HR departments tend to be criticized by the business for not understanding their true needs. From their own perspective, HR feels they are able to bring order and fairness to the business by developing policies and procedures that ensure a like-for-like treatment of its workforce. A deviation from the rules means that discretion is being applied, creating a precedent to others. And this is a fair point, as managers are strict on reimbursements to their staff but not themselves, or provide salary increases and promotions based on personal preferences rather than professional performance.
Still, the criticism has some value, and is even recognized by HR departments themselves. For example: Last week I was with a company where a high potential left the firm as she was frustrated by the policy which limited the speed of career progression. The responsible HR business partner suggested that HR should do a better job of explaining why the policy is as it is. At that point, the HR director intervened and said: ‘what we do is unfair’. Unfortunately, she did not feel she was capable of developing an alternative without jeopardizing the consistent system they had built over the years.
This is the main problem for HR: how to use sound judgement in an otherwise structured system. The main reason for this is that if policies and consistency prevails, any deviation needs to have a very decent business case. And yet typical HR departments lack insight in the information needed to justify such deviation. It is a huge opportunity for HR to create ownership for their workforce instead of their policies by simply embracing the data that is already there. It would bring the policies to where they are: as an instrument to support the business, not as an objective in itself.
It is not difficult to start making a shift in mindset. It’s a very simple question that any HR professional can use: What information do I need to justify a deviation from our policy? In other words, what would be the objective business case that allows to use judgement rather than policy. What would be the difference between an overly enthusiastic manager and a true business need in promoting that talent faster than the policy allows?
Using this question as a starting point, will help to identify the output that is expected from HR to truly support the business. This would mean a tremendous upgrade of the function of HR itself.
As for the challenge at the company I mentioned, the employee had a couple of unique traits. It was a consistently high performer (3-years in a row), in two different functional areas, with her age lower than those of her direct peers, and, as a bonus, a female in a male dominated workforce. Having done this simple math would have kept the employee.
Any feedback on this post is very much welcomed, curious to see if my observations are being recognized.