The day has come. Finally, after a lengthy tour through both the entertainment world and some of the more obscure connections my HR-addled brain insists on making, we are at the last installment of this mini-series (earlier episodes available here). 

Before we proceed, I would like, on this occasion, to make a couple of extremely important disclaimers. Firstly, at no time do I intend to intentionally, or otherwise, endorse or glorify the use of illegal drugs nor their production or distribution (or any other criminal activity for that matter). Secondly, I would like to be extremely clear that the dispatching of ‘problem’ employees assassin style is not an adequate substitute for performance management. Ever.

A quick synopsis for those readers not already familiar with the story. Narcos follows the rise, fall, trials and tribulations of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Season one chronicles the main events of Escobar’s life and business ventures from humble beginnings as a black-market entrepreneur to one of the world’s most wanted and heavy-weight cartel lords. Of course, the path of entrepreneurship never does run smooth and Escobar and his associates both commit and encounter extremely gruesome acts of violence in the name of protecting and growing their business.

The story struck a chord with me for a few reasons. For one, as a business owner and entrepreneur myself, I could understand his drive to upscale and expand operations as quickly and efficiently as possible. Further, as an erstwhile HR leader, I watched, transfixed as he struggled with some fairly obvious people issues as his organisation grew in size and complexity. In fact I may have, at one point, turned to the ever-patient and benevolently indulgent Mr. Jenny and claimed that I could have saved the cartel a lot of hassle had they had the foresight to employ me as HR lead (he claims I said this, I maintain he added this for dramatic effect). Either way, I stand by the sentiment that having HR as a strategic partner in any organisation will help to plan for and mitigate risks associated with one’s most valuable and simultaneously unpredictable asset – the people. On breaking down the employee journey through the cartel and identifying missed opportunities for intervention I found even the skeptical afore-mentioned Mr. Jenny nodding sagely along with me (I maintain that thishappened, he claims I have added it for dramatic license).

Let me elaborate. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on the first stages in the employee journey and attempt to substantiate my somewhat bold assertion that strategic HR saves lives.

Attract and recruit the right people into the right roles in the right way

The subject of our story, Mr. Escobar and his Medellin cartel, were repeatedly double-crossed, ratted out and otherwise grossly inconvenienced (if you can call the premature deaths of your associates and family and a long-term incarceration an inconvenience) by their employees. Now, while being sold out to a rival cartel or being grassed up to the American DEA might not be your average day-to-day concern, there are never the less a few important lessons to be learned here. Attracting and inviting the right people into your organisation is absolutely key to security and continued growth of the business. “We check references and do due diligence!” I hear you cry, but I’m fairly sure Pablo thought he knew his brother pretty well before Roberto cut a deal with the authorities ultimately betraying everyone in the organisation. Anyway, what is more important here comes one step before recruitment. Employee value proposition (EVP).

Defining and articulating the true and authentic culture, purpose and way things are done in the organisation can prevent a lot of future problems. The way an organisation is positioned or marketed to potential employees sets out the basis for a ‘psychological contract’ which is a lot more powerful than its intangible nature may suggest. From that first point of contact, be it a recruitment advert or some kind of endorsement as an employer, an organisation is laying out a set of expectations a potential employee could reasonably have about what life might be like on the inside. 

Let’s take Google as an example. Very famously they have set out their employer-of-choice stall as a fun, colourful, vibrant and innovative place to work with slides instead of stairs and a ball pit for a bathroom (or something like that – I may not have been paying full attention). All things which would never be written down in an employment contract but which, from their positioning, one could reasonably expect to be true. The issues begin when how an organisation presents its self as an employer turns out not to be entirely authentic. Imagine turning up for your fist day at Google to be presented with a beige and grey uniform and told to sit in a soulless cubicle from 9-5. You’d be disappointed to say the very least. In fact, you might feel lied to or that you’d been sold a false dream. But none of these things are contractual. You don’t have any legal basis on which to ask them to change or rescind your written contract, even though your psychological contract has been well and truly violated. So what do you do? Well if you’re like an alleged 87% of the current average workforce you just stop performing your job or worst-case scenario you’re so put out that you start to actively sabotage. Like turning your employer over to the DEA, or having a wee in the ball pit.

Another common pitfall of the inauthentic or incomplete employee proposition; if you attract people to your company on the promise of one core benefit, you will get applications from people who are only interested in said benefit. Doesn’t sound so bad? Think on. What this really means is that as soon as another organisation comes along who provides this benefit better, more or with additional upsides like safety, longevity and opportunity, your hard-fought talent will be out of the door faster than you can say ‘tax free income’.

This difficulty in retaining a committed workforce comes with a myriad of knock-on issues. The expense and inconvenience of being in constant recruitment mode as you replace the drop-off is just the start. The work itself inside the organisation will be disrupted without continuity of accountability. Then, by extension, your organisations reputation becomes distorted. No matter how loud or how frequently you repeat your intended value proposition, the perception in the market becomes that your organisation is not for people who are looking for a long-term career. All of this will likely accelerate into a vicious cycle of attracting those looking for a training ground or career stepping stone and are already thinking about what they can take from your organisation to the next role.

The learning here is clear. An inauthentic EVP will bring the wrong kind of people for your organisation knocking on your door. Also, ultimately the truth will out. You can say, write and publish whatever you like about your EVP but the truth about how it is to work in your organisation will be told by the people. If the two stories don’t match up, that inauthenticity will only be to your further detriment.

So, all of this being said, what is the best way to define and articulate an authentic employee proposition? Ask your employees. Yes, it’s really that simple. Nobody knows more about what it feels like to be inside your organisation than the people.

Conveniently, our newly developed talent system Limitless Brainsgives you a simple and highly effective way of doing this and getting an accurate measure and definition of your current culture.

If you really don’t like what they say… well that is definitely a subject for another day. Culture change is notoriously difficult to effect, although not impossible. In the meantime, stay authentic. Being upfront about even the more challenging aspects of your culture can be extremely beneficial to the commitment and retention of employees and gives people a genuine opportunity to see if their values align with yours – and I think we can all agree, a values-based cartel is a happy cartel.