The tagline for the AHRI Awards is ‘the mark of excellence’. But how does AHRI assess excellence?
No matter how often you see it, there’s something wonderful about a winner who truly didn’t expect to win. Award ceremonies can be formulaic, so getting to watch stunned victors collect their trophy is a welcome mini-drama.
It tends to be some variation on the following. The winner walks to the stage, a grin slowly emerging because, unlike the eager legs, the face muscles are having trouble figuring out what the heck just happened. Then you see panic set in – the grin freezes – as the person remembers the horrible truth. They have to talk to a room full of peers and they have prepared zilch. Much to their chagrin, time doesn’t stop. So they ascend the stairs, shake the MC’s hand, give a high-pitched half-laugh while their eyes dart from the award to the lectern to the assembled hundreds, and then step up to the microphone.
It’s nice to see an underdog succeed but that’s not what makes unexpected winners great. Rather, it is that they give you the feeling that they truly deserved the award.
Watching the AHRI Awards late last year, I noticed at least five winners who were stunned. They were mostly from smaller organisations that had co-finalists from much larger, more well-known companies. Some were deeply moved by their victory and choked up on stage.
It made me wonder how you get your awards system to a fair place where anyone can win. Which was a nice question to add to the ones I had prepared before I arrived: How do winners view their award once they get it and what is the value of awarding people for their work?
(AHRI is assessing interest in new award categories – if you want to have your say, complete this two minute survey.)
AHRI’s answer to that last question is that it enables the institute to encourage the values and skills it believes in. The AHRI Awards recognise quality HR in Australia. Split into individual and organisational awards, the latter focuses on projects rather than overall work.
For example, the Graeme Innes Disability Employment Award went to the federal government’s Department of Finance for a few different initiatives, but highlighted its entry-level recruitment program as a standout. By lionising the Department, AHRI hopes other organisations will emulate its example.
Of course, there is a risk inherent in any award that relies on self-nomination. If the judges aren’t careful, they can end up assessing winners on their talent for self-promotion rather than the worthiness of their projects.
Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, a partner at the consulting firm RBL Group and author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, is sometimes called the ‘father of modern HR’. He also has a longstanding relationship with AHRI. This year he will be a keynote speaker at its National Convention and Exhibition, and he has been an AHRI Awards patron for many years. So HRM talked to him about the awards, beginning with the problem of separating a talent for self-promotion from merit.
“I tend to denigrate self-promotion,” he says. “As an author, I have learned that most of the ‘best sellers’ in airport bookstores are actually placed there by the authors and/or their publicist. I tried this once on one of my books and engaged a book promoter who basically encouraged me (and my co-authors) to buy 30,000 of our books. The theory is that if you make the investment by buying the books, you recover this cost because of subsequent speeches and consulting. So we did it. Blah. It felt kind of slimy. On the other hand, if you do no promotion, it can mean no-one even realises you did a book. Tricky paradox.”
This holds true for the AHRI Awards too. You’re not going to get an award if you don’t compellingly convey your achievements to others. At the same time, no-one wants to reward people for their capacity to rhapsodise on their virtues.
So how is this paradox resolved? AHRI employees in charge of the awards were willing to explain how they go about it.
Unlike many other awards programs, every AHRI applicant, regardless of whether they become a finalist, is given feedback on their submission. They each recieve the wisdom of a spectrum of industry experts who have looked at their business initiative. These experts can point out what they believe was done well and what could have been done better.
Rod Francisco FCPHR, executive director people, Mackay Hospital and Health Service, remembers the feedback from his 2018 submission well. It helped inform his practice and played a part in securing him the Dave Ulrich HR Leader Award this year.
“The feedback for me was, ‘We understand you’re doing good work, and yes you’re having an impact, but do you understand and know what that impact looks like?’”
This encouraged Francisco to go back and bolster quantitative measurable outcomes with qualitative outcomes with regard to the impact of leaders. “While you can measure leadership qualities with some very specific quantitative tools, we also got a great response from people saying things like, ‘This is a nicer place to work’ and ‘My leader consults with me more’.”
The submissions sent in after filing the initial application and fee are mostly comprised of two parts. The first is a series of statements where the applicant describes why they are nominating. For an organisational award, that would include statements about the challenges being faced, the initiative introduced to address the challenges, and the outcomes.
