HR, Stop Saying "That Will Never Work Here"

OK, maybe it's true that such-and-such practice will not work at your organization. But I'm here to tell you that as an HR professional phrases like "that will never work here" shouldn't pass your lips. The simple reason is that such phrases presume the organization won't or can't change, and HR, if it is to survive as a profession, needs to be focused on helping the organization change, not hindering it.

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Of course, HR people have been conditioned to think this way. When an employee or manager can't figure out how to complete an HR-related procedure, they go to HR. When a manager can't manage effectively or, worse, commits a policy or compliance offense, HR is called in. Through these and other situations, the organization that HR professionals most often see is one that requires babysitting or policing. 

I intentionally used the term "never" to make a point. Clearly, when challenged any reasonable person would admit to the absurdity of using the term "never.".Yet when I hear varieties of this statement uttered the word "never" is frequently used. Thus, the choice of "never" can only imply a sense of resignation; an underlying belief that the organization cannot or will not change. Again, this ought not be HR's modus operandi.

For most of its history, HR has found success in being the keeper of the status quo, indeed, I should say, the keeper of the bureaucratic status quo. Put another way, HR is the keeper of the organization's structure, a word which itself implies rigidity. This warrants a little context.

In organizational theory terms, structure is said to have three dimensions:

  • Complexity - the extent of differentiation in the organization, including specialization, division of labor, hierarchical layers, etc. 
  • Centralization - where the locus of decision-making authority lies
  • Formalization - the degree to which the organization relies on rules and defined procedures to govern behavior

Without delving into theory, it should be obvious that HR is smack in the middle of managing the organization's structure, using such tools as job descriptions, competency models, job families, compensation structures, career models and, of course, policy handbooks.

Doing without these tools entirely seems as absurd as using the term "never," if for no other reason than HR's mandate to manage legal and regulatory risk in employment matters. But, one by one, at increasing pace, organizations are abandoning conventional structures in favor of more "agile," network-centric models. And this trend doesn't just apply to unconventional companies like Zappos and W.L. Gore. A recent HBR article titled Agile at Scale describes expressions of agile organizational design at traditional manufacturing companies, like Bosch and 3M.

When organizations transform along these lines HR not only must find new ways of working, it must go further to help lead the transformation. Obviously, phrases like "that will never work here" have no place in such situations. This online article published in Business Insider tells of one such journey by Zappos' Head of People Operations, Hollie Delaney.

Slowly but surely, as organizations strive to keep pace with change in the digital era, the bureaucratic, hierarchical organizational structure is becoming extinct. Don't let it happen to you.