Another #SHRM15 Post No One Really Needs.

I was recently called out on one of those “top secret” Facebook groups everybody’s in, the kind populated with the same kind of people who think that promoting “Exclusive VIP Access” to anyone who clicks a link, about why, exactly, SHRM keeps asking me back year after year. Her insinuation was that all I do is troll on SHRM hard, which, these days, is kind of true. This saddens me, but also means I feel obliged to write, in advance, my complicated and complex history with this organization.

Granted, I don’t have the decades of tote bag, card carrying membership that most people who care about stuff like strategic credit hours generally carry around as excess baggage when they show up to these shows. I am not claiming tenure in any way, but I will say that I’ve had, for whatever odd reason, the chance to be the odd man looking in on this organization, and I’ve got to say, I want to make it very clear that I support SHRM and its mission.

That’s not a disclaimer; their purported purpose is advancing the HR profession, and since have historically been the professional association of record for the industry in which I’m somehow existentially intertwined, and I have every self-interest in seeing SHRM succeed. After all, what’s good for the industry I cover is good for me, particularly as someone who needs change in order to justify having a job. Stasis makes for crappy content, after all.

I do not believe that SHRM is, at the moment, moving in a direction that benefits the interests of the average HR practitioner. Rather, it is acting in the best interests of its own budget, agenda and internal strife that have seen the departures or infighting among the dozens of SHRM employees I’ve interacted with over the years across departments and functions. As an organization, if its mission is advancing HR as an industry, there’s a pretty big body of evidence I’ve seen in the relatively short time I’ve been involved with this organization that suggests that this mission is headed towards a massive failure.

SHRM has a pretty sweet deal worked out. If this company were not ostensibly a non-profit (there’s an important distinction between being an NPO and being able to generate revenue, allocating it accordingly), it would probably fail the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Taft Hartley or every other piece of legislation that’s checked against monopoly of an entire industry by preempting vertical integration. SHRM members know these precedents – hell, talking about stuff like employment law is half the content on the #SHRM15 dance card.

Snooze alert, but like Hostess products, SHRM attendees literally can not get enough of these really mundane topics. Probably because the only real talent challenge keeping most of these HR Ladies up at night is making sure their asses don’t get sued and they prevent liability and thus, preserve their own jobs. Which are about as antiquated as the average Tuesday night concert.

Whoa, She’s A Maneater.

tumblr_ngdz6nYPeL1ql8oxno1_1280The first year I went, I didn’t go to Hall & Oates because as, like, literally the only millennial there at the time (I hate that word, but it’s demographically accurate), I had no idea who the hell they were. But the following the hashtag from my hotel room sure was preferable to putting up with so many sequins and cankles. The fact that this year’s spotlight is going to shine on Jennifer Hudson, last seen in that Eddie Murphy movie from back in the day and some random weight loss ad, is pretty much the most progress I can point to in terms of programming.

The agenda of SHRM 15 solidifies my frustration – and sums up the problem – with how irrelevant and out of touch with the rest of the world the organization responsible for advancing the HR profession has truly become. Seriously, I’m going to SHRM out of the hope that maybe I’ll see some element of change, but the fact is, I think despite the qualms of many members, associating my own brand(s) with SHRM is just as much of a liability for me as it is for them.

I actually tried to weasel my way out of going this year. I know, to every HR Lady who got put down a couple grand on corporate plastic for the privilege of sitting through sessions with titles like, “Auditing HR Policies and Minimizing Risk Within Your Organization,” (which is really every session, only at least this can’t miss concurrent owns it). This may seem a bit dry to anyone with a pulse or an active social life (outside of cat photos on Facebook, I mean), but to your Tory Burch toting generalist, this session is sexy enough as is where you don’t even have to use that 1.25 hours of SHRM PDCs associated with what’s sure to be like a Ted talk, but the exact opposite.

Now, about that PDC – professional development corporation, for those of you not tuned into the certification drama that’s like watching two dinosaurs fighting each other as the tarpit slowly rises – is highly suspect. See, SHRM has the opportunity, after consciously uncoupling with independent body HRCI and taking the Ma Bell approach to the industry, to actually, you know, look out for the members out there who frantically scribble notes on stuff like, “What is social media?” in their ubiquitous notebooks. But nope. That’s bad business, and SHRM is run like a corporation. With great power comes great responsibility, and frankly, SHRM is acting primarily in its own self-interests. These self-interests, subsequently, encapsulate everything that’s wrong with the HR profession.

