Time to Rethink HR


The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article about the number of companies that are disbanding their HR departments. All in all, a very good trend, I say. It gets right at the heart of the knotty question of ‘value adding’ versus ‘necessary’. By and large, HR is neither – at least much of the conventional HR role.

The big problem with HR is that it is mostly built around the same destructive concept as labor unions – only in reverse. Where labor unions stake their claim to necessity on the basis of a need to protect the employees from evil management, the destruction wrought by HR is based in many cases on their perception that the company needs to be protected from its employees. Either way, there is a lawyerly-like barrier between the management folks and those who work for a living. That, after all, is the basis for most HR policies is it not? To keep the company from being sued by its employees?

In good companies the people want to do the right thing and managers want to be fair. How often are they prevented from doing so because of HR rules and regulations? I find it maddening that the underlying reason for so many rules is to establish ‘fairness’, which is convoluted by HR to mean ‘sameness’. Everyone has to be treated exactly the same way and if they aren’t lawsuits will ensue say the HR folks. If we give special consideration for one person’s unique circumstance we will have to give that consideration to everyone regardless of their circumstance or else every employee will immediately lawyer up. In most companies, however, the number of times that has actually happened – that employees have retained a lawyer and sued the company – is minimal if at all. And then, the root cause is not a lack of fairness but irresponsible behavior on the part of either a single employee or a single manager … hardly the sort of thing that should be solved by policies that assume all employees and managers have bad attitudes.

A fundamental tenet of lean is respect for people. There is nothing respectful about establishing rules and regulations governing the minutia of adult behavior. A case in point: I worked with a company that had the not-so-unique circumstance of having a young second shift supervisor doing a great job by all measures – expect one. He and his wife, who did a very good job on her first shift job at another company, were raising four young kids. As it goes with kids colds and flu occasionally ran rampant through the schools, and as Murphy’s Law dictates, their kids rarely had them simultaneously, rather, they had them serially. The question of who would stay home to tend to the sick kid was a frequent one in their house. The criteria for deciding who would do so was usually based on which one could afford to do so without losing their job. Both lived their lives at the thin edge of dismissal due to poor attendance not because of their own health or attitude but because of their responsibilities as parents.

No one in management wanted to take disciplinary action against this guy. They did not want him dismissed. They were able to work around his attendance issues. His contribution as a leader and supervisor more than made up for any problems caused by his attendance. But HR insisted that he go. Why? Because if he were allowed to violate the attendance policies then everyone would demand to be allowed to do so and anarchy would prevail. Treating the guy as a whole person and working with his individual circumstances, for both his benefit and that of the company was not part of the HR equation. What mattered was heading off the scary ghosts of potential lawsuits from the perceived legions of malcontents just looking for their opportunity (never mind that the company had never been sued for anything remotely similar).

Perhaps there was a time when such defensive HR was needed, but let’s go back to my opening premise: That HR viewing its role as one to protect the company from generally selfish and malicious employees; and its mirror-like premise to that of labor unions who exist to protect employees from selfish and malicious management. Times have changed. 88% of all manufacturing employees in the United States are not in unions. Working folks have overwhelmingly demonstrated that such protection is not needed. Perhaps it is time for management to do the same – to realize that it's a new day, and its employees should be supported, developed and most of all, treated fairly rather than samely; and we don't need an HR department to write policies for how to treat people the way we want to be treated.

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