The next major part is the submission of reliable referees and documented evidence.
This evidence can include small snippets of graphs or charts, website links, photos – whatever the applicant believes will add veracity to the claims made in their statements. Measurable outcomes are particularly valued – initiatives that make a real impact on a substantive metric, whether it be, say, employee engagement or increased diversity.
The next part of the process is the judgment of submissions. Judges are selected from a range of industries and locations, the feeling being that diversity at this stage of the process will result in fairer outcomes.
A major hurdle the judges have to overcome is fairly evaluating organisations with vastly different resources. This was a question for Jason Chin FCPHR, HR and operations manager at the Menzies School of Health Research, and AHRI Northern Territory state president, who was a first-time judge at the 2019 AHRI Awards. He wondered, “How do you compare big multinationals with little not-for-profits in outback Australia?”
The answer from more experienced judges was to ask, “What is the capacity for each organisation to deliver, and what did they actually deliver?”
“It was really difficult because some of the bigger companies did fantastic work, but their budget allowed them to,” says Chin. “As panelists, we said about some multinationals, ‘Well, with the available resources, they could have done a lot more.’ Whereas for some smaller not-for-profits we’d say, ‘Wow, they’ve done this on a shoestring. But the impact and what they’ve achieved is phenomenal.’”
Another consideration judges take into account is the applicant’s industry. If a company does something out of the ordinary for its sector, it’s looked upon highly, even if that same initiative is run-of-the-mill in other sectors.
To arrive at finalists, a vote is taken. If there are any wavering votes, judges return to the documents or reach out to the applicant’s references. Once finalists have been decided, these are forwarded on, along with a recommendation for the eventual winner, to either the award patron or to the AHRI National Panel, comprised of mostly senior certified HR Professionals. This is where the final call is made.
“I watched the results happen on Twitter, so I know that some of my panel’s preferred short-listed finalists weren’t the eventual winners,” says Chin. This makes for an interesting wrinkle in the process. You can imagine how it might introduce chaos into what is up to that point a very well-coordinated assessment. That being said, if Ulrich is anything to go by, the patrons are well-positioned to pick the ultimate winner.
Ulrich says: “My bias is less to activity (what one does) and more to outcomes (what happened because of what one does). So I like to see documented improvements in business results. I also like to see fresh and innovative ideas and actions that make me think and act differently. Third, I like sustainability more than events; which is why I lean to organisation impact more than individual. Most of the nominees have these characteristics.”
It does seem to be the case that all finalists are worthy of getting the award. But the proof that this isn’t just pablum (“everyone’s a winner”) is that AHRI won’t give out an award at all if there are no candidates that met the criteria sufficiently, and it will only elect as many finalists as meet the expectations of judges. For example, in 2019 only comany, Suncorp Group, qualified as a finalist for the Susan Ryan Age Diversity Award.
The idea of winning brings us back full-circle to the question of the purpose of rewards for work operations. Chin makes a persuasive argument that awards, particularly the AHRI Awards, have real value.
“From a Northern Territory perspective, an organisation up here won an award last year, and around town everyone knows about that.
It adds kudos and reputational advantages.
“People say things like, ‘That mob over there, they’ve got the CEO Diversity Champion,’ ‘They did that fantastic program, or they’ve got some up-and-coming HR stars in their team’ – so I think it sets you apart as an employer. But on a personal level, it’s the prize for a lot of hard work. Because they aren’t just given away.”
Francisco agrees. “It’s a really fantastic feeling. Yes it’s nice on the CV, yes it’s nice to see it on the shelf, but for me it’s more about the work we did and the strategies we implemented. And when people talk about our work and ask if it was effective, I can say, ‘Yes it was, and its impact was recognised from an industry perspective with this award.’”
But what about all the hard work being done by people who don’t put themselves up for any kind of award? Ulrich has a message for them.
“I hope that all AHRI members feel as if they are recipients of ‘awards’ by being in an incredible, impactful profession, by learning daily how to deliver more value, by working with remarkable colleagues, and by having meaningful work.”
AHRI is assessing interest in new award categories – if you want to have your say, complete this two minute survey.