HR Needs To Be Business-Like and Business-Fluffy

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Oct 23, 2019

Question: How does HR sell our services to our internal clients?

Answer: We don’t.

For a couple decades now, we have been told that HR needs to become more business oriented, focusing on aligning HR practices to the needs of the business and the work of HR to the bottom line.

We know this because research has shown that key HR processes – training, talent management, incentives – all have been well documented to help the business perform better.

Unfortunately, research can only be generalized to a larger sample if the variables are identical and there is nothing about an organization that is identical, from the people, to the culture, to the processes, to the leaders.

Researchers like Jac Fitz-Enz, who pioneered measurement in the HR profession and Gallup, which first tied engagement to business performance, have given helpful tools to HR to “talk” the language of business with their operational counterparts. And that’s a good thing, because, as an operational leader once told me, “Business people don’t want to hear about the fluffy stuff.”

So, after a couple decades of trying to sell our services, how has that been working for us? From my research and experience, it’s not working very well. While some business people have embraced the idea doing what’s necessary to improve engagement and develop talent, many operational leaders just don’t “buy into” the direction in which HR is trying to lead them. What we end up with is engagement through compliance rather than commitment.

I have come to believe we are looking at this all wrong. The assumption we have been going by is that HR needs to become more business savvy. Once it does, as this line of logic goes, HR will then be able to influence the operational leaders to do a really good job with things like performance management and employee relations simply because the operational leader is clear that their actions benefit their department’s performance, right?

That’s a pretty bold assumption and I think it is wrong. It assumes that operational leaders: a) Know how to do these things well, and; b) Want to. It has been my experience that few operational leaders really get what they need to do to truly drive engagement and develop talent. And if they do, they have thousands of other tasks getting in their way.

Turning assumptions upside down

Instead of preaching HR’s impact on business results, let’s preach leadership behavior’s impact on employee commitment.

First, we must debunk a myth: HR’s role isn’t to make business or employee decisions. Period. Those decisions are the responsibility of leaders. HR can provide data, advice and coaching but ultimately, the decision must be leaders’, otherwise they cannot behave authentically with their employees. When the answer is “HR said,” the leader looks powerless – not a good look for anyone trying to generate trust.

Leaders are the linchpin to employee commitment. Rather than focusing on how well HR programs can drive business success, let’s acknowledge that leadership is “fluffy” and help leaders be more comfortable with those behaviors that, in fact, do engage their people.

HR can’t mandate

HR programs and processes are guidelines, nothing more. They cannot be mandates because HR does not have the authority to mandate. The very best HR can do is build a compelling case for specific behavior, build programs and processes that influence that behavior, and monitor activity. Holding leaders accountable for those behaviors is the job of leadership and if they don’t a) see the point, b) know how, or c) don’t want to, then the outcome is hit or miss.

Remind leaders about humanity, about how employees are people with strengths and vulnerabilities, with flaws and with feelings. Let them know that their behavior directly influences how their employees feel.

It doesn’t take years of research to recognize that people perform better when they feel better.

Today’s workplace is stressed to the max. Back in 2006, EAP provider ComPsych reported 74% of workers’ stress came from people interactions (28%) and workload (46%). In late 2017, Korn Ferry reports that employee stress levels have risen nearly 20% in three decades.

But HR can influence change

Leaders who contribute to employees’ stress increase their own. HR can help leaders reduce their own and their employees’ stress by changing their leadership behavior.

Remind operational leaders that they were once just “an employee” and probably had the same experiences their employees now have. HR is in the perfect coaching and advisory role to remind everyone about how they would like to be treated and how much of an impact a leader’s behavior can make on employees. It might sound too fluffy, but it works.

Get leaders to “feel” the importance of treating people well.

Teach them how to build relationships

The growth of regulatory environment in HR has paralyzed leaders. Too often HR uses compliance rather than commitment to encourage leadership behavior. Remember the initial management training where HR introduced the “alphabet soup” of compliance (FLSA, EEO, FMLA, ADA, etc.)? Detailing everything a leader “can’t do” instills paranoia. Helping a leader recognize that it all boils down to fairness, consistency and authenticity generates a positive sense of how to build a good leader/employee relationship. Remind them that as employee engagement grows, the need to manage by compliance diminishes and “following the rules” simply becomes the routine of the day.

Don’t let leaders get away with an “if you say so” attitude toward their leadership responsibilities. Give them the pros and cons, and make sure they clearly understand the consequences of a “wrong” decision. But make sure they are clear that the decision is theirs.

Being more business-like isn’t enough

I am not saying ignore the business impact of HR on the bottom line. I am saying that may not be enough to influence behavior change.

By connecting leaders to their own experience and humanity and by coaching them to fully embrace their leadership responsibility by building the trust and commitment of their employees, HR is giving them the tools to lead, build trust and motivate performance.

Selling is all about making the buyers believe they want it.

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

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