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Getting Rid of HR Is a Poor Substitute for Doing HR Right

If you are a manager nowadays, it is too easy to drop the ball on the "fundamentals" as a manager and then blame HR for a lot of your troubles.
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There is a great article in today's Wall Street Journal about companies that have decided to get rid of their HR Department altogether. It is a very thought provoking piece. Still, the real business takeaway should have been that the problem with HR is usually not HR. The problem is usually that managers don't do the hard part of managing and then they blame HR when that gets in their way!

If you are a manager nowadays, it is too easy to drop the ball on the "fundamentals" as a manager and then blame HR for a lot of your troubles. It's especially easy since so many people fall for "The Myth of Red Tape," which holds that managers are somehow prevented from being strong and effective because they are held back by rules and procedures imposed by HR. That's why I sometimes call this "The Myth of the HR Police."

How do you work within and around the red tape? Stop making HR the excuse! To be successful as a highly-engaged manager, your best bet is to work with HR as a strategic partner instead of treating them as an obstacle.

Unfortunately, the typical manager monitors mostly just the elements of performance that are easy to notice. Managers focus disproportionately on things like hours in the office, because they can easily see when an employee arrives and leaves. Face time and personality have such undue weight simply because they are literally staring the manager right in the face. And then there are those online daily reports and weekly spreadsheets that are delivered right to a manager's computer screen or in-box. But all this business data or knowing exactly when an employee comes and goes doesn't tell you what an employee is actually doing in his office or work-station during those hours at work. Tracking concrete actions takes a lot more effort.

Why do so many managers and employees often find the review process to be inadequate, incomplete, unfair, or downright capricious? Because reviews usually fail to accurately measure the employee's actual performance over the course of the previous four, six, or twelve months. Throughout the course of the year, managers rarely conduct an ongoing, explicit evaluation of each employee's concrete actions against clearly stated expectations. When prompted by HR to write reviews or rank their employees, they scramble to complete obtuse "measurements" because they are required to do so. How often do we hear about managers asking their employees to do a "first draft" of the review to give the manager something to work from, and fast, because the deadline is approaching? Usually, managers assemble evaluations, reviews, and rankings based on the scant records they have kept during the year.

In short, the real problem with HR requirements is not HR. The real problem is that most managers rarely document performance unless they are required to.

When is the only time managers typically take the initiative to rigorously document performance? That almost always happens only when an employee has serious persistent performance problems. Why would managers only want to keep score when they have a proven loser who is losing?!

Usually, a manager calls when she wants to take some kind of disciplinary action against an employee. So the HR specialist will ask the manager, 'How long has this been going on?' Usually, it's a problem that's been going on for a long time. 'Have you been documenting this problem?' The answer is, typically, 'No, not really.' The problem has been going on for three years and the manager hasn't been documenting it at all, so HR can't do much to help this manager. Instead, we will provide the manager with a formal documentation process that will allow the manager to meet our requirements for taking disciplinary action. The process includes a date and time log for recording verbal requests and verbal warnings, as well as a process for written warnings. After the second written warning, the manager can put the employee on what most organizations call a "PIP."

PIP stands for performance improvement plan. PIPs are very common in the world of human resources. The PIP is considered a punitive disciplinary process that usually follows a number of verbal and written warnings. Here's how it works. The manager and the employee together set clear expectations and work out a plan for what the employee needs to do to improve performance. Goals are broken down into concrete steps and to-do lists with tight deadlines and guidelines and parameters are clearly spelled out. Every week, or sometimes every day, the manager is supposed to monitor the employee's performance very closely according to the plan and document regularly whether the employee's performance meets expectations.

In short, the standard punitive disciplinary process for employees with the most serious performance issues actually forces managers to do what they should have been doing every step of the way anyway! It should be no surprise that the PIP process succeeds about half the time in improving performance. The standard PIP actually covers the basics of managing. Amazing! If it works this well with employees who have developed track records of serious performance problems, imagine how well it works with employees who are already doing just fine.

Put every employee on a PIP. Call it something else if you must. It shouldn't be used as a warning, a punishment, or a path out the door. It should become standard operating procedure for everyone. The standard performance improvement plan is the perfect format for documentation: The manager writes down expectations for the employee at the beginning of each week, then monitors and documents closely how the employee's concrete actions are meeting those expectations. That's exactly what every manager should be doing with every employee -- good, bad, and average. Document how every employee's actions are meeting expectations every step of the way.

One human resources executive once told me: "When a manager does his part in documenting performance, it allows HR to do our job. You should see what happens when we get a call from a manager who has actually been documenting performance. Bells and whistles go off. We yell out, 'Hey, we got one! We got a manager who is documenting performance!' That's how rare it is. If every manager had every employee on a PIP all the time, our job would be so easy," says the HR executive. "But then if every manager had every employee on a PIP all the time, it would make the manager's job much easier, too, in the end. If you are really tracking performance that closely, the employee can hardly fail." And if he does, "you get him right back on track immediately. You can really do that if you are tracking performance that closely."

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