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Mon, Jan 24, 2011

Talent Strategies

Read This: Turning the Page on Employee Learning and Development

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In a previous blog post titled hire for attitude, train for everything else, I wrote about the importance of why employees should be required to read books. At the time, it was just an idea spawned from observing another company and how they operate. However, I am now giving this kind of idea serious consideration in my own organization. See, this year we are going to focus on emphasizing our corporate culture as a recruiting tool, and this is just one more thing (strategy) to set us apart from the average employer.

Why I Believe in Reading (And Why HR Should, Too)

Before I try to sell this idea, I want to explain why reading matters to me. According to some (terrifying) statistics, in 2002, nearly 90 million adults in the US did not read a single book. That might not have an impact on you; but it should. I’ll put it another way.

Those are our employees. Those are our managers. Those are the unemployed who so desperately want to find jobs. Reading has taught me so much that I never would have learned in my job experience or formal education. Picking up a book and gleaning a new idea from its pages is something akin to magic. You are literally absorbing someone else’s ideas into your own brain.

Compared to other learning activities, it’s extremely inexpensive. If you purchase a book for $20, and you get one really good idea you can use to enrich your career, then you got a really great deal. While seminars and training programs can cost hundreds of dollars, reading has a relatively high ROI.

By now you should understand how passionate I am about reading and how it can benefit you. Now let’s jump into how you can develop a program that encourages employees to read, learn, and grow.

The Basic Idea

New employees receive a few books when they are hired as a gift from their new employer. They have 90 days to read them and sign off acknowledging that they have completed the task. This isn’t just another “sign it and get it back to me” form. It has real significance in how the employee feels about the organization and how he or she fits in from the very beginning.

Tie It To A Core Value

If you have read anything I’ve written before, you know how much I believe in the power of solid core values that a workforce can be committed to. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Zappos at this point. Zappos requires new employees to read specific books, and they tie the reading requirements to one of their core company values: Pursue Growth and Learning.

Holding people accountable for the reading gives Zappos a platform to encourage further study. Getting people involved in their own long term development is a great way to increase retention and job satisfaction. When people feel like they are in control, they are generally happier.

In my own organization, we have “inspire innovative solutions to solve customer needs” as a core value. That’s pretty specific. How innovative would you expect people to be if their knowledge consumption includes the DJ on the morning commute and three hours of sitcoms every night?

Now imagine you’ve given them some tools to help further generate ideas and encourage creativity. I’m feeling more confident in our ability to innovate with the latter!

Carrying it further

If you get into the midst of a program like this and find that it’s working well for you, there are ways to make it even more engaging. Some organizations have libraries where employees can borrow books to continue building their professional development. Companies can even hold workshops and lunch and learn sessions to explore the main themes from the books.

Infinite Options

There are so many great books out there to fit the program to your organization that I hesitate to recommend specifics. From customer service and technology, to innovation and leadership, there are hundreds of excellent books to target your needs and have the most impact on your company. It defeats the purpose if you require someone to read a book that isn’t remotely connected to your organization or industry.

Better Than Book Clubs!

I can hear it now. But wait, we have a book club in our company. Isn’t that the same thing?

Face it, book clubs might sound neat, but it’s really just made up of people who would be reading whether there’s a club or not (hail, fellow geeks!). Or it’s full of people who feel like they need to do it because their buddy is in the group as well and they’d like yet another opportunity to socialize. And the nonparticipants? They just look at the book club as a silly fad that will die off eventually. Getting everyone engaged and involved by setting some required reading is a better alternative and less likely to seem like an exclusive clique.

Top 3 Benefits of Developing an Employee Reading Program

  • Common ground for all: Employees know after they read The Pursuit of Something Better what your feelings are on the topics of customer service, ethics, and leadership. There is no ambiguity or “here’s how we did it at my last job” involved when you get everyone on the same page from the very beginning.
  • Kinship: It seems funny, but there is a certain connected feeling that exists if you know someone has read the same book as you. At seemingly random times you might strike up a conversation about that chicken-catching idea from Be Bodacious: Put Life in Your Leadership. Helping your people to feel like a part of the team early on is a must if you want great collaboration.
  • Cost comparison: If you were going to bring in a high-dollar speaker to talk to your employees, some people would undoubtedly miss out on attending. And new employees would not be a part of that experience. Other team-building programs can cost a lot of money with little results. However, purchasing a few books per employee is relatively cheap in the larger scheme of things, and the potential benefits more than outweigh the associated costs.

What if they hate reading?

Yes, this is the default response I always hear. But my employees can’t/won’t/don’t read now. What do I do?

Let’s look at reading as a job requirement. Do your employees hate staying current on industry trends and competitive news? Is “I don’t like reading” an acceptable excuse when it comes to reading company reports? This excuse will only be a barrier if you allow it to be.

There are so many great book options that are short enough to hold some great ideas for any attention span.  One of the things I often tell people is everyone can love to read if given enough time and encouragement, and if presented with interesting material.

So, what do you think? Is this something that you might explore for your own organization? Why or why not?

About the Author

Ben Eubanks is a HR professional and blogger from Huntsville, AL. His day job is an HR Specialist role with Pinnacle Solutions, a startup defense contractor with a focus on aviation training simulators. In his spare time, he blogs about human resources and leadership, volunteers with his local HR association as the Social Media Director, and plays with his baby twin girls.

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  • http://www.marenated.com Maren Hogan

    I love love LOVE this idea! As a fellow geek who would be reading anyway, some of the richest conversations I’ve had with colleagues are around a shared idea that we both got from a book. While blog posts and microblogging are (sort of) replacing this enthusiasm around a concept, they often can’t “dive deep” enough to change the culture the way a book or a series of books can.

    Someone I deeply respect once told me that the higher I climbed in a leadership position, the more time I would need to take to think and process new ideas. So I respectfully request that reading time be followed with thinking time. And cookies.

    Great post Ben, you really wrapped up a lot of objections at the end too!

  • Matt Charney

    Can anyone recommend some specific books that might appear on an HR required reading list? I’d go with Good to Great, the Disney Way and Josh Bernoff’s Empower.

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  • http://upstarthr.com Ben Eubanks

    Thanks for the kind words, Maren! I’m a reading fiend (obviously), so I would love it. The tough part is selling it to people who hate reading. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!