Because SHRM members, like sheep, can be herded anywhere, and SHRM seems to want to be setting their core constituency out to pasture. I’m headed to Vegas out of obligation, mostly because I was accepted for a blog squad for which I didn’t apply, and coerced by the kindness of SHRM and their help in promoting me, my voice and my self interests as a content creator to their membership.

I couldn’t turn them down, because when I found out about the dubious honor of being designated an official blogger without the expression of even a modicum of interest means that they are at least open to what I’m all about, because I have a pretty lengthy track record of bashing this organization as of late. What can I say? I’m a sucker for SHRM.

“Get On the Clue Bus.”

d888c21580c3f78b0f3244bca6913492.350x270x1Here’s where I’m coming from: I know I’m not in core HR. I do not purport to have any interest whatsoever in 90% of the conference programming, and the fact the remaining 10% of the content that’s even close to being relevant (like, say, Moving Beyond Surveys To Culture Success or 10 Tickets For HR Professionals: Get On The Technology Clue Bus) end up being thinly veiled vendor shilling that’s gotten more and more blatant over the past few years.

While I’m pretty sure the former session is on the agenda because the company this “Director of Training” is shilling for happen to be spending big bucks for a completely overblown booth in the expo hall, SHRM in some cases has even tried to stop hiding the fact that this conference has become every bit as much of an infomercial as Time Life paid programming or an HR Technology user conference:


One can assume the reason that ADP chose not to pursue positioning this as “thought leadership” is that they were willing to spend beaucoup bucks to get their little logo (and captive audience) into the program. This makes sense for them in terms of reaching their current and existing customer base, as it does for the other boring ass vendors, like Ceridian or whatever the hell Jiff is, who provide core HR back office services. The really boring stuff that, as ADP will likely suggest, HR people do that might as well be outsourced or offshored, so that companies can, again, minimize organizational risk. Which, in the case of talent acquisition, is the largest liability at most HR organizations.

This is one of my biggest issues – how can a professional organization not only get away with providing boring content, but act in the objective best interests of its membership when it’s literally endorsing vendors by allowing them to buy spots on an agenda for a conference that should be actually working to solve the problems that so many of the traditional legacy players and obsolete technologies shelling out for these spots caused in the first place?

Hammering Hank And His Fabulous Yes Men.

warriors-01The answer starts at the top. When I went to my first SHRM in 2010 – a lifetime ago – Hank Jackson was the CFO, although after briefly meeting his predecessor who left a few months after starting, I think there was probably some sort of power play coup involved, given the fact that he was immediately made “interim” CEO while a sham “national search” for a replacement was conducted to make it look like it wasn’t rigged when the Board of Directors unanimously ended up voting him into the permanent job.

That SHRM, I went to dinner with then CEO Lon O’Neill with a small group, and he seemed genuinely energetic and full of ideas that seemed pretty fresh and designed to stir things up. He seemed legitimately interested in our feedback, and promised action while agreeing that there were some fundamental things that needed fixing. He told us he wanted to keep in touch, which he did, until not too long after #SHRM10, he was gone. The era of the 1.4 million dollar man had begun.

Hank Jackson, the CEO of SHRM who has the Board of Directors under his thumb, since the appointees are all hand chosen through an election that defaults to vote for the party line when members decline to actually vote for an election that few, if any, care enough about to have any vested interest in. The average member could care less as long as they keep getting certified and able to talk about something other than their cats or divorce on Facebook.

Hank Jackson, a businessman who’s making more playing this game than if he’d have stuck in the NBA, sees these members as low hanging fruit, financially speaking. That’s why, under his watch, SHRM has turned into a generic vendor cash grab. The results are good for the bottom line, bad for the profession, but as long as the booze keeps flowing, there’s no one that really wants to know anything worth knowing. Good sheep.

In opening up the very mission of the organization to the vendors lining up to line SHRM’s tax deductible pockets and the same HR ladies who auto renew year after year without critically thinking if they were getting any real ROI out of that SPHR certification that’s suddenly worthless since there was money to be made somewhere else, and if they didn’t like it, then they didn’t have to get the new SHRM specific certification that’s as much of a joke as recruiters getting certified on LinkedIn.

