As promised in The Role of HR - Part 1, this post will help you understand how to operate most effectively given that HR exists to minimize legal risk to the company.
The first step is to truly understand what that means for you. The fact that HR's underlying motivation is about legal risk has genuine pros and cons for every manager and every employee in the organization.
- HR will prevent the boss from doing something stupid. There are a lot of stupid bosses out there. Even if you are a smart boss, extremely frustrating situations can make you do stupid things. HR is there to prevent you from diving off a cliff.
- HR law is complicated. It is imperative to have someone more expert than you as a guide to legal-friendly processes. This is true whether you are working on disciplinary action, hiring decisions, or any other managerial process.
- A good HR department will indeed create a better workforce in some contexts. For instance, hiring processes that improve DEI initiatives also happen to be the processes most likely to hire the best candidate for the job (as both are grounded in removing biases from the decision).
- Extra layers of complication. A termination decision might not be judged on face value ("Is the employee failing to meet expectations?"). The bigger factor for HR may be how argumentative or litigious the employees seems to be. Ironically, more argumentative people (and therefore people less open to feedback, teamwork, etc.) may be given a longer leash.
- Slower processes. There are times when you know an employee needs to go. In order to do it in a way that minimizes risk, however, you need to draw it out with months of performance improvement plans or disciplinary hearings. (This is the other side of the coin to stopping stupid bosses from doing stupid, rash things)
- A bad HR department will be so focused on minimizing risk that it ends up leading to unethical practices. For instance, your organization might use a points-based system for grading interview candidates. If managers have no faith in the system, but HR demands that they hire whoever gets the most points, then hiring managers might "game the system" by waiting to score all candidates after they have made their choice. That would be both unethical and ineffective, but it would be not at all surprising.
I encourage you to think through more pros and cons. The more you actively think about the fact that HR exists to minimize risk, the more your will accept it. The more you accept it, the less frustrated you will be about it.
Here are a few more tips to add to your body of knowledge on this topic:
- Recognize that HR is your consultant, not your boss. Or, to keep the metaphor in legal terms, HR is your lawyer, not your judge. They give you advice based on their expertise and point of view. But they do not decide for you. Termination decisions, hiring decisions, the degree to which you are allowed to delegate, and all other managerial decisions are the management team's decisions. Your lawyer can strongly encourage you to take a plea deal, but it is your call. Your HR department can strongly encourage you to hold off on letting go of that poor performer, but it is your call.
- Recognize that you may be wrong: HR has gone though ten times or one hundred times more of these battles than you have (regardless of what we mean by "battle" here). It is not only a good political decision to slow down and listen to what they say. It is also the wise decision. Recognize the limitations of your own perspective and take time to reassess. Make absolutely sure that you have taken HR's advice into account before proceeding with any contrary decision.
- Recognize the power dynamics in your particular work environment: All of the advice here is true, in theory. However, you need to be smart enough to understand the nuances of your work environment. If you are the only person who understands that HR isn't in charge of deciding who to fire, then you're the one who is wrong. Every workplace has its own house rules about how things work. You must moderate your actions based on the context of your situation.
I want to take a moment to drive home the point that it is not HR's decision whether or not someone should be let go.
That decision rests somewhere in the chain of managerial command. This is something that many, many people misunderstand. I would venture to guess that even the majority of high-level managers/executives don't fully comprehend who is ultimately responsible for the termination decision.
It simply cannot be HR's decision. First, theirs is a support department. Team composition is an operational decision that is integral to the core process of the business. Support departments do not make operational decisions. Second, we mentioned the HR mantra "let's find a way to make sure this doesn't escalate further" in Part 1. If the termination decision is in the hands of HR, no one will ever get fired. There will always be something else to try before taking that step. Termination is the ultimate escalation of the issue, which is contrary to their mantra, contrary to their entire way of thinking about problem-solving.
If you find yourself in a situation where no one understands this fact, then I encourage you to remove termination from your managerial toolbox. Stop thinking about it as an option. If termination is truly in the hands of HR, then it will take an act of arson for anyone to get fired. You have other tools to encourage effective performance. Yes, you'll be less effective without access to this particular tool. But it will be worse if you try to reach for it and it isn't there.
Think of HR as the neurotically cautious parent. They are constantly telling you “I don’t know about that” when you want to stretch out and do something new. That is an important and valuable role. Imagine a camping trip comprised of individuals who all love to take risks and just go for it. Those people have a lot of fun, do a lot of interesting things, and have a pretty big risk of somebody breaking their arm before the trip is over. It would be valuable to have someone who is cautious holding you back from the most dangerous activities.
At the same time, if that person has too much power or influence, nothing ever happens. In our camping metaphor, you might not even be able to make s’mores because the cautious person is worried that fire might burn someone.
If you don’t delude yourself into thinking that HR is your friend, you will have a much friendlier relationship with them. You won’t feel betrayed when they do something that is in line with their interests and against yours. HR serves a purpose. It exists for a reason. Understand that reason, accept that reason, and work with that reason.