HR Has a Role, But Leadership Has to Take Responsibility For Conduct and Culture

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Jan 16, 2018

I am still processing the significant amount of commentary about HR’s role in the recent sexual harassment scandals. I wrote earlier about the demands placed on HR that keep us buried in adminis-trivia so that we don’t have time for important work. I wrote about my own experiences as a woman in a man’s world 40 years ago.

Sometimes it just helps to write my thoughts, so let’s give that a try.

Many of us are trying to figure out why all this hoopla is such a surprise. Too many are surprised.

Now the professional media is exploding with advice for HR, so HR has added fielding #metoo sightings to its workload, and taking yet more heat for allowing predatory sexual behavior.

Perhaps now is the time. This wave of courage that comes from these nasty males being outed famously and viciously, makes this the perfect time to step up. Now we have support because everyone has seen the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

But let’s not throw HR under the bus for past oversights when chances are they A) did know what was going on, but B) tried their darndest to protect employees and still keep their job. Instead, let’s take advantage of this perfect time, and change the game at the core.

It’s time to give “it” back

What is the “it?” The “it” in this case is the responsibility for professional and appropriate behavior on the part of those in leadership roles.

Let’s be real – where are settlement costs for employee complaints charged? To a centralized HR budget. What is the message to the leader who allowed an environment of complaints to fester?

What happens to the leader when performance evaluations are not completed?

When engagement scores set off alarm bells to HR, who intervenes? That is probably somewhere on the continuum from “HR steps in” to “HR coaches the next level leader to take action.” But it typically is HR’s problem to fix.

When jobs are vacant for a long period of time, who takes the heat? “HR pay scales aren’t competitive.” “HR isn’t sending good candidates.”

Changing the game at the core means handing back leadership responsibilities to those responsible. That sounds simple, but it is not.

One of the most scathing articles about HR’s role in the past decades of the workplace offers thoughtful, long-term solutions to the systemic problem. And it is a systemic problem because the systems, processes, and practices that have long been in place grew up in a different world – a world where organizations created an HR department to fix the system without authority or skill to change the game.

We did the best we could

Over the years, HR has created programs and processes that instruct and frame how leaders and employees should behave. Policies set expected behaviors, and performance management programs set an infrastructure for continuous feedback about performance and behavior, right?

HR didn’t exist when political leaders realized that employees were being exploited in the workplace, so they began to legislate how long employees could work, how much they should be paid, and equal opportunity for everyone based on nothing other than qualifications. And the courts adjudicated violations, creating case law that further defined the proper treatment of employees.

As HR entered the picture, we were faced with enforcing regulations, and compliance became our method du jour. As researchers found causal relationships between how employees were feeling, and the organization’s financial performance, we tried hard to shift from compliance to an opportunity to make a difference in the business through employee engagement.

We asked employees, over and over and over, what engaged them at work. And we patted ourselves on the back for a three percentage point improvement. HR analytics became the secret to HR gaining credibility, so we gathered tons and tons of data, and spent our 15 minutes on the leadership team agenda trying to convince leaders that the behavior of leaders and employees was the key to business improvement.

That work is hard

But creating a workforce that is engaged and highly productive is difficult. It requires leaders who have the skill and will to build the relationships necessary to provide clarity of vision and expectations, genuine caring about employees and the ability to balance the needs of the workforce with the needs of the organization.

That means designing a system that recognizes the critical work of leaders, and selects and develops the skill, will and support to create a committed workforce.

It has to start somewhere

We have to say stop putting HR in the role of coercing and cajoling leaders to do the work they should do. A staff department such as HR cannot be responsible for the behavior of individual employees and leaders; that is the role of leadership.

What we can do is to create an infrastructure that shapes behavior. Our current programs and processes don’t do that. What could be the most powerful tool for any leader has become an annual waste of time that doesn’t improve performance.

We have to go back to the beginning, and facilitate a candid leadership discussion about what kind of workplace the organization wants to be, what it will require to get there, and (here is the big question…) what are they willing to do to make sure that it will happen. These questions force emotion into the equation, and emotion will be HR’s key to monitoring success. All the data in the world is not as powerful as the emotion that comes from a bunch of business people setting a goal, and failing to achieve the goal.

We have to give back the leadership responsibility to leadership. This is the right time!

Is there a watchdog role for HR?

Someone has to do it. The utopian world where there are no jerks will never exist. And yes, part of HR’s role is to be an advocate for employees. Being an advocate, however, starts long before trouble hits.

It starts with facilitating a leadership decision-making process about the organization’s culture and commitment to employees, the business reasons for committing, the processes that leadership will sponsor to ensure that the commitment is honored, and the consequences to those who violate the commitment.

The time to have that conversation is now, while the media scandals are fresh on everyone’s mind. As the organization ponders and decides their commitment to employees, HR has to define our role… and leaders’.

Laying a firm foundation makes it just a little easier to bring violations to the attention of leadership and facilitate their decision about how best to handle. After all, it’s their organization.

So that is my “processing” exercise for today. I would love to hear other thoughts.

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance.