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Checks and Balances

HR Role, HR Strategy | May 23rd, 2010 | 1 Comment »

During the height of the economic crisis, there were many experts attempting to assess and explain the reasons why the economy failed. The result: hubris, greed, pressure to perform that led to sacrificing integrity for short-term benefits, you name it; it was simply due to failed human judgment.  Now that there are signs of recovery, everyone is looking to prevent these types of catastrophic events from happening again.  There is a rush to regulate the types of decision-making that got us into trouble. Much like SOX in the early 2000s after scandals of the like of Worldcomm and Enron, regulation will once again take center stage in our working lives, especially for certain industries. There are both positive and negative side effects to having to live with regulation in the work place. And while there’s likely to be some sort of pain associated with it, everyone hopes it will help in avoiding future economic disasters of the magnitude we just had. However, regulation tends to always be reactive.

To no one’s surprise, as investigative reports and new books have surfaced to explain the crisis, so have countless accounts of employees who knew about hazardous decisions and behaviors that their direct managers or leaders in their organizations were engaged in and that put the organization at risk. And, of course, the latest mega saga with Goldman Sachs had its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, admitting, “I should have paid more attention to what my employees were doing.”

No lifeguards on the beach

The stress from having to continually produce short-term results or having to react to media commentary might make some executives fall under the pressure of making highly volatile and suspicious moves. Egregious risk-taking action doesn’t happen over night, however. Very often, people who engage in these practices will show red flags with their intent to ignore or bend the rules in other areas of their jobs by continually walking outside the boundaries of governance. There may be displays of unconscious, capricious behavior when it comes to other aspects of their jobs such as, hiring, firing, promoting, employee appraisals, or keeping only certain  “advisors” as part of their inner circles, among others. The aforementioned transgressions are rarely done in isolation or behind a computer monitor. They typically involve others in the organization who are witnesses to the transgressors’ whims. Sometimes it may be their colleagues or their own employees, and sometimes, it may even be an HR partner. And for HR, as well as others in management, avoiding addressing their earlier lapses may inadvertently encourage greater risk-taking for these people.

In government, there is a principle under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power. This principle is referred to as Checks and Balances (source: Wikipedia). But corporate Checks and Balances have failed us; perhaps because they are rarely effected in any kind of methodical way.

Where is HR?

From an HR perspective, the banking mishaps have caused many to scramble and focus on executive payment plans and compensation. But while compensation is often used to drive desired behaviors, this strategy might be misdirected in cases such as these by addressing the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. Public companies in particular must make significant changes in other internal areas. Instead of allowing questionable conduct to continue and risk being exposed in public, having a systematic way to review actions might keep future offenders in check. This should go beyond an internal “official policy” that prescribes certain behaviors, but where in reality, folks are rewarded for the bottom line results despite dubious and even plainly deviant actions; or worse, when the rules apply to some but not to others.

Government investigators and other regulators, including internal ones, mainly look at transactions. When they ask questions, they don’t always know when they’re being given scripted answers. HR professionals look at actions, patterns, and internal reputation. This is a matter of character, and that cannot be judged by temporary contact, especially the type that it’s focused on a moment in time. Most executives are well versed in PR rhetoric and know what others want to hear. Those that get to observe them on a daily basis however, witness their inner workings and are better at distinguishing true intent from effect.

What do we know about these people? What characteristics to they exhibit on a daily basis? HR needs to make it acceptable for employees to talk about their integrity concerns.  Certainly, as a first step, HR should always encourage employees to have open discussions with their direct managers before they involve anyone else including bringing HR into the fold.  We want to avoid the impression of a gotcha mentality against managers. However, poor managers do exist and HR must be sympathetic to the possibility that employees may be being asked to engage in corruptive practices and having an open discussion in time may halt this practice and put appropriate corrections in place.  Anonymous hotlines serve a similar purpose, but it should be used as a last resort as it sends a message that the organization discourages openness and transparency. Otherwise, why wait for someone to call when there might be people who already know there’s a potential problem?

This is not a role that anyone, whether or not in HR, wishes to play. But as the bridge between employees and management, HR should already own this accountability. HR leaders who are in business partnership roles already know the importance of building and developing solid relationships with their business counterparts and appreciate the delicate balance one must keep when disagreeing with someone’s actions. However, having someone guarding human assets is a good step towards correcting and circumventing future missteps in other areas.

