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Dec
11 2011

Ed Lawler: Time for a Reset in HR

Syndicated from: balance-AND-results

HRPA’s roundup of news continues to be interesting. They included a link to HR professor/guru Ed Lawler’s recent article in Forbes, which in turn is widely read among senior executives. I agree with Lawler and think his views are not only worthy of attention, but essential for HR people to know these are key messages going to senior executives from such highly respected sources. Although critical and recommending change in HR, he is constructive – also recommending commensurate compensation, and – perhaps more importantly – highlighting the distinction that is rarely made in articles complaining about HR (like the old “Why We Hate HR” from Fast Company, which is still a teaching tool in some very high level HR courses and still draws comment even in Fast Company. The latter, by the way, is a very solid talent-management based commentary on HR strategy as it’s evolving. Lawler’s ultimate point is the theme that HR is merely administration surfaces again and again for a reason- but one which has a solution. Lawler doesn’t make the link, but we can see the parallel in finance. He argues HR should be regarded as having two distinct levels or divisions – one handling highly administrative tasks needed to be done by someone to keep organizations going. This isn’t to say these are simple, easy or unimportant, but they aren’t the whole story. The other level or division needs to be concerned with more strategic solutions – organization effectiveness, which is far more intangible, takes time and is often short-changed when busy HR people get bogged down in the admin duties. Think finance divided into Accounting and Business Strategy – Controllership and CFO roles, which admittedly are sometimes combined in smaller organizations. Even when combined, however, we need to recognize clearly the differences and we are helped if we distinguish between the wrongly maligned ‘bean counters,’ whose jobs are nonetheless essential, and the financial strategists in our organizations. Admin versus strategic roles are often lumped together by complainers who dislike financial or HR controls that were set up as part of a strategy at one point. It’s human to personalize a gatekeeper as the author of a ‘stupid’ rule, but there are virtually no articles suggesting the companies try to run entirely without finance people or that they completely outsource finance. Most organizations would rather have the bean counting end of finance in-house actually, where they can argue and improve procedures they don’t like than outsource to an inflexible, lock step system that doesn’t quite fit their organization. This is so much the case that you probably haven’t even heard much about financial outsourcing apart from occasional admin items such as payroll or basic bookkeeping. Few suggest finance be outsourced entirely and let line managers set their own strategies, yet we continually hear this question or “threat” about HR. The answer is, of course you can outsource whatever you want, but outsourcing HR is more than sending out benefits admin and letting managers decide who can have promotions, days off, special pay increases or be fired on their own. Promote the wrong people through expediency or favoritism and you have a formula for destroying the very engagement you want HR to strategize for. By keeping in mind the distinction between admin and strategic principles, we give gatekeepers in HR the opportunity to seem more logical. They aren’t preventing a pay increase to be petty, nor because they fail to understand good people need bigger rewards. Unfortunately some in the admin roles leave the impression they are personally making the decisions about what’s “right” or “wrong,” leaving a trail of line managers who feel they have “tangled” with HR too many times and just want to be rid of them. What we need is everyone to understand the strategies and that includes gatekeeping HR staff who have to explain at the lowest level why they can accede to every individual’s personal desires of the moment. Oddly finance doesn’t seem to suffer this personalization except perhaps in the way people feel about them when their travel expenses are refused. But in the end that’s just money and generally not a lot of it, not highly emotional questions like whether I get paid for a sick day for taking my kid to the hospital. With every one of these situations involving different facts, the myriad of possible answers and long-lasting frustration is far greater and more delicate than ‘you can’t charge that new tie because you spilled gravy on it.’ Do we really want to outsource such HR decisions to a lock step process or would it make sense to use such complex questions to improve policies over time in keeping with a long term culture strategy? Internally we have a greater challenge in educating HR gatekeepers about how to communicate such decisions and refer people to the strategy level when they simply don’t understand the explanation. HR has to be the best communication department in the organization to prevent these sorts of frustrations from festering. Keeping both eyes on both admin and strategy, but recognizing the difference, is crucial. Bookmark and share this post More »

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