Article main image
Mar 1, 2018

When I first started in HR, no one knew who we were. Heck, we weren’t even HR back then. In 2005, popular business magazine Fast Company brought HR into the spotlight, in a not-so-gracious way, with a cover story stating Why We Hate HR. One of the more pithy comments was:

”The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil — and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules resists creativity, and impedes constructive change.”

Some may chastise me for a 13-year-old reference, however, 10 years later Harvard Business Review again spotlighted all that is wrong with HR, with the cover declaring “It’s Time To Blow Up HR.” It doesn’t take much time to see that the complaints are pretty similar to those made in Fast Company in 2005.

I’ve talked about the indictment of HR frequently, including a chapter in my 2018 book “Leading an HR Transformation.” I’ve gotten feedback from some prominent HR theorists that HR has come a long way, and we are no longer the necessary evil.

Okey dokey.

So why does a March 2018 article appearing in both in Marie Claire and Esquire read, Sex, Lies and Human Resources?

Interestingly, the article barely mentions HR. It advises to let HR know in writing if you are a victim of harassment. That’s it. Quite appropriate. But I’m left to wonder why HR gets star billing on Marie Claire.

How did we get here?

Here is my theory. HR, me included, has allowed our profession to let executive leadership delegate responsibility for employees’ (and leaders’) behavior to us. We have not pushed back. We have sponsored all sort of performance management, leadership development, and culture change programs to arm-wrestle leaders into leading appropriately, and so have earned the responsibility for behavior. They said, “You want it; you got it!” And ever since we have been playing the role of trying to get leaders to lead.

The risk associated with inappropriate or illegal behavior has been our “ticket to influence,” and we’ve ridden the wave. We have used compliance as our hammer, and it has not served us well. The risk was elusive; it was too easy to say, “It isn’t happening here.”

Heck, popular fashion magazines like Marie Claire even think HR has the responsibility, and therefore can fix the problem.

I made the statement in an earlier post that we have to give this responsibility back to its rightful owner – the leadership of the organization; ultimately, the CEO. With today’s #metoo climate, we have some wind beneath our sails, and this is the time to give it back.

What HR can do

Here are three things HR can do to get moving ahead with giving it back.

1. Be knowledgeable about the governance

Learn everything you need to know about the governance of your organization. Boards of directors’ antenna are up and should be. A board of directors assumes fiduciary responsibility for the organization. This means that they are accountable for identifying risk areas and overseeing risk management. In a publicly traded company, they must inform shareholders of all information that is relevant to the evaluation of the company. In a non-profit organization, board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.

The CEO and executive team report to the board, and unless they have had their head in the sand for several months, the board must recognize the behavior of leadership as a possible risk. Understand that risk, and frame it as such. You can’t do that without clearly understanding the governance structure of your organization. Follow your board members and know their leanings. Then speak from the knowledge that you understand the risk and want to make sure that your executive team does, as well.

2. Be confident and unemotional

The topic of inappropriate behavior may provoke emotion, but that will not serve HR well. Bottom line – this is a business issue and should be treated as such.

Emotionalism scares the heck out of executive leadership, and it is easy to write it off as “a bee in someone’s bonnet.” Talking to executive leadership about a risk having to do with inappropriate behavior deserves the same research, rehearsal and presentation skill as presenting a change in benefits’ vendor.

Do good research and separate fact from hearsay. Hearsay may be important, particularly if it is frequently similar, but make sure you represent it as hearsay. Provide the resources for your research if not obvious.

Prepare the CEO or executive team; don’t spring an important business discussion on them without warning. Let them know that you have a serious issue to discuss and that you need their undivided attention. Treat a behavioral situation as it should be treated. Seriously.

3. Give the responsibility for the risk back

This will take some preparation if your executive leadership thinks that HR is responsible for behavior, and it may take time. Start by identifying their interest, whether financial, reputation, career — what is important to them? As leaders of the organization, what is their desired outcome for the organization? Ask them, or read the annual report – their interest and their desired outcome is typically part of the CEO’s introductory letter.

Talk with them about what HR can reasonably do to help them achieve the desired outcome. Provide some examples of risks that may influence the outcome and ask what they believe HR’s role should be. If the response is that HR should talk to the offending individual, ask how well they would receive someone outside their direct line giving that feedback. Once they accept that they need to handle a specific incident, offer to help them prepare.

When they agree that they need to take the lead in a more systemic action, offer to provide a proposed approach. Then keep the dialogue open.

Don’t give up

By approaching this with confidence and facts, HR has a solid chance of giving back to executive leadership the responsibility for inappropriate behavior. Even if they agree that they should take responsibility, it may take a while for their actions to take hold.

If you forget to follow up, they may forget to take action.

Organizational misbehavior is in the spotlight, and this is the time to raise consciousness on the part of the executive team, and help them to identify and mitigate any risk. It is a business issue, not a soft or fluffy issue. The consequences have suddenly become real.