Some refer to this as “policing” on the part of HR. The alternative is to let executives and other senior managers regulate themselves. There’s no denying that confronting someone, especially a high-ranking executive, is uncomfortable for anyone. However, HR would be wise to avoid another unflattering term, that of “rubber-stamp.”

This is often difficult to do however when in many companies, HR, despite its exclusive focus on people matters, is relegated to reporting lines below the CEO level, causing it to be “out of the loop” on certain critical moves done by executives.

Connecting the Dots

Reckless decision-making and actions don’t happen in a vacuum. Before they surface as financial or compliance blunders, transgressions are often witnessed in other areas, many times in the course of someone’s career in the management of others.  While in power, these leaders may lack a reputation for fairness or may actively promote a culture of intimidation.  Employees comply out of concerns over losing their jobs or being alienated. Equally concerning is the impression employees get that these managers have gotten ahead by behaving in this way and if they want to get promoted, they will need to follow suit and engage in similar behaviors.

HR leaders cannot be simple bystanders. This means having the courage to speak up and bring the leader back on message. Otherwise, the troubling relationship that has been uncovered of “see no evil, hear no evil” between banks and the regulatory agencies, may also be tagged on, even if by reputation, to the relationship between HR and executive management. If HR leaders do not keep their ears to the ground, they’re also failing in their roles as part of management and in their duty to advocate for the company and its long-term success.

If companies want to avoid devaluation and government intervention, they need to demonstrate effective internal mechanisms to self-regulate. In order to change the behavior of those who engage in extreme practices, there needs to be a more relevant strategy beyond compensation plans. An honest and direct approach to business starts with the understanding that there are more people than those at the top who suffer the consequences brought about by the mistakes of a few. And that an open and transparent organizational culture is not only a good practice, but it also happens to impact the bottom line by avoiding scandals that result in losing face in public, public mistrust, government intervention, shareholder detriment, turnover, and resulting layoffs that might otherwise be unnecessary.


Talent Management is not Recruiting

Talent Management | April 4th, 2010 | No Comments »

During a recent conversation with a finance executive, the topic of Talent Management surfaced in relation to the role of human resources. His instant reaction to the term Talent Management  was that it was analogous with Recruiting. This got me thinking about some of the various terms used in the HR field and how their lack of distinction only helps in making parts of the HR work seem vague for many.

Like most functions, HR has specialties and sub-specialties that make up the field. The same way that one would not expect any finance professional to be able to effectively operate simultaneously in a tax, accounting, or treasury role, HR professionals are not necessarily interchangeable.

Organizational Health Check and Triage

Whereas Recruiting is a long-standing and well-known area in its own right, Talent Management has emerged more recently as the combination of activities that encompass: talent reviews, high potential identification, talent development, succession planning, and employee retention. It assesses the organizational health from a talent perspective and it determines future actions to take when certain areas of the organization are deemed to have talent gaps.  For instance, employees can be moved around to positions for which they are better suited, or as a strategy to help them develop a particular skill, or to gain experience in a specific area. Additionally, the area manages the development plan process, and partners with managers on ways to support the career growth of high potential employees.

How Recruiting Supports Talent Management

Certainly, talent is more successfully managed when people with the right skills and fit are hired.  When the wrong talent is brought into the organization, it is often up to the Talent Management folks to identify the problem and come up with a solution. In this way, making recruiting, which is also known as Talent Acquisition, part of Talent Management may be fitting, but not necessary. Other areas of HR such as Compensation and Training also support the objectives of Talent Management. Similarly, Talent Acquisition and Talent Management work in partnership, but their metrics are different. Thus, many companies keep the two functions apart.

Yet, perhaps due the need to leverage resources, a new trend has emerged in some companies to combine Talent Acquisition, and at times Training, with Talent Management. Once again, while these areas are complimentary, the skills and experience needed in each are different. Additionally, if there’s a true commitment to talent in general, caution must be heeded to avoid spreading the focus too thin.

HR leaders must pay close attention to this trend to ensure that while appropriate economies of scale are targeted, there’s no adverse impact to the quality of people strategies.

It’s first quarter; do you know where your “HiPos” are?

