HR Insights, HR Management

The Five Traits of Truly Lousy HR Leaders

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The things you can always count on in life are: death, taxes, and a lousy HR leader in your organization.

I think I saw that on a t-shirt at SHRM National conference one year! The reality is, HR leaders are selected a little different from most leaders in our organization.

Most leadership is selected this way (right or wrong):

  1. Perform really, really well; and,
  2. Get promoted into a position of leadership, whether you can lead or not.

How HR leaders are selected

I call this “Best Performance Leadership Selection.” This is the selection process for leadership by roughly 97 percent of organizations worldwide! You’re great at your job, so you will be great as a leader.

Pretty sound selection process, right!?

HR leaders are selected almost the same, but with a slightly small difference:

  1. Have really long tenure in the HR department at your organization; and,
  2. Get promoted into an HR leadership position.

Sound familiar? I call this the “I’ve Been Here the Longest Leadership Selection.” This is the selection process for HR leadership in roughly 97 percent of organizations worldwide!

You might be great at your job, but we don’t really care — you’ve been here longer than anyone else in HR, so now you’re the leader!

Sometimes reading what we do, in black and white, is depressing…

5 traits of lousy HR leaders

The problem with this type of HR leadership selection (besides the painfully obvious stuff) is we usually end up with lousy HR leaders.

Here are the five (5) traits of really lousy HR leaders, just so you know if you have one or not:

  1. Rely on faulty metrics to make major HR decisions, and fail to track results. Well, we’ve been using time-to-fill and turnover for the past 20 years here, why would we stop? Also, let’s keep using these subjective measures to determine if we are successful because, well, hey, they’re subjective and at the end of the day I want to show our executives we are successful — whether we are or not.
  2. Not championing weighted risk. Lousy HR leaders love to cover their own ass more than any other single thing they do. In HR we advise on risk and give opinions on how to move forward. Lousy HR leaders will not champion risk at any level for fear it might come back on them. Organizations take risk every single day. It’s not HR’s job to eliminate risk, it’s our job to champion appropriate risk and be all in with our business partners.
  3. Not having the tough conversation. Most leadership fails at this, but HR can’t. We have to be the coaches for all other leadership in our organization. If anyone knows how to have a tough conversation, it has to be HR. Yet, most fail at this miserably. Lousy HR leaders are superficial and shallow in their opinions and directions, and don’t seek clarification on things in the organization that people are leaving to assumption.
  4. Not aligning their vision with the organization’s vision. This is a definite sign of lousy leadership. If your group, department, or function leader can’t create a vision at their level that aligns with the organization, they have no direction. Another sign of lousy leadership is when your leader just uses the organization’s vision and can’t break it down to a functional level. This is just flat out lazy.
  5. Not being able to treat employees equally different. Yes, all employees are created equal. That doesn’t mean that all employees are treated equal. There is a fine line between treating everyone the same and making people feel equal. I want all my employees to feel like no one is better than another, but we also have to have a fundamental organizational understanding that at certain points and times, some employees must be treated differently for the good of the organization. Lousy HR leaders are uncomfortable with this concept because it’s easy to just fall back on “we treat everyone the same.”

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community – so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.
  • tootsiepop

    I’m curious, as I’m a bit newer to HR, but what is the problem with tracking turnover? And are you saying that turnover/time to fill are subjective, or are HR depts using other measures that are subjective? Do you have examples?

  • Tony

    Would really like to see where you get your data from for the 97% of hr leaders are promoted through tenure. Reads like an authors guess to get read. Maybe this is a US centric view of HR and one needs to look more boadly to get data to support your argument. I do however agree with your 5 traits – they made me laugh!

  • Mike Kennedy

    Spot on, Tim! I love when I meet a HR leader that goes against this grain, isn’t afraid to take risks and try new things that benefit the business and employees, and is innovative in general. It’s unfortunately rare, but kudos to those people.