Archive for the ‘HR Role’ Category

Checks and Balances

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.

Posted in HR Role, HR Strategy on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010 | 1 Comment »

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

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.

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Posted in HR Role on Saturday, February 13th, 2010 | No Comments »

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. is a site dedicated to further the understanding of HR's unique consultative approach, strategic focus, and people-oriented business alignment.