Talent Management | March 14th, 2010 | No Comments »

In the strategic aspect of its role, HR has many opportunities to impact the future of the organization. Dr. Larry Phillips of Indiana University South Bend, posits that HR’s strategic role is “a proactive planning approach to assist the organization in designing its future.”  Certainly, during the recent economic downturn and resulting business downsizing, restructuring activities became the domain of HR professionals and their expertise was highly valued. Even during turmoil and resulting cost-cutting undertakings however, HR should assist business leaders in maintaining their focus on talent, especially high potential talent who will need reassurance and hear key messages in order to reinforce their commitment to the organization.

High Potentials, also known as “HiPos,” are those exceptional employees who seem to rise above most others in the organization. In so doing, they represent a potential pool of future leaders and are typically considered for future growth during succession planning exercises.

Spotting High Potentials

Among the traits to look for when identifying HiPos in the organization, the following three will provide a basic blueprint:

Performance – Going above and beyond on a consistent basis. The key here is consistency. One pitfall to avoid when declaring someone a HiPo is to judge their performance as “high” within a short period of time. After all, high performance is much easier to maintain at the beginning. As stated in my previous post, Rating vs. Ranking, performance is not enough to label someone as HiPo.

Potential – While some exhibit this trait more naturally than others, probably the most difficult aspect to gauge in someone is his or her potential. Some guidelines include the presence of Drive and Ambition as demonstrated by their frequent raising of hands for projects or additional work; and Engagement and Commitment as witnessed in their voluntary involvement in work teams or company-sponsored organizations, combined with their overall interest and involvement with the organization.

Vision – While having a demonstrated capacity to work effectively as part of a team, HiPos progressively seek positions of leadership within their own work, extra projects, or voluntary activities. They exhibit thoughtfulness in the task at hand and propose options while involved in problem-solving activities. They voice their opinions and make bold statements for preferring one option to another. In this way, they also demonstrate their decision-making ability. These are folks who rise to the occasion with thought leadership when there’s a gap or opportunity. Vision is a trait that is especially significant at certain levels, but must be cultivated early on.

After the Talent Review Exercise

Many organizations have some sort of process to identify HiPos, but fail to systematically follow through on next steps. Once identified, HiPos should also be tracked, but tracking alone is not enough. A plan must be put in place that lays out their potential medium to long-term path in the organization, development steps for readiness, follow up, measurement, and finally, activation of projected action or course-correction when necessary. Additionally, their professional profile, along with their own self-development plan, must be required to be up-to-date at all times.

Once the strategy is set, one common blunder in HiPo talent management from the HR perspective is to leave the execution solely to the managers. It’s true that it is the manager’s responsibility to follow through on the set strategy, but HR leaders must realize two important things: a) their roles as business partners don’t end with the strategy and their support and follow through will continue to be needed as managers execute; and b) while part of a HiPo’s development is to have a highly capable manager, not all managers fit in that category, and HR must be able to partner even closer with those who dont’t and eventually influence other changes.

It is also important for HR leaders to understand one additional role, which they can play in the careers of HiPos. While part of the development strategy should include work mentors, HR leaders can function as coaches. After all, HR typically supports coaches for executives. But while this option may not readily be available for lower ranking HiPos in the organization, HR can and should be capable of fulfilling this role then. This high-touch approach must not be seen as “handholding” by any measure, but as a true demonstration of the organization’s commitment to the career growth of its future leaders.

As they continue to grow in their careers, they will hopefully recognize the importance of knowing how to spot and develop others and they will effortlessly provide the same level of support they themselves benefitted from early on.

To Tell or Not to tell

Once HiPos have been identified and a plan has been laid out, one question that remains is whether or not to disclose their status to HiPos. Even when their manager is working the development plan with them, their HiPo status may not always be apparent to this selected group. In addition, there are other high performers who should receive due attention and may participate in some of the activities reserved for High Potentials. Either group might suspect their high potential status. But, should they be told?

There are two schools of thought on this dilemma with pros and cons with each.

To Tell – With this option, HiPos are openly informed of their status along with their formal plan for development, and checkpoints are put in place along the way for successful progression.

PRO: It sends HiPos a clear message that their contributions and potential have been noticed and that the organization is committed to further investments in their career growth.

CON: Other employees may feel alienated, and there’s also risk in the HiPo becoming either arrogant or complacent.

