The last post noted reasons why the stream of articles like ‘why we hate HR’ will never cease. It relates to people who are actively disengaged in our organizations, but perhaps not in ways you’d first expect. Two core problems are beyond HR’s scope – the taste for conflict stories in most reporting or Dilber-like satire and the need for consultants to always publicize what’s wrong in organizations so they can sell their ‘better solutions.’ On the latter, it’s easy to show a finance system just won’t keep track of some useful variable for instance. That’s not an emotional attack on anyone, but when it comes to HR, it’s not so easy to point out what’s missing in soft skills. Instead you often have to suggest the soft skills are being done poorly by some person and try to find examples or anecdotes to illustrate that – one reason for wide distribution of horror stories.
We can’t stop consultants and reporters from dragging out such examples, nor can we eliminate the grouching from our organizations when you calculate the numbers of staff we deal with who don’t get things entirely their way and how many are ‘actively disengaged.’
That term ‘actively’ in front of ‘disengaged’ says they will spread their stories far and wide whether we like it or not. So some companies feel we should try to eliminate them. Quite a few organizations try to make that policy without really aiming at it directly. Those are the ones that promote the idea of eliminating the bottom 10% every year. Recent surveys suggest there are fewer companies using this approach today, but still others who are just switching to it – Microsoft just announced dumping it while Yahoo took it up. Jack Welch, as the link notes, was initially a big proponent, but decided it was wrong later on.
One might think, since many surveys estimate the ‘actively disengaged’ segment of many workforces to be in the order of 10%, there would be a logical connection, but a few minutes thought ferrets out reasons why this may not be so. First we now know that renegade thinkers are helpful to organizations, at least companies that listen to what they have to say. Diverse teams are more productive. Diversity means adding individuals who see things from different points of view, not getting rid of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything they come up with or would like you to do. They, too, have to learn to deal with opposing viewpoints, but many are vocal in their upset when they don’t get their way.
If HR is to promote effectiveness, we have to encourage and try to protect a certain amount of dissent, different views and actions intended to make those views heard, listened to and put into action. One doesn’t have to look far to hear people say, ‘better to act and ask forgiveness than try to get permission.’ So a policy that encourages managers to eliminate what they believe is the ‘bottom 10%’ risks many of them eliminating the very dissent we now want to foster. Who exactly are the bottom 10% can be a very subjective decision. If we don’t want it to be, we need guidelines and a robust performance appraisal system – among the very things HR is criticized for trying to put in place.
Given that HR is always complex and challenging and someone is almost always unhappy whatever the action taken, it is guaranteed there will be a steady stream of detractors always ready with negative tales. Since we rarely get the other side of whatever horror story is told by a disaffected or former employee (and it’s probably too complex for a reporter to explain anyway), it’s not a surprise that we have a stream of undefended slamming of HR.
Let me hasten to say that most employees (the actively engaged, engaged and even the disengaged) rarely need much from HR. They get their pay and benefits and an occasional answer about these plus the universally disliked annual appraisal. Their only experiences from the outset may very well be at least somewhat negative – the resume they submitted that was never acknowledged (c’mon HR, we can automate that at least!). So they’re a bit inclined to believe the horror stories, but most don’t waste any time thinking about it. They generally assume HR is a mix of people like their own departments – of good and bad – and they ignore most of what they hear except for the overall negative tone.
OK, so if most employees don’t like appraisals, surveys, recruiting practices, problematic policy answers and most other interactions they have to have with HR or decisions that are blamed on HR by managers who don’t want to take responsibility, can we achieve either of two possible solutions? First, can we outweigh the bad with good – great training, coaching, career management, super pay and benefits, etc.? Not likely a 100% solution since much of that depends on HR working through line managers at least for budget support, much not controlled directly by HR whether we like to face it or not.
Second, can we fix the irritants or eliminate them? Again not likely since, in most cases, they are either not directly controlled by HR or are the inevitable result of people rubbing against people. In the recruiting process, HR could acknowledge resumes, but it can’t ensure the interview they set up with a potential boss will go well, be free of bias, have the outcome the candidate wants or that a speedy decision will be made and communicated well with understandable reasons. Somewhere in these complex processes things are extremely likely to go less than superbly. They still have to happen. There is no other option than for HR to try their best and yet recognize it may not garner kudos. Departments can iron the bugs out of financial calculations and reports or even IT systems and projects, but they can’t be ironed out of HR tasks because almost every candidate wants something a bit different. Even if we could theoretically perfect a system that would suit one person, it most certainly would not suit all others.
So, what can HR do? That will have to wait until next time.