An article titled “These Ten Policies Are An Embarrassment to the HR Profession” appeared in my newsfeed yesterday. Posted by Liz Ryan in Forbes, I devoured the content and tweeted it to my network saying, “Right on! Absolutely! Embarrassing is a good word!”
I read it again this morning, and had a slightly different reaction. I really like Liz Ryan’s writing; she says it like it is – no words minced. And what she says always makes sense. I nod my head and go, “Yup.”
But then I came back down to earth and realized that, while the words resonate, thar’s danger in them, thar waters.
In the post, she slams policies like progressive discipline, doctors’ notes for absences, funeral notices to justify bereavement leave and reference policies that prohibit managers from providing references for their employees. There are others, but these I mention all share the element of trust. If trust were present, there really would be no need for policies such as these. Can’t argue there.
Managers would trust that, when the employee is out sick with a sick kid, the employee is out sick with a sick kid. Managers would trust that the employee isn’t lying about a dead aunt. Or managers will not put the organization at risk for libel in providing a reference.
But let’s get real. Somewhere in our history, managers did stupid things, employees got angry and filed claims or litigated, and legislators decided that they had to mandate actions to protect employees. Enter HR with a new purpose and a new power – compliance. And we’ve played the compliance card for years now, to the point where the burden of leading employees has shifted from where it is supposed to be – with those who are responsible for managing people – to HR. And we have gladly embraced this new power, responding with the easy solution instead of the difficult one.
It is easy to write a policy. It is very difficult to create a culture where leadership is accountable for building trusting relationships with their employees.
I was there on the front lines of HR as the regulatory and compliance world unfolded and yes, all of those embarrassing policies were implemented for good reason. Managers did really stupid things. While the obviously stupid concept of a manager dumping all of the plants and dirt all over an assistant’s desk because she typed something incorrectly, even those more subtle management decisions like selecting “mini-me’s,” and subconsciously making pay decisions with a bias, have contributed to the pickle that we are now in.
It has to stop. But it has to stop in the right way – with an intentional shift of the accountability for leadership back to the leaders in such a way that they get it.
“But,” you say, “they don’t want to accept the responsibility.” You’re probably right, and hope is never a strategy for changing behaviors and culture. But there are ways to push the accountability back where it belongs. It isn’t an overnight fix; heck, it may not even be “fixed” in a year. But it can be done.
Eliminate the word compliance
Leaders who think they “have to” do something will do it (maybe) grudgingly. Leaders who see an end result to their efforts – if I build trust with my team, they will be more likely to perform better which will reduce our expenses and therefore drive the bottom line – will more often do what should be done.
Get rid of the word compliance; it isn’t doing HR any favors. Instead, talk about what business issues are causing pain, facilitate a dialogue about what leaders can to do alleviate the pain, and help them build a plan.
Get back to the business
Every policy, every program and every process should be causally linked back to a business result – revenue, market share, income or expense. Don’t ever present something as “an HR process.” Instead, present the business result first, then the leadership behaviors that will secure success, and then agreement to those behaviors.
Only when you’ve agreed on a real business issue is it time to search for solutions. Coming to the table with “our performance management compliance is a 78%” gets an eye-roll. Pointing out that the same department that dipped in market share also had an increase in turnover will get their attention.
If they don’t have a business problem (e.g., more revenues, market share or income, or less expense) then why bother them. They might be doing something right.
Be prepared to walk away
Don’t get sucked into taking responsibility. If something is worth doing to improve business performance, it is important enough for leaders to step up. If they don’t, provide the potential consequences in a factual, non-emotional way, and explain that if they don’t think it is important enough to step up, there is really nothing HR can do about it, and walk away.
This takes courage. It also takes an HR team that is in alignment with making this shift of accountability; one HR colleague who takes on the risk blows it all out of the water.
This is different behavior, so make sure to be clear on why. There is nothing wrong with being authentic and telling your business clients why you are pushing back, and perhaps sharing all of the wonderful research that is available that talks to the importance of the relationship between leader and employee. Then, be available to help them shift their behavior, because they’ll have to unlearn leaning on you to do it for them.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t use the term “HR Program.”
I agree with the premise of the article – these policies are culprits in destroying trust. Let’s just do it right, and build the capability and capacity of our leaders to build trust before we start dismantling the compliance infrastructure.