What to do when choosing this option: ask for discretion on the part of the HiPos; set the tone that their status is conditional upon continued high levels of performance, development activities, and other contingencies; inform HiPos if they come off the HiPo list and the reason why

Not to Tell - Here, HiPos may be asked to get involved in certain activities as part of their development, but their status in not completely disclosed. Based on their high ratings, they’re obviously aware of their high performance, but they don’t have clear confirmation on how the organization gauges their potential.

PRO: There’s little risk in other employees feeling neglected.

CON: HiPos may feel slightly overlooked or may lack clear guidance over their career path, thus making them susceptible to the approach of competitors.

What to do when choosing this option: Since part of the goal here is to deal with the HiPos’ perception that their work may not be fully acknowledged or appreciated, business and HR leaders must work together to send clear signals without formalizing the message.

The final decision may depend on the type of company culture in place or the future direction the organization wants to move towards. Regardless of the decision, it should be unanimously implemented to avoid disparity across the organization.

Rating vs. Ranking

In the language of performance management, the terms rating and ranking are many times used interchangeably to indicate someone’s standing in the overall performance management process.

While rating can mainly be applied in the performance context, the term ranking has more ample, yet focused usage, in the overall talent management spectrum.  In fact, at any given time, someone’s rating may be higher than his or her ranking.

Performance Rating

A rating is supposed to be assessed for the actual performance of a given year.  As commonly known, someone’s performance carries the execution of specific goals along with the skills they exhibited to carry out those objectives.  The combined assessment of what they accomplished and how they accomplished it makes up the final rating for that year. In theory, someone ranked highly in the talent review process should demonstrate high performance year over year. In practice however, even highly talented individuals may have “off years” where they did not achieve all the expected objectives. This does not necessarily mean that their talent has diminished or that they should be viewed as such.  Doing so would not only indicate that the organization is throwing away investments made in talent, but it would also demoralize someone who has demonstrated both high performance and high potential. The natural next step in this case, is to work with the individual and lend support to get their performance back on track.  What ends up happening at times however, is that we find ways not to rate a previously high performer any lower than their prior year, or just as negligently, once their performance deteriorates in one year, they are written off as “have been.”  On the other hand, people with a lower rank in the talent review, may have a year where they exceeded all goals and operated at a higher level than in previous years. Then too, should their work and effort be recognized and rewarded with a high rating in their performance review.  Conducting performance management this way lends credibility to the process.

Talent Ranking

Most medium and large organizations want a snapshot of who their top 10-20% players are. Having this important information is a first step, but more is needed to have a clear understanding of who among the top 10% may be more critical to the operation. Ranking them in such a way forces talent differentiation and at times, role differentiation, not just performance differentiation. In addition, it offers other advantages, including realizing succession gaps and knowing whom to invest further in and attempt to retain. Ranking should be done at the organizational level as well as the departmental or functional level.  Following the above advice on performance rating, it is entirely possible to rate someone at the top tier of performance management one year, while ranking them lower in the talent reviews and vice-versa. The use of rankings will be discussed more in detail in future posts dealing with talent reviews and succession planning.

HR leaders are wise to advise their business partners to maintain awareness of these differentiations to avoid “halo effects” as well as “false negatives.” These types of subtleties are important if we are to keep both the performance management and the talent review process with the expected level of integrity. Undoubtedly, the time will come when knowing the difference will aid decision makers in dealing with a talent conundrum.

Pay-for-Performance and Performance Management

Performance Management | February 28th, 2010 | No Comments »

Earlier in the month, embattled insurance giant AIG announced plans to change how they pay for performance  (Wall Street Journal: “AIG Plans Revamp on Pay,” February 10, 2010).  This move was in response to their wildly reported bonus payment controversy.

On my earlier post (“Talent Management: Watching Your Investments”), I mentioned some of the difficulties that managers have when it comes to executing on the performance management process.  Regardless of the type of model in place, when not properly managed, not only is compensation skewed but also the process may miss its purpose of accurately assessing performance.

In theory, performance management is used to assess the performance of an employee against pre-established goals and organizational norms. It should involve timely coaching from the manager towards improved performance, and may involve disciplinary action in the case of serious problem behavior or transgressions. As it is difficult to achieve goals without having multiple touch points within the team and throughout the organization, performance management also gauges the level of competency in place for critical skills such as communication, teamwork, cooperation, etc., as well as other organizationally supported competencies.

