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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Great HR vs. Bad HR

In todays' competitive, always changing business climate no matter how big, how small, how new or how legendary a company is, without an effective Human Resources function they will never reach their full potential. And with an ineffective or worse, poorly functioning department, companies may not just fail to reach their potential, they may actually fail…especially if they are a startup or in an industry with strong competitors. I have worked in both types of HR environments over my twenty-five plus years and I have seen the positive and negative impact HR can create inside an organization. 

Below I outline a few key characteristics that distinguish a great HR function from a bad one.

They Maintain a Business Focus

At some point HR was only an administrative function and while certain things need to be “Administrated” it should not be the sole purpose of HR…to push paper (or collect and save data). If you are in business your company aims to make a profit…and to do it safely, ethically (we hope), legally (we really hope) and efficiently. Too often HR becomes the group that finds ways to say “no” to everything instead of trying to find ways to say “Yes but we need to take a slightly different path.” At the same time they add in policies, procedures and processes that neither add value nor help the organization and its leaders move forward. Great HR groups avoid the blockades and instead they help to remove them because they know the business depends on being able to function at its peak. But…

They Manage the “Small” Things So They Can Work On The Big Things

I had a boss who said “If you want to place a big bet with the organization you first have to make sure the trains run on time.” His point; if the basics aren’t grooved no one will have time for you on the game changing plans you might be scheming back in your cube. If things like payroll are not handled well or there is a growing list of unfilled jobs and you decide you want to create a new training program to help employees grow their careers don’t be surprised if you meet not just with resistance but some hostility. HR while not solely an administrative function often gets tasked with those responsibilities. If you don’t do those well don’t expect to be given more responsibility. They will just assume you will do more things badly too. The good ones make the trains run on time so they can work on the new exciting things that the organization actually needs but just doesn’t know it yet.

Results vs Action

Too often HR groups tend to equate being busy with doing great work. Many times…they are wrong.

Ask yourself these simple questions:

Is what we are working on going to help the organization become:
·        More effective?
·        More efficient?
·        Safer?
·        More legally compliant?
·        A more enjoyable place to come to work?
·        More Profitable?

If you answer no to any of these you need to think long and hard about what it is that you are doing and why you are doing it. Being busy working on new initiatives is fine as long as they mesh and align with the company’s goals and profit plans. When they start to be “Feel good” projects they simply become a waste of time and energy. They can also eat into profits and profitable companies stay in business…and give raises.

They Accept and Embrace Feedback

I recently was asked by an HR group about an idea they had for training new employees. The idea was to in essence “Grow their own” employees and train them because the skill set needed was very difficult to find outside the company. It made sense to me…if you can’t hire for it, train it in. They were very excited and had big plans to “Brand it, create online and radio advertising and cascade it through the rest of their organization on a national basis.” There was just one problem. Their plan was only for new hires. Existing employees who did not have the skill set were not going to get this new, career enhancing training. When I pointed out that this would most likely create a set of resentful employees who might either quit or worse, stay and be angry they dropped the idea completely. Instead of adapting it for existing employees and new hires they just became upset that not everyone loved their idea. In the end, HR provides feedback all the time…they need to be willing to accept it as well.

They Make and Sustain A Great First Impression

Very often the HR group is the first contact a prospective employee has with an organization and first impressions matter. A cumbersome on-line application process, a difficult to navigate voice system, an aloof or under informed in the business side of your company HR representative may be helping you to send the best and the brightest talent to your competitors. The first impression really does matter and whether people admit it or not those impressions are often best made with people…supplemented by excellent technology. Having great people and crap HR technology is almost as bad as having crap people and great HR technology. After all you end up working with both don’t you? HR can and should help evaluate both.

Once in the door, failing to sustain this impression can send great talent right back out the door. The great HR groups make and keep that great first impression primarily by staying engaged with employees yet under promising and over delivering…on everything. Business knowledge, setting realistic expectations about job requirements, what the employer expects, what the employee should expect, by living the mission statement. Again, HR should be there to support AND partner with the business. This includes hiring and keeping great employees. How do you keep them?

