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Is it time to stop the unicorn races?

by Peter de Jager
in Human Resources, Management

A whimsical analogy for a real-world HR problem

Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a growing trend in both the public and private sector, with the public sector taking the lead. More and more conversations with good, competent managers, discussing a list of a half dozen or more unfilled positions, and the resulting workload and staff morale consequences of those unfilled positions.

So, the question posed is, how do we fix this problem?

We’ll use a specific, if whimsical analogy. (“Whimsical” so that we aren’t seen as pointing to any individual person or organization.) Assume that we hold unicorn races in Canada. (I did warn you in advance it would be “whimsical.”) Assume that we have a law that requires, for the safety of the riders, the audience, and the unicorns themselves, that the horns of said unicorns must be blunted before a race.

Transformative Incrementalism: A journey to sustainability

That’s the law – and it’s a good one. Evidence of why it’s a good law: we’ve had enough people die in unicorn collisions and we don’t want that to happen again.

Because of this very good – and necessary – legal requirement to properly inspect unicorn horns, we need to have enough unicorn inspectors to do the required inspections in a timely manner. Otherwise, people cannot enjoy the thrill of unicorn races, and the racing industry is put at risk. Not to mention, again, the types of tragedy I mentioned earlier.

The overtasked, understaffed inspections department

If we’re in charge of hiring unicorn inspectors, and if we don’t have enough to support the legal task they are obligated to execute, whose problem is it? Is it the fault of the existing unicorn inspectors for not working faster? Or, is it our fault for not hiring enough inspectors to do the job?

We need to either hire enough inspectors, or get rid of the legal requirement for inspection, or stop racing unicorns. One or the other, or the other other. If we cannot afford to hire those needed to do the legally necessary work, then we have a totally different type of problem. And, it doesn’t belong to either the existing team of unicorn inspectors, nor to the managers of those inspectors (provided they have requested, but are not allowed to hire enough inspectors to do the job).

This is so obvious that it should need neither attention nor mention. Yet, across Canada, there are positions open – unfilled – with work waiting. It’s obviously a problem, and the solution is also obvious. We either hire enough people to meet the workload, or we don’t and then we live with the consequences. One consequence is inevitably an economic blow to the tourism industry that we’ve built up around the racing of mythical beasts.

As an aside, in a less whimsical vein, I’m told by several clients that this shortage of inspectors isn’t only in the area of unicorn inspectors. It’s all too common a situation.

Stepping up to solve the problem

How do we fix the problem? Well, that’s why this is a ticklish subject.

The first step is to accept that it won’t fix itself. “Somebody” needs to step up and own the problem. The unfortunate reality is that we cannot fix this type of problem until we accept and face up to the root cause of the problem. There is a disconnect between what we must do, and what we can afford to do. We either do less, or do what we do poorly, or ___________. (I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to fill in the blank.)

How many hours do we need to do the work we must complete each week? If it’s more than 40 hours per week on a regular basis, we’re not overworked, we’re understaffed.

Of course, pushing back on this type of problem has consequences. Saying no to consuming more personal time to get work done, even if saying no to increased work hours is in line with “work life balance” initiatives, is a career-limiting move.

Solving real world problems means that we must address the reason why the problems exist in the first place – and that usually means that we’re going to point to the status quo – and point to where the problem exists. Hint: It’s not with the manager who knows they’re shorthanded and knows they have to fill the positions in order to serve the community.  MW

A version of this article was published in Municipal World, February 2019

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Peter’s other article: Take breaks to avoid breakage. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Peter de Jager owns a shovel, and he uses it to find root causes – and solve problems.
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