It has always been my contention that policies should act as guidelines for decision-making not as hard and fast rules that allow no variation. Yet too many managers and HR non-professionals (if you were professional you would understand this) follow the “letter-of-the-law” and end up making poor decisions. So here are two examples of what I call “More Stupid HR.”
In early July a young lifeguard was watching for distressed swimmers from his position on the beach. Down the beach he saw someone in trouble so he hurried to the rescue. By the time he reached the swimmer others had helped the man out of the water but our young lifeguard stayed to insure that paramedics arrived. Upon returning the lifeguard was fired for having left his post. It turns out that the section of beach the swimmer chose to get in trouble was not in the patrol area of the contractor that employed our lifeguard. His supervisor was not mean about letting him go but told him that “rules are rules” and he had left his section of the beach unguarded. The lifeguard said he was just doing what he had been trained to do. His fellow lifeguards agreed with him and others quit in protest or were also fired when they said they would have done the same thing.
Naturally the news media picked up on this story and the contractor has been embarrassed. After all he was fired for doing what a lifeguard is supposed to do and that looked very bad in the headlines and news stories. The company has offered the young man his job back, which he declined because they did so only after the news media pressure. So STUPID HR has embarrassed the company, may cost them a contract and make it more difficult to recruit guards in the future. In my opinion here is what they should have done. First, praise him for doing his job. You want to have lifeguards that take the initiative and not think about property lines. Then instruct him on protocol and rules making sure he had not endangered other swimmers by his action. As it turns out they did find out his section was not unpatrolled as other guards shifted as needed. They should have praised the team for providing that coverage. Supervisors and managers should not have the authority to fire on-the-spot. Investigations should be conducted in a timely manner and then decisions should be made. This situation could have been a positive for the company, the city and the lifeguards, instead stupid HR makes if bad for all parties.
The second example of stupid HRinvolves another lifesaving situation. A Philly firefighter rescues a woman in a burning building, a situationfull of compelling human interest story. The firefighter finds the woman in the building, she is having trouble breathing so he strips his oxygen mask off gives her air and then carries her out of the building. Heroic! Unfortunately the firefighter suffers from smoke inhalation and has to go to the hospital. While there he is visited by a supervisor and rather than being praised for bringing honor to the department he is criticized for his actions. Of course this is the kind of news story the department did not want and after the media attention they have announced that there will be no discipline. But again STUPID HR causes embarrassment and employee relations issues all for the sake of rules. Here is what I would have done. I would have praised the firefighter for bringing honor to the department. Yet let him know that he needs to understand that because of the instincts he has and training he has received he is a valuable asset to the department. The department might consider alternatives to how such a rescue might be conducted. They could use it as a learning exercise while basking the honor of the rescue. Rather the immediate reaction was “you broke the rules.” Stupid HR.
These situations involve people who are inclined to react to situations in order to save lives. Rules can do a good job in controlling standard behavior but they can get in the way of the impulses that you actually hire these people for in the first place. But many jobs, while not involving lifesaving, may still need to take advantage of quick decision-making. Rules may have the effect of squelching these impulses. So before you blindly apply rules and make decisions that can be labeled STUPID HR think about the ramifications.
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