You’d think anyone who bought into the fact that experience and competency were correlated in HR would automatically fail a competency based assessment, but you’d be wrong. Not that it’s easy to pass these subjective, superficial barriers to entry – after all, you’ve got to pay to sit for the exam, so there’s money to be made in maintaining a failure rate that also imbues this blatant P&L play with some sort of artificial meaning.

What Happens in Vegas No One Else Really Cares About.

tumblr_lztq6cC8Ok1qfrx9so1_500Call it the credentialing IKEA effect – just because something takes a little work doesn’t mean any idiot can’t do the same thing if they cared to put themselves through the pain of using that damn Allen wrench and following the terrible instructions that are nothing more than an ambiguous picture that never seems to fit in with the other steps entailed, much like the content and conversation that passes for shop talk in a place where the product is more or less machine fabricated and self-sustaining.

But that won’t stop the ladies of SHRM from gathering, yet again, en masse (pun intended) and ready to party in Vegas, which, for those of us who don’t give two shits about benefits administration means having to bite our tongues, cover our eyes, and drink to dull the pain of seeing so much junk, junk, junk inside that trunk, getting crunk on drinks provided by some wellness vendor.

Hey, if you have any appetite for irony, all I can say is, you better line up for those boxed lunches early.

They’ll get the exact same meaningless drivel as they have for 5 years, pick up the same swag from the same players with a pricing model that keeps out emerging and innovative startups who are unwilling or unable (if they’re trying to target people who actually can make purchasing decisions for their niche products) to pay the fees that are chump change for the Oracles and IBMs of the world.

And then are fed the same drivel that everyone of us on social is subjected to, but without the skepticism or transparency that a public conversation kind of enforces. Nope, it’s blood in the shark tank, and if you’re selling some crappy on premise ERP like, say, ADP (since they came up) coupled with some secondary services play, you want to keep both the little guy out and entrenched mindsets locked in.

Hey, when you only go to one event a year, you don’t really have a basis of comparison, and when you can add a selfie with an Elvis look alike to your Instagram account followed by approximately 10 people, what the hey? A few sponsored drinks into a hard close with that nice young guy who knows so much about the computers and things, even buying something like a drug screening provider makes sense.

Even if you also have that session from that 60 year old leadership consultant shilling a cheesy self-help book circled for later so you can figure out why you just can’t get any of those creative Gen Y types interested in working for your company. It’s probably because you’re not on Twitter, where you can follow the same bad advice that got you to allow your badge to be signed from the vendor’s crappy content marketing handle! Best practices in action!


harold-and-maudeLook, I’m optimistic that SHRM is going to change. But I’ve given countless weeks of my life and spent some thousands of dollars getting to and attending events in support of SHRM and their efforts. I’ve spent time in venues ranging from the decidedly unsexy, like the Wichita Sheraton, to the truly awful, like the HR Florida that was like a much bitchier version of the Golden Girls, only everyone was Dorothy dressed like a Jimmy Buffet backup dancer.

I have never charged a dime, and I’m cool with that, because SHRM has not only given me the chance to continue to use my own voice and let me come to events, but defends me with an official wag of the finger with blog titles like: “#SHRM15 Bloggers: They’re Unmanagable, But That’s Exactly Why They Rock!

Good looking out, by the way. I would never accuse SHRM of not treating me better than the average member, and I love them all the more for that fact. Even though obviously, I’m still ostensibly objective.

The fact that, unlike LinkedIn, this organization at least is transparent enough to let dissenting voices in instead of ignoring or shutting them out is encouraging. But while I have nothing personal against SHRM, the fact is, until they actually represent the best interests of the profession that I have a vested interest in seeing have a viable future are protected, I’m going to continue to keep saying what I have to say about SHRM, because honestly, if they didn’t try to play nice with those crazy bloggers, would be completely irrelevant to the people who are so clueless they think people like me actually know what they’re talking about.

In other words, the exact same member base that, 7 figures of coup d’etats and hoop shots aside, they’re relying on to keep their kids in private school and their membership comfortably numb and blissfully unaware that they’re really just dollar signs – and easy marks for anyone with an even rudimentary understanding of finance.

