confidence undermined but the cost of this st(r)ain on our modern Western society is just unacceptable.

European Youth Unemployment

I have a great example by a young woman, Lauren,  who has been struggling to find a job for months now. She appeared on a documentary on national television and keeps a blog (in Dutch) about her progress and struggles, it’s eye-opening. I’ll translate a short excerpt from one of her posts:

“On New Year’s Eve I partied as if my life depended on it. Awakening from this frenzy was painful though; I still don’t have a job, no prospects and the end of my bank account is in sight. Go and live back with mom and dad? They didn’t look forward to that, and neither did I. Well then, I accepted a job in a restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurants for 6 years during my studies and I’m in the exact same spot now as I was 6 years ago when I didn’t know who Noam Chomsky was, how to analyze a 300-word sentence or where to find all the legislation in the European Union. As long as you can carry 3 plates at once …

I have a LinkedIn-profile. A lot of connections. But I can’t add where I work, what I do … who I am. I’m tired of sitting at home, so I go out often. But every time I meet someone new the first question I get asked is ‘What do you do for a living?’. And then I head home. Am I imagining this, or do people find me more interesting when I was still an unpaid intern? Our society defines your identity solely on the basis of your job. Those without a job, aren’t really part of the group. At first, you’re still who you were and what you studied but day after day and little by little you fade away.”

How can you not be moved by this? This is just one of many examples in today’s economic climate. I am sure Lauren will find a job because her case has been brought to everyone’s attention by the media. She received a lot of supportive comments on her blog, and I really do wish her the very best.

Strangely enough, unemployment for ages 50-60 is going down for the first time in years. This is partly due to the fact that these people have experience (something recent graduates sorely lack, but we’ll touch on that later) along with the measures and subsidies the government offers to try to keep older workers out of unemployment. This effect only amplifies the youth unemployment, which was not the desired effect of the measures taken by the government.

I think it’s pretty clear that drastic measures need to be taken if we want to avoid walking on the same path as Greece, Spain and some other countries in the world before us. Luckily, some initiatives are being taken. I’ll sum up some measures that I think are very positive, both on short-term as well as on long-term. I’ll split up these examples into several categories to keep everything organized. I’ll try and formulate some of my own ideas in part 2 as well as come to a short conclusion.


I talked about this in my previous article a little, and my point on this hasn’t changed. Luckily, our minister of education has all the right ideas. He’s been trying to reform secondary school and certain college directions (such as teachers). In essence, he’s trying to synchronize education and a professional life through making changes to education programs and embedding new technology in the classroom (think tablets, smartboards and better infrastructure in general). From my point of view, a crucial element to lowering youth unemployment because freshly graduated students are unprepared for the ‘real world’. I know I was, it was a pretty big culture shock the first few days and I have a better background than most through my education.

The sad part is that I fear most of his ideas will stay just that. It’s extremely hard, it seems, to change or alter anything in the slightest. Some of our laws, customs and systems are set in stone. It’s sad, but that’s the story of our society as it stands today. The second problem is the time limit that our minister is facing. He only has the couple of years in which he has to bring all his, admittedly good, ideas to fruition.

Aside from trying to reform the educational system the government is also taking different, and more concrete steps to lowering youth unemployment. For instance, the government is trying to increase the amount of internships available for young job seekers without a diploma. These internships are unpaid and companies who offer them have no obligation to hire the intern after the traineeship, but they do pave the way to finding a job suitable to their competences.

Governments (national, regional and international) all around the world are taking initiatives, but I often feel like they get stuck in a political tug-o’-war which limits the reaction time to certain (economical) events. The saying ‘too little, too late’ can often be applied here.


High schools, colleges and universities have a huge responsibility to our society and its future. Unfortunately, education is always trying to catch up to the work life. I have a hard time finding concrete examples of schools trying to better sync their programs to prepare students for a professional life. I’m guessing this is because of the very rigid system we have where schools have no independence to change their own curriculum (don’t worry, this is a good thing but not for this purpose).