Most organizations adhere to either a four or five-point system where managers assign the performance ratings they deem as accurate, or, a four or five-point system with a forced distribution among the points. I will lay out some of the benefits and challenges for HR leaders with either model.

To curve or not to curve?

Forced Distribution (also known as a Bell Curve) – In a forced distribution system, each of the performance categories is assigned a percentage to be distributed throughout the organization. For instance, in a four-point system, such as the one that AIG is suggesting, the expectation is that the highest performance ratings, in this case 1 and 2, will be limited to 20% of the employee population. From there, 70% will receive the next rating of 3, and 10% will receive the lowest rating of 4. This system is typically used as a means to distribute the compensation budget pool.


  • Gives the organization a roadmap to follow in order to pre-plan its compensation budget
  • Makes it easier to “assume” an expected level of performance
  • Forces differentiation among performance
  • Calibration sessions are conducted with senior managers and HR where managers discuss their team’s performance


  • Forcing people to fit in the set rating categories may not paint a full picture of where performance actually lies (a case of the distribution determining performance rather than the other way around)
  • Takes some of the developmental “powers” away from the manager – a great manager will work towards recruiting, developing, and retaining the best talent for each of the roles within their team, a practice all managers should follow. If along the way, they have built a solid team of “A players,” forcing them to categorize their folks among all ratings, can upset that balance.
  • Creates tendency to foster competition rather than collaboration among teams and colleagues
  • May demoralize the employee base
  • Creates a perverse incentive for managers to keep low performers around to be used against the “quota”

Common challenges:

-        Is the distribution used across the board overall, within each department, or level by level?:

  • Overall – Risks having higher (more senior) levels receiving best ratings
  • Within each department – Same risk as Overall
  • Level by level – In theory, this is probably the fairest way of applying this model since the rest of the organization is being forced to differentiate performance.  But, challenges here point towards the possibility of frustrating talent that has grown to the highest levels, and it would indicate that higher-ranking officers have “average” and “below average” performers among them. As a substantial investment has surely been made to maintain people at the senior level who are supposed to be high performing almost by definition, applying a force distribution to them would not be realistic. Not applying it to the senior levels on the other hand does not solve the conundrum that there may be equally high performing employees who are getting forced into lower ratings.

No Forced Distribution – This system does not have an expected percentage tied to each of the performance categories and ratings. The compensation budget uses the performance management results as a guide, but it is not ruled by it.


  • Paints accurate picture of actual performance
  • Perceived as more fair by employees
  • Managers have more leeway to manage their employees’ performance without an organizational dictum, including managing out poor performers in time.


  • If badly managed, performance differentiation is not achieved
  • May lead to conformity
  • Temptation to divide “pool” equally
  • Tendency to avoid lower ratings
  • It is logistically more difficult to plan and distribute the compensation budget
  • May not involve calibration sessions, leaving performance to be managed in silos

Common challenges:

  • It requires high touch from HR and the leadership to ensure consistent application of performance standards
  • The onus for performance is on the manager, and awareness, a watchful eye, and a high dose of courage are all needed to effectively manage this process

What are we solving for?

The use of either one depends quite a bit on the organizational culture, how the methodology is communicated, and more importantly, how it is fairly and consistently applied.

One question to ask is, what is the organization trying to achieve? I would venture to say that above a way to assess performance, above a way to distribute compensation budgets, and with all the investment made in recruitment and training, what the organization is seeking is high performance throughout. It must then be careful how it gauges that performance. Does it do it through arbitrarily forced metrics or does it ensure high quality managers understand and apply performance ratings accurately?

Managerial subjectivity is a problem with both models, but on the forced distribution, even the manager may have limited option to exercise their own judgment and the rating may no be reflective of the actual work performed.

The forced distribution system follows the statistical concept that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. However, it must have flexibility to gauge where the 20% is located and when the 20% may fluctuate.

For AIG, attempting to placate the outrage over their bonus pay by instituting a forced distribution system may miss the mark. The public will not be placated if AIG has only 20% of its “top performers” receive the majority of the available pool when the company is tanking overall. Certainly, not having the discipline to use their previously established process appropriately was a huge management and HR mistake. However, the public’s outcry was directed at the overall amount of bonuses handed out for a failing organization, not at their performance management process.

