‘Complementary HR’: HR Learns from the NFL About Complementary Outcomes

If you haven’t heard the term “complementary football,” it’s a performance improvement approach that corporations and HR shouldn’t ignore. This approach increases your chances of winning by ensuring that the outcomes of one sub-team complement and support the work of the next sub-team. Rather than a siloed approach, sub- teams work together in unison.

Most in Corporate America already know that rather than working in unison, HR all too frequently has a negative reputation for operating within independent functional silos. In fact, the label is so pervasive that if you Google the phrase “HR silos” you literally get millions of hits. Rather than silos, what is needed within HR is for each independent HR function (i.e., recruiting, retention, comp, etc.) to directly and fully support and complement the work done by what is known as “downstream HR functions.” For example, training would be a downstream function of onboarding. And it’s essential that they work together because if the initial training is insufficient, the goal of the upstream function onboarding (getting new-hires up to speed quickly) can’t be reached.

Yes, the inter-dependencies in football are similar to those in HR

To fully understand “complementary outcomes,” I recommend you look to the NFL which has championed the concept with the phrase “complementary football.” And if you’re not familiar with the phrase, in football it’s a way to improve your overall winning results. A team clearly wins more when each of the 3 sub-teams (offense, defense, and special teams) produce outcomes that directly make the work of the subsequent sub-team that takes the field much easier. For example, when the offense of your team plays in such a way that it stalls and takes up a great deal of real time, even when the offense doesn’t score, this planned delay gives your defense more time to rest and regroup. So, because of the outcome produced by your offense, the defensive sub-team will be more rested when it takes the field. And that will increase its chances of preventing the other team from scoring. And taken together, these complementary actions will improve your team’s overall chance of winning.

Some quick examples of “Complementary HR”

But let’s shift away from football. Because for some, the best way to build an understanding of complementary outcomes in human resources is by reviewing a few examples. Below are several examples of what I call “Complementary HR” where one sub-function supports another downstream or upstream HR sub-function.

  • Recruiting supports/complements retention – rather than a silo approach that assumes a recruiter’s job is done once a candidate is hired. The recruiting function can extend its potential impact to include retention by adding the probability of a candidate’s retention into the hiring equation. This will make the work of the downstream retention function much easier because those that are hired will be less likely to leave immediately.
  • Performance management supports recruiting – whenever a recent hire is leaving for performance reasons. It makes sense for the downstream functions of employee relations and performance management to report the root causes behind each recent hire’s failure back to the upstream recruiting function. That information will allow the recruiting function to adopt more accurate selection criteria for future hires in the job family.
  • Benefits supports/complements productivity – rather than simply offering benefits because they seem to be popular. The benefits function could support the workforce productivity team by offering benefit programs like wellness, stress reduction and how to get more sleep. Data supports the fact that the outcome of these programs directly increases employee productivity.
  • Recruiting supports hiring managers – The recruiting function can directly support the hiring managers recruiters serve. They can do that by more accurately screening resumes and interview slates so they contain no candidates who really have no chance. This, more accurate screening, would prevent a significant waste of a hiring manager’s time. Recruiting can also help managers increase their revenue by filling open revenue generating jobs faster and with better performing talent.
  • Compensation supports/complements recruiting – In today’s highly competitive talent marketplace, fast hiring is essential. So, compensation can “complement” the work of recruiting by quickly putting together effective

HR must encourage boundaryless and unselfish complementary actions that support other HR sub-functions

When strategic leaders decide to adopt the “complementary HR” concept, there are several action steps that they should take. The most powerful action steps are listed first.

  • Identify the interrelated HR functions that should complement each other – Start by identifying which HR functional areas have a direct impact on the work and the results of other downstream HR sub-functions. Obviously, the highest impact interdependent areas should be prioritized.
  • Require the results metrics of interrelated HR sub-functions also to be interdependent – If you want more cooperation, make sure that the results metrics for the goals of the upstream HR function can’t be fully met unless the downstream HR function meets its goals. By intertwining the success metrics of both interrelated functions, you ensure that one can’t fully succeed unless the other also fully succeeds. For example, the success measures of both the recruiting and retention sub-functions should include the retention rate of new-hires. Incidentally, I have found that a single “HR index”combining the performance of each HR sub-function is the best results metric for forcing the diverse sub-functions to work together.
  • Make sure the training covers vertical interrelated functions – It is critical that traditional team member training in each “home sub-function” be expanded to cover the roles and the needs of each of the HR sub-functions that occur in the flow of work before and after the home sub-function. For example, compensation people who create offers should be trained on the needs and the problems of the recruiting function. Cross-training between the interrelated teams should also be considered.
  • Employee rotations between sub-functions will enhance relationships – Require each interrelated HR sub-function to periodically rotate employees among each of the other interdependent teams. Increased familiarity helps to break down barriers, while it simultaneously helps individuals in both HR sub-functions to fully understand the unique needs and problems faced by the other sub-function. Rotations can be permanent, or only for short project duration.
  • Measure the actual resulting downstream impact – to ensure that the actual results turn out to be complementary. HR must conduct biannual satisfaction surveys. Team members of upstream and downstream HR sub-functions are periodically asked to rate how the results and the service provided by each interdependent sub-function directly supported their work and improved their results.
  • Recognize and reward complementary downstream impacts – Recognize and reward team members who effectively complement the work of other HR sub-functional teams. Also, recognize and reward those who exhibit cooperative behaviors and punish those that act territorially.

Final thoughts

I have found that executives love football analogies. But despite that fact, many in HR strongly resist them. So, for those, I suggest they study both the customer service and supply chain functions because both critical business areas have been developing complementary processes for years. These business functions long ago realized the tremendous negative impact on both business and functional results when the work of an upstream component doesn’t complement and support the work of the downstream component.

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In my view, it’s long past the time for HR executives to first understand these interrelationships, and then take proactive action to ensure the handoffs between functions are smooth and that the upstream work directly complements and supports those doing the downstream work. I have found that no HR department can achieve excellence until each HR link (i.e., sub-function) in its chain is strong, cohesive and working in symphony with each of the others.

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Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.