I know from my own experience, though, that schools are thinking about preparing their students better through extra-curricular activities such as lectures, classes and visits to job fairs and companies. It’s a step in the right direction, but I guess we’ll see how it’ll work out in the long run.

Employment services ( &

The first example of a great initiative are the ‘Individual professional educations’ (Individuele beroepsopleiding or IBO in Dutch)are one of the better measures taken in recent years. In essence, this is a contract between you and an employer where you will receive an education in the workplace during a few months. If you finish this education successfully, you automatically get a position in the company and you can’t be fired for a certain period of time (determined by law). A professional consultant handles all the administration so you don’t have to worry about anything. In 2012, almost 12000 positions were filled through this measure and we expect this number to climb to 17000 in 2014.

Second example is the very hands-on and individual approach that the employment services (and especially in Flanders) utilize. Every unemployed  job seeker has to register with the employment service, this allows them to invite, follow-up on and coach each person in their hunt for a job. If needed, re-orientation and guidance is offered (free of charge)to any who ask for it. You can literally walk into their office and ask to speak to a consultant who will help you on your way to finding a new job by helping you prepare for a job interview, showing you how and where to find suitable job openings. These are just a handful of services the agency offers.

The Belgian employment services do great work, but even with all these great initiatives I do have some complaints about them, but that’s a story for another time.

Do you know of any initiatives that your company, organisation, region or country is taking to tackle (youth) unemployment? Comment below and let me know.

Looking for part 2? Click here.

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Welcome, to the real world

With my recent first, somewhat awkward steps into my first real job I came to realize something that must have bothered a lot of people, both new employees and employers, before me. I’m talking about the very large gap between what we learn in school on the one hand and the skills that are needs to be successful in our first jobs on the other hand. For me personally my education was not at all adequate to prepare me for the tasks and responsibilities in my current position as an employee administrator. When I first started my job, there was a tsunami of information rushing towards me that threatened to overwhelm me, and I wondered why should didn’t prepare me for this. I could compare it to the movie, The Matrix, where our protagonist Neo has been living in a virtual world all his life without realizing it. He then gets torn out of that world and thrown into the real world which is darker and harsher, to which Morpheus says “Welcome, to the real world”. The resemblance is astounding.

Don’t get me wrong though, the direction(s)  followed and the school I went to are top-notch here in Belgium. The problem is that learning programs go out from the premise that the world is a perfect place and that everything operates in a vacuum. Of course, it does not. Unforeseen events both economical, personal and even meteorological events influence our daily routines and causes the course of all things, both large and small, to change.

Furthermore, our current education system provides a solid theoretical basis for us to build upon with experience gained through our first years in the workplace. But I fear we lack the most basic grasp of the world as it currently stands, the real world in which things change and go wrong. That, at least, is the case for us white-collar workers with our fancy Bachelors and Master degrees. No, the ones with a step ahead of us are blue-collar workers. They enjoyed a much more practical education with an adequate amount of hands-on experience which they gained by having teachers who have practical experience themselves. This is an advantage over being thought by people who start teaching fresh from school themselves, without any real experience.

Another advantage are the extended periods of traineeships trough which essential skills and behavioral competencies are acquired. Sure, there are traineeships for students in just about any direction but it’s only for a short period of time (usually a couple of weeks or months) during which a lot of students only get to do the most menial of tasks and thus, in a sense, operate in the same vacuum as they’ve been taught in school.

So, in essence I’m saying that we need to thoroughly rethink our education system on all levels. From primary school all the way to university. Just think about it, is learning Latin or Ancient Greek anything but a waste of time and effort? The course only exists to satisfy demanding parents and giving them the feeling that their child is somehow superior to others in their age group. That may put a little strong, but it’s how I experienced it. Learning a dead language does not offer any skills that can be used later in life. It’s the exact opposite because in reality it’s only setting these kids back further as opposed to their more ‘street-smart’ (for lack of a better term) counterparts.