When it comes to performance management, the issue here is how to compensate the best performers. The truth is that in a team, three people may have strived for the top rating, and if you lose one because of a less-than-expected rating, what would be the difference of having given all three the same rating and having one get upset because they did not receive a higher bonus amount? Both models can have the same devastating effect.

Another caution is to realize that sometimes, instead of performance, what is being rewarded is potential. Many organizations fall in the trap of wanting a cookie-cutter approach to apply at the end of the year. As mentioned in earlier posts, people strategies take a back seat to the other business activities. If both were on equal footing, a thoughtful approach would be applied where true performance is assessed and rewarded based on business success. Wouldn’t the employee population appreciate knowing that extensive thought went into the performance management process rather than knowing that at times, and no matter how great their performance was, prescribed “rules” played against them?

Talent Management: Watching Your Investments

Talent Management | February 21st, 2010 | No Comments »

Whether they are called resources, assets, or human capital, people in organizations are an investment a company makes in order to meet business goals as well as growth projections. Like any investment, talent must be managed with care and adjustments must be made accordingly.

One of the main challenges that HR leaders face in managing talent is getting business leaders to follow through on each of the three critical stages in the talent management process.

Performance Management

Performance management is perhaps the most dreaded aspect of the talent management process. It is time-consuming and it involves attention to detail. It is primarily dreaded however, due to its emotional component. Not only are managers assessing the employee’s performance, which is essentially a process of critique, but also the employee’s future compensation is intrinsically tied to that assessment.  Expectations on the part of the employee on both the performance evaluation and the compensation piece may vary wildly from that of the manager’s views. Performance management is however, the building block on which we base how talent is managed and must therefore, be treated with rigorous discipline.

Common challenges that HR leaders must be vigilant to, include:

Poor Manager-Employee relationship – At times, during the performance management process, managers may surface a situation, performance issue, or perceived lack of skill in relation to an employee which they had not brought up to the employee before. This poses a difficult situation at several levels:  * the employee won’t have an opportunity to address the problem and course-correct in time; * the element of surprise for the employee signals a communication problem between manager and employee ; * it sends the message – whether on purpose or  not – that the manager waited for the annual evaluation to disclose all of the employee’s opportunities.   Just as bad, HR is also caught by surprised and forced to determine whether they have a poor performer in either the employee, or the manager. Managers who don’t invest time and effort in knowing their employees and in building a relationship, may find it more difficult to approach them with timely and constructive feedback.  Sadly, engaging in this wait-and-surprise game eventually catches up with the manager and his or her career. Just as sad, employee reputations may be ruined on the occasions that the problem may actually be with the manager, not with the employee. This is more difficult to gauge when the manager may be good at meeting business goals, but less than effective at managing others. They may have been promoted to management based on the former, but never fully assessed based on the latter. In such a case, the employee’s reputation is compromised making it difficult for them to recover from the incident. If the relationship is not repaired, the odds of employee and manager being fully effective in the future drastically diminishes. In the best-case scenario, the employee transfers to a new manager and a better relationship is formed. In the worst case, the employee is not able to recover from the damage to their reputation and ends up leaving the company, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

Employees Managing Up – On the opposite side of the previous scenario is the “halo effect” that managers bestow on certain employees and that directly impacts how they evaluate them.  Everyone knows the importance of good relations at work and everyone should aim to have a good relation with their manager and help him or her be successful. Taking this aim to an extreme however, may cloud how the manager sees an employee. An astute employee and a less-than-aware manager may end up shifting the relationship from manager-employee to manager-ally with all the emotions that the shift may entail. In the current social media age, “friending” one’s boss through some of the common online outlets is still something that many organizations are not certain on how to handle. Again, we’re not talking about a healthy strong relationship, but one where the efforts of the employee of endearing him or herself to the manager results in their raising to the top of the pack forsaken better performers in the team.  One way the “halo effect” manifests itself in the performance management process is when the same employee year after year is rated “exceptional” by their manager while other stakeholders may disagree with the employee’s contribution. This may be perceived as style trumping substance.

Timing – As unbelievable as it may seem, many of us in HR have seen it sometime or another in our careers…No, not Big Foot, but another elusive being. That of the manager who cannot seem to get around to completing their employee’s evaluations in time. If you speak with enough people, you’ll find examples of employees whose evaluations were due in January, but they received them in June. To me, that spells disdain. This is a major flaw in the organization’s culture and a huge hit to employee engagement. Some organizations have solved this problem by instituting performance management systems that limit the amount of time a manager has to work on and deliver employee evaluations before the employee is given direct online access to their own evaluation. If the evaluation is deemed as incomplete, the manager’s manager is notified of the lapse.

