HR Roundtable: How Can We Simplify Human Resources?

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Dec 1, 2015

When the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati gathered in November, they decided to run contrary to the general feel and direction of the HR profession. We discussed the topic of — How can we simplify HR ??

The attendees were eager to dig into this topic, and they were looking for the teaser questions to get them started. Here they were:

  1. Why do we feel HR has to be complex in order to be relevant?
  2. Why do we choose a “systems” vs. a “people” approach?
  3. How can we fix this (or can we)?

The discussion was highly energetic and they didn’t want to come back to the full group, but when they did, they had some incredible feedback.

Why do we feel HR has to be complex to be relevant?

  • We feel it keeps us “on the playing field” — HR has an inferiority complex. There’s no logical reason for it, but it exists. In fact, HR suppresses itself in order to keep some mystical balance of not being “too forward.” Therefore, having massive systems that are difficult to maneuver through keeps the perceived control within HR. We want to be seen as equal players with other complex departments.
  • The illusion of quality — We misconstrue that quantity equals quality. It’s the old academic stereotype of “publish or perish.” We can’t say that there isn’t quality in these systems, but they are such a tangled knot it’s hard to distinguish which aspects have value and which don’t.
  • We feel it’s a competitive advantage — By keeping things complex we think that people will be forced to come to us and use us because we are the only ones that understand Human Resources. Honestly, this is extremely narrow thinking. More and more people are becoming HR professionals that started out their career in other fields. It’s not as mysterious as we think it is.
  • Because we fear the legal implications of HR — Human Resources throws the legal banner up quickly and often. It truly may be a potential legal situation, but at times HR folks cry wolf just to get people to back off. It buys us time until we can find if something truly is a risk or not. You should be the legal gatekeeper in your organization, but make sure you actually know the laws you’re citing before using fear to keep people alert.
  • Risk aversion — This is true on many fronts. It’s difficult because a key role of HR in an organization is to limit risk. However, that also keeps many people wary of trying new things. We tend to add volumes and volumes and layers upon layers to insulate the slightest hint of risk occurring. This is an obstacle for the profession
  • We base our decisions on the exceptions — Very few HR systems, policies, procedures or decisions are based on the majority. We tend to react swiftly and harshly to thwart an exception instead of addressing it directly. There are countless examples of eight page dress code policies that could have been handled with a five minute awkward conversation. It’s tiring to constantly approach HR from the fringes to try and keep people in line.

Why do we choose a “systems” vs. a “people” approach?

  • Systems are reliable — Another way to say this is “systems don’t talk back.” You can craft a brilliant piece of corporate prose and it will follow your instruction, advice and direction. Taking that same system and talking it through with folks is difficult because people want to have input. No one has ever enjoyed the “I told you to do it this way” approach, but we continue to try and make it work.
  • We assume the negative impact first — If HR people were honest, they brace themselves for the worst possible response from people every time they have any interaction. The reality is that this rarely happens, but we become so conditioned to get ready for a gut punch that we shy away from conversations in the first place. Ironically, we then create a system which is based on the negative (and the exception as noted above) anyway.
  • People are variable and systems are predictable — Yes this is true. The key is to understand that the variability and diversity in people makes HR the great field that it is. If people were always predictable, the job would be mindless and dull. If that’s what you’re seeking from Human Resources, you may want to consider a different occupation !!
  • We think systems have less bias — This is a huge assumption, and I don’t think it’s correct. Systems reflect the cultures and the norms of an organization. They don’t transfer well between companies or even departments. Even the most objective system will be interpreted by everyone who uses it. That interpretation will most likely be bent to agree with the filters and biases people bring to work every day.

How can we (or can we) fix this?

  • It can’t be fixed, but we can improve — There is no quick fix to simplify systems. There has to be time for reflection and evaluation to see if systems are needed as they stand, or if they can be tweaked. A broad brush approach is nothing more than a pendulum swing which will have to be addressed again and again.
  • Have a vision and mission for HR — Develop what HR is and isn’t within your organization. Quit having others tell you what they think HR is. Define it yourself and own it. Come up with something that is people-centric and go from there.
  • Ask the right questions — Instead of using the pillage method of throwing everything out, develop some in-depth questions that you can ask to people outside of HR to see what works for them and what is an obstacle. Take that data and then use it to create systems which better meet your employee’s needs and expectations.
  • Only ask “How” or “What” — There’s a great book titled QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John Miller. His premise is simple and sound. Stop asking “why” because it puts people on the defensive. You can get to the same conclusions by asking “how” and “what.” Pick up the book and then try it in your organization. It works!
  • Put things on the bottom shelf –– We have to drop the “HR speak” and “Corporate speak.” People don’t talk this way and we shouldn’t either. Keeping things at a place where employees can access them and utilize them consistently is much more effective than using terms to sound intelligent. You want people to understand expectations and parameters. Boil it down to fit their role and what they do on a daily basis.
  • Don’t operate in a vacuum and remove your blinders — Complexity is an HR problem. It’s up to us to address it, but we can’t if we only exist in the HR silo where everyone comes to us. We need to be out among the people and throughout the organization. Listen to what others say. Observe how they feel and interact. Immerse yourself in the whole company and destroy the isolationist approach so that it disappears!

HR can be simplified. When it happens you’ll see how much more impactful being an HR practitioner can be both personally and professionally. Try it out and see what happens!