Though not all is bad. Employers now realize now more than ever that extra education and coaching is needed for employees fresh out of the classroom. And governments are also realizing this, at last. In Belgium for example, we have a very clever and practical Minister of Education (Pascal Smet) who realizes that the current system is a relic of the past and is in dire need of an update.

I believe we should all strive for a better education system that provides the proper attitude and skill set for the real world. And that, is something everyone needs to work on. A better cooperation between companies, schools and governments is needed to pinpoint the problems and solve them with an eye to the future. In due time, I believe this will happen. I just hope it’ll be sooner, rather than later.

What are your thoughts on this? Is there a difference with your country or did you experience it differently? I’d like to hear about it, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line in the comment section below.

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Motivation is a fickle thing

Motivation to work is a curious thing, one action may work for one person but do nothing for the next. Nonetheless, motivation in one way or another is crucial for a healthy professional life for an employee and a healthy organization as a company.

In my humble and modest experience in the workplace there are 3 types of people:

1)      Highly motivated employees who love and enjoy their work, consider it fun and derive a lot of satisfaction from it.

2)      People who like and enjoy their job but still consider it a necessary evil in order to make things they rather do possible.

3)      People who have (almost) no connection to work and only do it to make a living.

I realize that I may be representing things a little black and white here, but it serves to bring my point across. Now, I don’t mean to talk in stereotypes here but type 3 are more often than not, blue collar workers (they often seem to end up in long-term unemployment). Again, don’t mind the stereotypes please. I certainly don’t mean all blue collar workers are a type 3, there are plenty of blue collar workers who choose and love that type of job or just want to escape the hassle and added stress of a job with more responsibility.

I’ve been wondering how employers could still motivate these employees to increase retention rates and improve the quality of the work delivered. First, what exactly is motivation? Motivation is an employee’s intrinsic enthusiasm about and drive  to accomplish activities related to work. Motivation is that internal drive that causes an individual to decide to take action.

Motivation is influenced by biological, intellectual, social and emotional factors. In short, motivation is a complex, not easily defined, intrinsic driving force that can be influenced by external factors.

Everyone of us has activities, events, people, etc that he or she finds motivation. The trick for employers is to figure out how to inspire employee motivation. Creating a motivating work space involves both intrinsically satisfying and extrinsically encouraging factors.

I guess that there are a couple of possibilities to increase motivation; one thing that still seems very popular here in Belgium (in the average company) is to increase financial benefits. But shouldn’t we know by now that increasing salary only works to a certain degree and only it only helps for a short while? After all, you can’t keep increasing financial benefits forever …

A much better motivator for instance is giving proper and encouraging feedback to workers. Which is good of course, but in my experience there’s one even better that goes hand-in-hand with the daily routine of things. I’m talking about respect. More specifically, respect given to them by their peers and superiors and upper-level executives. I hear stories of supervisors and higher level management that look down un blue collar workers in such a way they won’t even say hello or good morning to them when passing each in a hallway. And that really bothers people, and it should. Everyone deserves and needs recognition for their work and be granted the respect that befits them. Now, that recognition often comes from the small gestures such as saying hello in the morning. This recognition will then translate into a feeling of being a respected person in the grand scheme of things and that will evolve into a drive to do more and better, in other words: Motivation.

And all the extra perks, gamification systems and money just can’t compete with the simplest of gestures.

The Bekaert Folly

The Bekaert Group, a fairly large company here in Belgium that primarily produces steel wire has been all over the news the last couple of days. The company recently found itself in quite the pickle. They have to lay off around 600 people this year.

Now, that in itself is not very rare in this day and age, it’s on the news almost daily now. There is something else to this particular story that absolutely baffled me though: Even though the company has to lay off hundreds of people the CEO, Bert De Graeve, will receive a 1,5 million Euro bonus on top of his not so inconsiderable ‘base salary’. The irony here is that Bert De Graeve won the award for ‘Manager of the year 2010’.