For the above scenarios, HR must get involved and partner with the manager to bridge any gap in the manager’s skill-set or provide appropriate coaching with the involvement of the manager’s manager. For more serious cases, a remedial step is to penalize the manager’s compensation directly for their lack of effective execution. This of course, in addition to receiving a low rating for their managerial competencies.

A good manager complies with the set deadlines; a great manager manages performance every single day.

Talent Reviews

While performance management is the building block of talent management, talent reviews are the backbone of the entire process. This is where performance and potential are assessed. As another time-consuming endeavor, talent reviews require a close partnership between line managers and HR leaders. The goal here is to assess the health of the organization as it relates to its people, in particular, its senior and high caliber talent. Do we have the right people? Are they in the right roles? What do they know (skills, organizational knowledge, etc.)? How do they use their skill-sets (competencies)? Who do they know (political capital)? Who knows of them (political savvy)? Who should they know (mentoring)?  Who should know of them (next potential role)?

Common challenges that HR leaders must be vigilant to, include:

Managers not fully engaged in the process – Despite being a process designed to help the manager in managing their employees, there are those who invariably fail to commit to the process and neglect to comply with the required steps. Such steps usually include obtaining feedback from important stakeholders with whom their employees work, and completing pre-assigned talent review forms to be sent to HR in time for the live discussion. Managers who don’t engage effectively may lack a vision for what the talent review process is or how it is used.

Lack of candor – The basis of the talent review is the live discussion that takes place around the table as employees are assessed one by one. At times, managers may feel discomfort with this practice and a desire to “protect” their business or unit takes over during the discussion. In practice, it can take the form of not sharing important information, downplaying someone’s talent for fear of “losing” the employee to another team, or overstating their team’s talent and capacity in order to appear to be in top shape.

Both of the above practices border on distrust and the HR leader must be quick to intervene and dissipate the gridlock.

Talent Development

Alas, the third stage in the talent management process signals anything but closure. This is where the agreements on future steps as it relates to the employee’s development are put in place. On the light side, managers are expected to give feedback to employees based on information surfaced during the talent review. Beyond this however, are all the important follow-up conversations that managers should hold with their employees on their development, particularly with those deemed as high potentials or people-to-watch.

Common challenges that HR leaders must be vigilant to, include:

Not giving feedback – Despite the focus given to this important step, time and time again, employees report not receiving enough feedback and recommendations for their development. When the employees are ones that have been deemed as high potential or even high performers, lack of feedback on their opportunities can not only delay their growth, but they can also become frustrated by the lack of managerial focus on their career development.

Not formally partnering in the employees’ success – A demonstrated commitment on the part of the manager is necessary for key talent to thrive. Creating stretch assignments, finding mentors, locating opportunities for involvement in higher-level activities and exposure, are all actions the manager can take to advance someone’s development.

Commitments made during the talent review process towards the development phase must be adhered to if the organization is serious about retaining and growing its talent. The organization cannot advance if its talent is not as agile as needed. As HR leaders seek to continually align people strategies to business objectives, development of the organization’s talent is a key priority that must be tackled with urgency.

Two sides of a coin or a double-edge sword?: HR’s dual role purpose

HR Role | February 13th, 2010 | No Comments »

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the HR role is its duality within the organization. Straddling the line between being part of management and being employee advocates, HR walks a tightrope during many of its interventions. Fulfilling such as role is not always easy. In fact, it is a delicate balance, and one where no matter where the chips may fall, it is bound to leave some people on either side of the fence unhappy with the decision or action.

The main obstacle in overcoming this stance is the expectation each side has of the outcome of an HR intervention. Their expectations rarely compliment each other. Depending of where one stands in the organization and one’s point of view, HR may be perceived from one end of the spectrum to the other as being either too soft or not caring enough. As we approach each intervention, understanding how these perceptions impact our interactions will serve the HR partner well. For a function tasked with implementing and executing on policies and practices that aim to protect and enhance the entire organization, including its human capital, contrary opinions are to be expected.