Unfortunately, I do, which is why I’m expecting when I check out of my room reserved via a booking service that SHRM gets a cut off of every reservation and when the postcards clogging my mailbox disappear for another year along with all the other snail mail that’s made HR about as expendable as the USPS, I’m not expecting to get much of an ROI. But thankfully, I just might get a word in edgewise.

13 Comments on “Another #SHRM15 Post No One Really Needs.”

  1. Matt, an articulate and well-written (no surprise) rant and you raise a number of fair points. I must defend Lisa Block and her team, though. I’ve presented at SHRM conferences since 1998, and persevered through their presenter selection process every year. Over time, I’ve had many proposals shot down, and several accepted. I’ve also had numerous conversations with the Conf Ed team, and can assure you that SHRM does NOT sell speaking slots. The purchase of booths and sponsorships is fully elsewhere. The Conference Ed team (Letty, Michelle and others) go through hundreds of submissions to choose content… Is all of it enthralling? It’s tough to make statutory compliance seem like a Clancy novel, but the content is what conference participants ask for in feedback instruments. Great article though… Thought provoking.

    • Lance, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate that insight, but the fact is that whether or not an individual proposal is accepted, or whether or not it’s a vendor doing thinly veiled product marketing, that we’re still talking about the same shit as 2010 means that the Conference Ed team is failing to proactively seek out new voices and ideas that reflect the realities outside of HR instead of adding to the echo chamber. Sure, they get hundreds of these in a year, but you can’t tell me that having a PR agency package it all up with a bow (present company excluded) isn’t buying a slot – just like most are talking through decks they had no hand in designing or doing anything but providing a few bullet points over to someone in marketing. I think feedback from participants is the same as benchmark research – if you look at what works instead of what’s possible, you never get anywhere at all. That said, it explicitly says on the agenda that there are “sponsored sessions” with vendor logos attached, so there is no denying that (even if there’s disclosure) these aren’t up for sale at the same markup as the $695 licensing fee to access test prep materials for the certification they invented as a revenue stream. You don’t have to Hunt for Red October to see under the surface in this case 😉

      • Fair points… And yes, some folks never see their slides til they’re on stage. I hate that, too. Especially the Slide Readers. I prob need to understand sponsored sessions better. I did a talk at one conference (not SHRM) where my talk was “sponsored” by a direct competitor to my then-employee… That was an awkward moment for me and the person doing the intro!!! Matt, looking forward to seeing you this evening!

  2. A few random thoughts.

    I remodeled and painted a house this year. Due to all of the painting and caulking, I’m running low on HR swag shirts. Looking forward to restocking this week.

    As a member of generation X, my first two cassette tapes were by Bryan Adams and Hall and Oates.

    Have you searched the program for sourcing? It seems the agenda doesn’t dig into subspecialties of subspecialties of HR.

  3. Interesting article Matt.

    We have a similar organisation here in Australia focused on recruitment. If we swapped out SHRM15 and RCSA your blog is pretty much spot on.
    I’m not a member and have no intention of becoming one. There is no ROI in joining for me.
    I was having a discussion with a mutual associate a few nights ago about the need to have these hard hitting conversations across our industry. They are healthy discussions to have. But then you need action. What’s I find interesting is that most businesses talk about business improvement, change management and innovation however I notice that HR (for the most part) are one of the slowest adopters and worst offenders in change management.
    Thanks for providing insight.

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  5. Bravo. It was predictable how you would talk about SHRM and it’s annual party, but the only thing I disagree with is the title… this is definitely something that should be read and talked about.

    I have been losing interest in being a SHRM member for years (heresy!) but followed the crowd since it is the only Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to HR Peeps. Back in the day, I followed the crowd to certification as SPHR and GPHR by HRCI, but suddenly that was not good enough for SHRM. Was their new certification system superior or a grab for money? Who knows? It does point out that I don’t see any organization offering me such credentials that would give me any additional clout, so I’ve chosen to remain uncertified by either. When I wake up in the morning I think like a recruiter anyway.

    It’s hard to know when my annual dues will be required again because I keep getting annoying notices that I should join at a discounted rate. They want me but don’t know they’ve got me. I’ve unhooked the automatic renewal so that I will be able to make a conscious decision to stay or quit when the time comes.

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