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When HR rules trump logic, your culture collapses

HR rules

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Go into an urban center. Find 100 white-collar professionals. Bring them into a room. Ask them, “What is the worst thing about Human Resources?”

Over 80 are going to say “HR rules,” and I can virtually guarantee you that.

(I don’t mean “HR rules!” as in “HR is great;” I mean HR rules as in processes and regulations.)

Let me hit you with one of the biggest tire fires with how we structure work:

  • The same department that policies your behavior is supposed to own your engagement
  • And the same department that drives your firing is supposed to drive your growth

Um. WHAT?!?!?! If you explained that to a three year-old, he/she wouldn’t even be able to understand it. Now, yes, parents police your behavior and drive your engagement — that’s true. But work ain’t the same as family, even though we love to say that.

Meanwhile this same department, good ol’ Human Resources, tends to be desperate for a “seat at the table” when the big decisions are made. That seat hasn’t arrived yet in most companies, and it would be pretty easy to argue that HR could use a big shift in focus. It would also be relatively easy to argue that HR is a misnomer because the department often isn’t that “human” at all.

This is where the whole HR rules problem comes in. There are benchmarks and best practices, and then there’s the idea of genuinely responding to the needs of those who work for/with you.

Let’s establish this first: HR rules are necessary and important 

I’m not arguing for anarchy here. We need rules, and HR is a logical place to stash them for now. Longer-term, maybe each division owns their own rules, or they reside in Operations. But “the rules group” can’t also be “the engagement group.” That makes no sense. You fear/loathe/skate around the “rules group.” How are they going to get any traction on engagement, thus?

My issue is this (and I think others might share this). Oftentimes, HR rules are rooted in 1 of 3 places:

So the HR rules are usually thus:

  • Hidden
  • Not presented with full context
  • Not frequently updated
  • … and yet somehow intractable

Here’s an example from a HBR article

And away we go:

Recently, one of my colleagues left our firm to make significantly more money at another company. We wanted to keep her, but the commission-based salary offered by the other company was more than we could match. She hadn’t realized how long her new commute would be during rush hour, however, and after three days of long, round-trip commutes during rush-hour traffic, she asked to shift her schedule an hour earlier to spend less time in unproductive gridlock.

Her manager denied her request, saying, “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for others.”

As you might guess, the colleague in this story returned to her old job. In this case, HR rules directly caused turnover and caused a market rival to get talent back. No bueno.

That’s an example of a set of HR rules designed with no logic in mind. She was actually offering to come in EARLIER and still got some bullshit answer. It’s convoluted and designed to do what lots of work is designed to do: control a situation, instead of making a situation better.

A quick note on process

HR rules are all good when they work towards something. So is process, and so are regulations. Where this all falls apart is when process is designed for the sake of process, meaning the process is only in place so some middle manager can feel he’s “on top of something.” That’s not productive. In fact, that’s just box-checking. I thought the goal of work was productivity? Oh, it’s not? It’s about exerting control and developing your own self-worth? Why couldn’t they have taught me that in school and saved me a decade and a half of emotional degradation? Oh, the schools wanted my tuition money?

How should we design HR rules?

There has to be some degree of flexibility.

Let me frame it this way: if a mother of three and a single guy come to me with a request to work different hours, listen to their situations. Maybe the single guy is trying to “cheat the system,” sure. But maybe the different hours will increase his output. The mom wants help because she still cares about her career and doing well there.

In these situations, you can’t always “follow the book,” especially if the book has barely been updated in six years.

You need to respond to the people and situations in front of you.

So maybe we have a “council” — more bureaucracy, I know — of people who vote twice/month on personnel flexibility decisions. Maybe the council only has 1 HR person on it, and represents other departments. Just bouncing ideas.

My bottom line would be this, though: however this gets adjusted (and admittedly I have less solutions here than in other posts I’ve done), HR is usually one of the least-respected departments in an org. A major reason for that is their over-focus on HR rules at the expense of logic and human context. So this seems like something we need to get better at, right?

What else would you add on HR rules?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. The role of HR in our society needs to be downgraded immensely. Much of HR’s function is dealing with the legalities of business. The problem is that they are insufficiently trained in this area on a massive scale. Many HR rules are founded upon a “playing it safe” integration of employment law. The intricacies of which they have no knowledge. It’s my opinion that HR is much less relevant than middle management. In fact its the actions of HR that contribute to the irrelevance of middle management.
    I think companies should replace HR with a legal department. The best run companies are those that have a thorough knowledge of workplace and business laws.

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