People First HR Services

Is a lack of career development at the root of GM’s recall nightmare?

Karen Palmer

This week, General Motors finds itself in the unenviable position of needing to explain itself to the US Congress.  Problems with an ignition switch have led to a massive 4.8 million vehicles being recalled in the last month.  More alarmingly, this faulty part has been linked to 13 motor vehicle crash deaths.  The reason Congress has questions is because the issue first cropped up in 2001, but senior management seems to have been kept in the dark until January 31 of this year.  It’s hard to understand that it would take more than 12 years for someone to realize there was a problem.

Congress is looking for answers, but will they ask the right questions?  With the number of people who would have crossed some aspect of the issue over twelve years, can any one person or small group really be to blame?  You can already tell by the tone of the pundits that this questioning is likely to be seeking someone upon whom to lay the blame.  In our 24 hour news cycle, congress wants to stand up, point to who’s at fault and hand out punishment, with the hope of furthering themselves with voters. But would their time be better spent examining the core people systems of the organization?  Are these systems at the root of the problem?

Could something as simple as a lack of career development lead to an environment where this kind of issue could go unexplored for 12 years?  I suggest it may be a greater contributor than you would think.

unhappybusinessA lack of career development opportunities can lead to a lack of productivity, poor team work, and low morale and employee absences.  In HR speak we call this low employee engagement.  In an employee group with low engagement, generally people are showing up to do their job and not much more.  They aren’t connected to the bigger picture.  They may be extremely caring individuals, but when disengaged, they may not care much about their job or the company beyond the paycheque it provides.

This ‘another-day another-dollar’ attitude has been well studied and is often attributed to a perceived lack of opportunity in an organization.  The word perceived is really important here.  Leadership may believe opportunities abound, but if the employees don’t see it that way, all the opportunities in the world won’t matter.

How do we know GM has a career development problem?  Websites like give us a peek behind the curtain into employee views.  With only 63% of employees willing to recommend their company to a friend, GM is middle of the pack at best.  Focusing specifically on career opportunities, GM scores a not very impressive middle of the road 3 out of 5.  Employee review highlights include comments like: “Hard to move around in the company,” and “No excitement, ideas tossed out every day, old boys club.”  Some drive straight to the point “company culture needs a lot of work.”

Contrast this with the companies on Glassdoor’s 2014 Employees’ Choice Awards, the 50 Best Places to Work.  A quick look through the top of the pile shows recommendation rates all above 90% and consistently high scores when it comes to career opportunities.  Comments in this group are unsurprisingly much more flattering: “Great mentorship and focus on development. Everyone you work with genuinely wants you to do well,” and “I’m making a difference with professionals across the globe.”

So how does this lack of career development lead to the non-responsiveness at GM?  I would surmise that if we dug around a while in GM’s dirty laundry, we would find a surprisingly large group of people who all knew a small piece of the puzzle.  You can certainly see evidence of this in the timeline that is starting to emerge.  I certainly don’t want to imply that there was any malicious intent, but without incentive to think about how that piece of knowledge fits into the bigger picture, connections weren’t made.  No one raised a flag or what flags were raised were shuffled around an uninspired workforce until they were forgotten.

For GM, this lack of career development has had massive and dire implications.  It is easy to lay the blame at senior management’s feet.  At the end of the day, the proverbial “buck stops there”.  Is this group to blame for this recall mess or for promoting an organizational culture and development strategy that let this lack of responsiveness fester?

For most of us, the consequences aren’t nearly so grim, but there are still consequences.  How is a lack of career development impacting your organization?