This also is common practice nowadays so I’ve heard of this before, but it’s still astounding to hear stories like that. Personally, I think that the CEO should relinquish his bonus, regardless of why he received it in the first place, in favor of the employees the company is planning to make redundant. For one, I doubt he really needs this money to keep up his current living standards (he has always been a wealthy man to my knowledge).

I believe that 1,5 million Euros (which is 1 960 000 USD at today’s exchange rate) would go a long way to financing extra training to prepare the people they’re firing for their re-entrance onto the job market.

But the preposterous part of this story doesn’t end there. As you may know, here in Belgium we work considerably less than in other European countries. The average age of people going in retirement is 55. Obviously, this is costing our social security truckloads of money (the system is based on a solidarity principle). The lower amount of new entrants in the job market and the higher amount of people retiring (the whole baby-boomer problem) is putting a lot of stress on our current social security system. In any case, we’ll all have to work longer and perhaps even pay more taxes to keep the system running (as if personnel costs aren’t high enough in Belgium already).

Our new government decided that we’ll all have to work longer than we do now (there are some exceptions) and the ‘early retirement’ system will be discouraged and partly dismantled. I believe this is only natural, I will want to retire at some point and receive my pension just like everyone else so we have to keep the system running. Now, this ‘early retirement’ is a measure where ‘older’ employees who get laid off receive an extra compensation on top of the usual unemployment pay. This extra allowance is paid by their last employer.

The unions at Bekaert, however, are now asking for an early retirement for all employees that get fired from ages 50 and up. That’s more than a decade before the normal, legal retirement age. The secretary of work has already rejected this motion and requested a complete plan for the lay-offs and says that early retirement will only be allowed as a last resort. I can only agree with her, it would be quite hypocritical of the government to increase the retirement age and discourage an early retirement only to consent to it for the Bekaert Group.

The ironic part here is that CEO Bert De Graeve said in an interview with ‘Humo‘ in 2010 that “even a small increase in the legal retirement age can’t even be discussed in this country. As soon as something goes wrong in a company, they immediately reach for the early retirement system – Godiva at age 52, Opel (2 companies that made a lot of employees redundant) at age 48. That shouldn’t be possible!”

Furthermore, I have no doubt that there are sufficient measures in place to help guide these people to a new job. We have an extensive outplacement policy that is compulsory for employees at or above the age of 45 if I’m not mistaken). This measure helps guide people to a new job through training and coaching by professionals.

And quite frankly, I see no reason to give these particular employees an early retirement. Most people getting laid off are hard-working, highly skilled technical workers which is something our job market is desperate for. And yes, it will require some effort and investment to organize education and training to get every worker up-to-date and ready to tackle new challenges in a new position at a new company. The cost will be so much lower than having them drift off into unemployment and early retirement. Think about it, the average life span of men in Belgium is around 78 years, so the people retiring at age 50 will cost the government and the active population (through taxes) 28 years of pension. That’s a huge sum of money that will no doubt exceed the investment and return-on-investment to get these people back to work.

Furthermore, we should all strive to get rid of this image Belgium has where people of ages 50 and up are considered old from a job market perspective. 50 isn’t old at all anymore, these people still have a lot to contribute to an organization.

As you can see, the whole Bekaert story is riddled with insane notions and it is beginning to look like quite the folly. I just wanted to direct your attention to some issues I have with this whole Bekaert issue. First of all, the preposterous notion that CEO’s should receive astronomical bonuses for the work they do. I’m not denying they don’t work hard, but they really shouldn’t receive such huge amounts of money as if they are the prophets of business, especially when the company is in such a bad position.

Secondly, the fact that when people get laid off they’re almost automatically driven into retirement which is costing every single one of us a lot of money. And lastly, the notion that people above 50 are just a hindrance and that they should make room for a younger, more flexible (and cheaper) workforce even though they still have so much to add to our society

In any case, it will be very interesting to see how this tale ends.