They Are Company Advocates Always But Employee Advocates First

Trust. Too often the HR group becomes the bureaucratic, red tape creating, prosecuting attorneys in companies. The very group that is there to be called upon by employees to “Make life at work a little easier” and to be available to help them in a time of difficulty or crisis does just the opposite. HR groups over time tend to get very black and white and frankly they forget they are dealing with people not commodities. Too often ridged policies or procedures are enforced in the name of “Consistency” when a deviation is both appropriate and necessary. Being consistent simply means handling the situation in the same manner as a previous situation that had the same circumstances. Sometimes two circumstances are very much alike. Sometimes they are not. Great HR groups know the difference.

In addition, employees and managers may disagree, have a personality conflict or simply may not be compatible. It is HR’s job to balance the needs of both the manager and the employee. When HR forgets there are two sides to every story, they lose the balance between company interests and employee interests. I have had my share of “problem” employees and there can be a tendency to discount what they say, especially if they have a proven track record of bad behavior. That said if you fail to follow-up and dig deep into the issue and happen to be wrong…every other employee good and bad will be watching. Deep down employees want to know someone will at least give them a fair shot. Most times the expectation is that will be the HR Department.

If HR loses the trust of the organization they not only become ineffective they become expendable.

They Pay Attention To Trends But They Avoid  Being “Trendy”

Open concept office spaces, flexible work schedules, no limit on paid time off. Read any business publication and you can always find the “Next hot thing” in HR. Here is the problem with many of these “Hot” things. They aren’t necessarily right for every business. Said another way, they sound great but in practice they don’t turn out nearly as well as the article says when implemented beyond the company profiled. HR groups seem to be especially vulnerable to chasing the next hottest trend and I would submit this is because they want to stay relevant within the organization. But this is flawed thinking. I for one am happy to “borrow” a successful concept provided I feel there is a need and that concept fills that need. Too often HR groups run off to implement the next big thing and it either isn’t needed or it is the wrong fix for the problem they are “solving.”

Years after the open concept office we are now seeing studies that show that not all environments or work groups benefit from this arrangement yet companies continue to put them in because “Everybody is doing it.” Netflix made headlines a few years back when their HR Executive Reed Hastings shared an internal document on the company culture. It was both profound and brutally honest…and specific to Netflix. Yet HR group after HR group went about trying to replicate the Netflix culture. Entire consultancies were born from this “Manifesto”. Yet many organizations have found it hard to replicate. The problem? It was specific to Netflix. And it didn’t happen overnight. Did I mention it was specific to Netflix?

There is nothing wrong with sharing, dare I say stealing best practices but make sure that when you do the fit is both right for your organization and is actually going to be a big enough improvement over what currently exists. With change, culture, and with your employees…if you aren’t authentic you will be found out and quickly…and the good you sought to create will not only be undone but be even harder to earn back.

They Actively Listen And Seek To Understand

I recall a time when on a field visit away from my headquarters job the GM for the location expressed his frustration with HR because he had a number of unfilled jobs despite having conducted near constant interviews. When we spoke with the local HR team they were defensive and adamant that the candidates they were sourcing met the hiring criteria.  When we dug in deeper it turns out the hiring criteria was outdated and the GM and HR had not aligned on what it should be. In this case it was a big miss because both parties had failed to connect. Given that HR was doing most of the work I put the responsibility on them.

Instead of going through the motions make sure you take some time up front to make sure everyone is on the same page and if they are not…get there. This is not just to cover your backside (although in some cultures that sadly is needed) but more importantly so you can help the organization be successful and not spin their wheels and yours. The Great HR groups are proactive and engaged…they don’t just run the same play because that is easier. The run the right play because it is better…and they know the right play because they bothered to get input.

The Difference

To be great, HR departments need to not just support the business they need to partner with it too. That is, they need to remember that while well intentioned, many of their efforts are not truly adding value to anyone but their own agenda. If they push change for the sake of change and through time handcuff employees throughout the organization with seemingly reasonable but poorly conceived policies and practices, then the company frankly doesn’t need an HR needs a bankruptcy lawyer. 

Ultimately their job is to help drive the company forward with great hires, smart policies that are thoroughly vetted while helping it stay out of trouble. This happens by being lock step in line with Sr. Executives, knowing the company goals and the operating plan for that year. In the end if they do this and allow the company to function at its peak, employees thrive, HR is both respected and influential, the company makes money and everybody wins. And we all like winning don’t we?

These opinions are my own and not those of any company or employer. By the way…I think Netflix is awesome.

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