At times, some managers can be less than forthcoming with their HR partner.  In order to get HR to side with them, approve promotions, dismissals, or some other action, they may withhold or embellish information pertaining to the circumstances at hand. While the behavior is unbecoming, the intent is not necessarily always malicious. Sometimes, managers who engage in such practices do believe that getting what they want is in direct benefit to the organization. Their flaw may lie in things like not upholding people to high standards, not giving employees direct and timely feedback, not having a broader view of the organization, or not having a solid commitment to the longer-term goals of the organization.

In addition to the obvious requirements of technical, execution, and strategic capability, business leaders who do build on the HR relationship expect that the HR partner give them unvarnished counsel, candid feedback, and viable options for solutions that are executable within the organization’s ethical parameters.  Above all, they expect HR will be fair in their assessment and demonstrate high integrity standards.  The key component in this relationship is trust. There’s some finessing involved, but if the manager is unwilling to openly discuss relevant issues with HR, the latter will not be able to effectively partner with the manager. Instead, consultations are haphazard and the relationship never truly develops.


For obvious reasons, employees often have a completely different opinion of HR from the one business leaders have. For some within this group and depending on the employee-HR relationship and the workplace culture, HR might be a place to be visited only under the direst of circumstances and one to be approached cautiously.

Even on the rare occasions of gross misconduct, no employee deserves to be addressed in a sanctimonious way.  HR is a partner for the employees as well; we’re partners in their careers, and partners in their success. I’ve gotten some really valuable insight from conversations with members of the greater employee population.  We should always be open to their suggestions, ideas, and most of all, feedback. After all, they’re closer to the product and the customer.  In addition, having an ear to the ground helps HR stay in the loop and be alert to any type of potential employee-manager issues.

Once again, trust plays a part in this relationship as well.  If they never see HR, then HR becomes an unknown entity. Rather than relying on employees approaching HR when they may “need something,” there are a number of actions that HR can take to initiate a relationship with the larger employee population.

  • Send a personalized email to the teams you support
    • Is there a new initiative you’re rolling out? Communicate it directly through an email. The more employees see your name, the more they will feel like they‘ll at least know where to go when they need to engage with you.
    • Are you about to start supporting a new team? Introduce yourself via email to your assigned employee population. Let them know where to find you and how they can contact you. And if you really want to make yourself visible, consider including a photo of yourself with the introductory email. That way, when they see you around, it’ll be easier for them to know who you are. If your populations are virtual, they’ll be able to associate a face with a name.
  • Engage in MBWA – Management By Walking Around
    • Famed management guru, Tom Peters, articulated this practice as a critical component of a manager’s toolbox. HR, as an extension of management, can practice MBWA as a way to make themselves more visible and approachable. A simple, but purposeful “hello” to folks as you walk around on your way to visit a senior partner’s office may be all it takes.

In addition to the high focus for HR on being a strategic partner to the business, being employee advocates makes good business sense and it should continue to be a major role for the function. Initiatives to establish relationships will stretch the time spent at the office, especially in the beginning of their implementation and while they’re consistently built. However, if HR’s intent is to be seen as approachable and accessible, it must first put the effort on being “seen,” literally.

Employees who value their relationship with their HR partner tend to demonstrate onus over their careers. They approach HR with a vision for where they want to go in the organization and they invest time and effort in following through on the advice received.

Harmony over balance

Perfect balance is nearly impossible to achieve, but if we could at least have a harmonious relationship with both sides, it will soften the impact when we advise contrary to the expectations of the parties involved. Some may not like our decisions, but if they can respect our professionalism, then we’ll have a solid ground on which to stand and perform our role effectively.  One good way to achieve this is by being consistent in how we go about making decisions. We should strive to be known as much for what we do as for how we do it. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds if new details emerge or if we sharpen our assessment. It means that the filter through which we base our assessments is as clear as possible of certain political influences. This includes avoiding falling in the trap of telling people what they want to hear. This way, they may not like what you have to say, but they’ll always remember that you were straightforward in your interactions. Duality is part of the role, but duplicity must be avoided at all cost.

Similar to the way organizations consult with their HR departments, "HR for HR" is a term used in some organizations as the area where internal HR staff may turn to when they need advice, counsel, or mentoring. NewHRforHR.com is a site dedicated to further the understanding of HR's unique consultative approach, strategic focus, and people-oriented business alignment.