Niels Van Hellemont

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Gamification, the newest challenge for HR

If you know a little bit about me you’ll no doubt know that I’m not new to the world of video games. One of the things that fascinates me is the analogy between video games and business (which I might discuss in a future post). One of the newest buzzwords in the world of business and HR is “gamification”, which will be our topic of the day.

Now, while games were once only there to provide pleasure and relaxation, the business world has (finally) seen some merits in the mechanics of video games. A couple of years ago, no one would have believed that you could use games and simulations for organizational development. Wether your goal as an HR professional is to increase/improve company morale, deliver professional training or motivate employees, gamification is a great way to spark one’s competitive advantage and foster learning and development in your organization.


But what exactly is gamification? It’s a popular buzzword nowadays but a lot of people or “experts” use it without really knowing what it is.

Gamification typically involves applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. It can potentially be applied to any industry and anything to create fun and engaging experiences, converting users into players. Some examples are unlocking badges for visiting new or unique locations on Foursquare, or earning points and unlocking special rewards in various virtual spaces.


To make this even more clear let’s take a look at the crossover between a video game, say World of Warcraft, and business. Tasks, achievements, businesses (Guilds) people and rewards (Loot) exist both in the world of work as in World of Warcraft. But why isn’t work as compelling and rewarding as a video game with so many similarities? Well, it’s all in the way video games are structured. Video games make the player feel important and special. At work, however, we sometimes struggle with what’s so important or special about what we do (remember that a job is only meaningful and motivating if there’s feedback about results, some degree of independence and makes good use of an individual’s abilities) .  Small wonder that employees can’t wait to hop in their cars to rush home and play games.

The idea of why we’re so compelled by games isn’t due to any one thing though. It’s the unique mix of competition, an escape from everyday life to be a hero and the fact that games let us practice our skills. Those factors put together make for the perfect drug for our brain.

What really motivates people is really the act of learning and the feeling that you’re getting something out of the experience, be it the satisfaction of solving a puzzle or gaining a level. That’s why relatively simple games like Angry Birds gets downloaded millions of times. While you have this very simple concept of catapulting a bird across the screen, you get to practice it and get better and better at it (and use this skill in more challenging situations). And in the end you get to see the result in the form of score points (Note the similarities between this and a meaningful job). Those are the games that last through the years, like Tetris or Pac-Man.

For a job to provide that same sensation as flinging a virtual bird at green pigs, it needs to provide a continuous challenge. Something that is lacking in so many jobs. The tricky thing is that the challenge should neither be too hard to be discouraging, nor too easy to bore – we should be challenged just beyond our ability.

Games get all this, modern video games especially because they’ve been carefully crafted by experienced game designers who distill the tricks and techniques that act like drugs on a brain, even to the point of addiction (with sometimes gruesome consequences).

Game designers know that their game has to be good and compelling because a boring game will quickly be discarded and vanish somewhere between the wall and the bookshelf. So, if a boring job isn’t producing the kind of work that helps your business grown, perhaps the world of work has something to learn from the realm of play.

You’d think that money and rank get people excited at work (and to a certain point they do) but we see that a sense of achievement and getting things done are better motivators. Yet manager often have a draconian view on things, whether it’s banning Facebook or working from home. ‘If you’re having fun, you can’t possibly be working!’

So how exactly do you gamify a job, task or process? Well, by adding a game layer on top. That sounds very simple, but it all comes down to building engagement. This can be achieved through targets, competition, chance, puzzles, achievements, teamwork, etc.

For example, a US design company that created time tokens for meetings and distributed a set amount of these tokens to its project managers each week for ‘buying’ time from other employees. The aim of this game was to increase the effectiveness of meetings by reducing the amount of time people spent in meetings. Each employee was also given a single token that could end an unproductive meeting on the spot. This game-style system turned a bloated office practice into a game of time management based on careful use of a scarce resource – time- that actively encouraged employees to become engaged with the process of being more productive.

