Reasons Some HR Departments Make Disasterous Decisions

by Michael Haberman on March 1, 2010 · 0 comments


I have just finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. The book is an excellent and eye-opening discussion of how societies, both ancient and modern, have determined their own fates. Some have disappeared and some have survived and thrived. The book ends with a warning about where we as a global society are headed today. I heartly recommend it and thank an unremembered Tweeter for suggesting it. But my purpose today is not to talk environment or history. As with many things I read I try to apply the lessons I learn to business and human resources. And there are a couple in this book I will be posting about.

The lesson for this post deals with Diamond’s four reasons some societies make disasterous decisions, and as you can see my title for this post is a take-off on his chapter heading. The four reasons are as follows:

  • Reason 1- Groups may do disastrous things because they fail to anticipate a problem before it arrived. One of the lessons I try to teach in the PHR/SPHR certification classes I conduct is that HR should be viewed as a system and not a collection of programs. There should not be a comp program, a recruiting program, a safety program, a training program, a retention program, etc. There needs to be an HR system the interweaves all of those pieces. Failure to do so can lead to unforseen consequences, such as a bonus program that leads to decreased morale due to perceived imbalances in the way it is administered. Having a system mentality may help you anticipate disasterous results and avoid them.
  • Reason 2- Failing to perceive a problem that has actually arrived. There are three reasons this may occur. First, the origins of some problems are literally imperceptible. Second, distant managers who are not on the scene may fail to realize there is a problem. Third, the problem has grown at such a slow trend that the people in the midst of the problem do not see the problem. Decreased morale leading to a slow talent leak may be a good example. Onsite managers do not perceive there is a problem because “that is just the way things are” and distant managers do not visit often enough to perceive it. Perhaps no one is tracking the people losses or lack of productivity close enough to notice.
  • Reason 3- Failing to attempt to even solve a problem once it has arrived. There are several reasons for this that fall under the term “rational behavior.” These include: feeling unempowered to make a correction; thinking it is “not my problem”, or even more insidious, “it is in my best interests to not make a correction” or being selfish. I once did a post on the Munchausen Syndrome, where managers make problems in order to solve problems. I know many HR “professionals” who do not feel empowered enough in their jobs to suggest solutions and some that even avoid doing so because they fear for their jobs and don’t want to “make waves.” Other rational behaviors include a clash of interests between upper management and front line managers or HR.
  • Reason 4-  Even though we perceive a problem we still fail because the problem may be beyond our present capacities to solve, a solution may be prohibitively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late. Decreasing productivity, turnover leading to a brain drain, massive safety violations, major FLSA violations, class action discrimination or union activity are all examples that might fit into this catagory.

Diamond’s discussion of these reasons as it applies to society is much more thorough than is my discussion here of how it applies to HR. I suggest you read Chapter 14 of this book (if you are not reading the book) to get a further analysis.

The good news is that none of this has to happen. It however requires couragous leaders and couragous people. For a Human Resources professional to meet this challenge they must do the following:

  • Be educated in ongoing HR issues and have a SYSTEMS mentality.
  • Be aware of trends in the community, the workforce and the industry in which they work.
  • Have a broader perspective than just the “immediate”.
  • Be aware of how other organizations have addressed and solved, or failed to solve, problems of a similar nature.
  • Be courageous. Have a VOICE. Don’t be afraid to address the “rational behavior” that is counter productive to the success of the organization.

I hope you follow my advice and read Diamond’s book and apply his societal lessons to your workplace. You will be a better HR professional for it.

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