However, most obvious examples of gamification are on the customer side of a business. Just think about Frequent Flyer Miles or the effect of social pressure in the case of Groupon.

Next, the social component of the gamification process might just be the key ingredient. It’s not enough to level up or earn a trophy, we need to be able to share our glory with the public bu sharing on Facebook or showing a new piece of gear in the busiest city on World of Warcraft. I guess we would call them our peacock feathers.


Enough theory now, what about the practice? Is the average office ready to turn boring, dead-end jobs into epic quests for personal achievement? Probably not.

Ideally, I’d vouch for bringing a couple of game designers or people with an affinity for gaming into the HR team. Have them brainstorm and design some ‘games’ for your workforce and test them out, see where they lead you and how they might be applied to the benefit of your organization.

Furthermore, this stuff is not easily learned and you don’t really want to learn this ‘on the road’. You’ll want to have someone with experience provide some guidance. Too bad those people are pretty rare. After all, gamification covers various fields like psychology, sociology, IT, etc.

To conclude, gamification is here to stay and you’d do well to embrace it. Yes, it will take time, money and a certain open-mindedness but the result at the end of the line will be amazing if handled correctly. To me, this is the new world of work. Not some policy that allows you to work at home one day every month or fancy new office spaces, but exciting jobs that actually mean something to the people in them. That  is the real challenge for HR nowadays, and something I would be thrilled to work on someday.

Niels Van Hellemont

PS: There’s plenty more to say on gamification, but I didn’t want this article to be overly long so I might write more in-depth and in segments on this subject later.


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The Expert’s Fallacy

I watched a TV show a couple of days ago called ‘Koppen XL’. It’s basically a documentary, and each week they tackle a different subject. This week the subject was ‘Do experts really have the expertise they lead us to believe?’. I thought this was very interesting because we’re being bombarded by experts from all sides. Nutrition experts, marriage councilors, wine tasters, management consultant and HR experts.


The funny thing that came forward in the documentary is that most experts are quacks and they know nearly nothing about their chosen subject. Furthermore, these so-called experts say things that are contradictory. For example, the one nutrition expert says that you need a healthy, large breakfast while the other one says that you should only eat a piece of fruit. And there are tons more of these ‘experts’ with other theories. Or wine taster who can’t taste the difference between red wine and white wine (with a drop of coloring fluid to make it look like red wine).

It’s the same in the human resources field. Just think about how many books there are about best practices, for example ‘in search of excellence’ written by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.. It’s one of the best-selling and most widely read business books ever.

Peters and Waterman found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. The book devotes one chapter to each theme:

  1. A bias for action, active decision-making – ‘getting on with it’. Facilitate quick decision-making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
  2. Close to the customer – learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship – fostering innovation and nurturing ‘champions’.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven – management philosophy that guides everyday practice – management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting – stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff – some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties – autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.

In essence, they try to formulate a best way to do something which they illustrate by giving examples of companies. Their choice of companies was very poor though (NCR, Wang Labs, Xerox) as they did not achieve the excellent results the book promised.

What I’m really trying to say here is that there’s no one perfect solution that works for every organisation and that these so-called experts are really just people who ‘pretend’ to have the end-all-be-all solution. That point was emphasized by one of my teachers in college, and he’s right. That’s why copy-pasting HR policies or any other policy won’t work, sure you can use the basic framework but what worked for one company won’t necessarily mean it will work for yours.

Now, let’s circle back to the experts. The reality is that we pay experts because of their image and because we can then say ‘but the expert told us that this was the way to go’. In essence, to lend credibility to our decisions and actions.

Don’t get me wrong though, there really are some experts but it’s important that even they make mistakes (hopefully less than the ‘rookies’) and are often insecure. For me, I have my suspicions when someone says something with absolute certainty. ‘You HAVE to do this, This IS the way to go’. A real expert, in my eyes, is someone who questions himself, studies his environment and doesn’t shower everyone in technical terms to display his ‘expertise’.

In essence, I think you can’t really be an expert in the social sciences such as HR or psychology (or even economics, which isn’t an exact science either like they teach you in school)

You can trust me on this, I am an expert in the field of … uh … Well, never mind.

Niels Van Hellemont

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The Unemployment Conundrum

This article appeared on (loosely translated by me) :

In January 2012, the unemployment rate in the European Union rose by 0,1 percent to 10,1 percent. One year ago, the unemployment rate was 9,5 %. That same evolution is noticeable in the Eurozone: 10,7 % in January 2012, 10,6 %  in December 2011 and 10,0 % in January 2011. Belgium rose from 7,2 % to 7,4.

Eurostat estimates that the amount of unemployed workers in January in the EU27 at 24,325 million of which 16,925 in the Eurozone. That is an increase of 191.000 people in the entire European Union and of 185.000 people in the Eurozone as opposed to the month before. A year ago, the amount of people without a job grew by 1,488 million in the European Union (1,221 million in the Eurozone)

It seems like it’s always the same countries with the highest and lowest rate. The lowest unemployment rate was noted in Austria (4,0 %), The Netherlands (5,0 %) and Luxembourg (5,1). The highest was in Spain (23,3 %), Greece (19,9 %) and now Ireland and Portugal as well (both 14,8 %)

The unemployment rate between men and women is equally high this month. 10,1 % (last year men: 9,4 %, women: 9,6 %). In the Eurozone, the unemployment rate is higher for women (10,9 %) than for men (10,5 %). Unemployment among young people increased significantly: from 21,1 % a year ago to 22,4 % in the EU (from 20,6 % tot 21,6 %). In Spain (49,9 %) and Greece (48,1 %), every 1 in 2 young people don’t have a job; in Slovakia it’s 1 in 3.

The United States of America closed the month of January with an unemployment rate of 8,3 %. In Japan, this figure was 4,6 % in December.

Now, I know it’s a lot of figures and percentages but I find this very interesting. It shows how much impact the current economic crisis has in the European Union. Especially in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland which are the countries in the biggest immediate danger. Companies are going bankrupt, people lose their jobs and can’t find a new one because of cuts in the workforce budget. It’s pretty much a vicious circle in the sense that people losing their jobs have less money to spend which in turn is bad for the economy as a whole resulting in more budget cuts and savings.

I believe that the HR department of companies can, in cooperation with the governments, have a large impact on the rising unemployment rate. Companies and governments should work together to draw more people back to the workplace by motivating them, cutting social security or lowering salary costs.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Especially in Belgium where so many people rely on our social security system for (temporary) unemployment, pensions and illness. Though, I believe that we could do with some sanitation. For instance, there are (to my knowing, ie. Not funded in figures) quite a lot of people who get money from our social security because they’re unemployed but have no desire to work anymore. Why should they? They get money for doing nothing, in some cases even more than they’d get if they had a job (usually a low educated demographic, and thus less motivated because those jobs often don’t have a lot of intrinsic rewards). We should try to encourage those people to go out and find a job again (and there a job enough for everyone really, it’s just that some jobs are seen as bad or below their standards.

And I don’t mean offering more salary. I’m talking about intrinsic motivation and non-salary benefits.

Furthermore, the social security system we have in Belgium is becoming unaffordable because there’s more people retiring and living longer than there are new entrants to pay for those pensions. We’ll all have to work longer than we do now (the average age for retirement in Belgium is only 58), and that’s fine by me. But I know a lot of people who are against this measure and are doing everything they can to retire now, or work fewer hours straining the system even more.

I feel that I can’t offer any concrete solutions for this problem, as it has many facets and issues to consider and I’m in no way an expert in that area. I do, however, believe that the solution is for companies, non-profit government organizations  and governments to work together to tackle this problem. And yes, this will require an investment from all parties.

In any case, I fear that we haven’t seen the end of this yet …


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