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It takes two to do the HR Tango

A colleague recently went to a conference event that had a number of business speakers of some experience. He told me that one of them spoke about an ever growing dependency on systems to solve business’s problems when it’s good people you really need. That lead to a question from the floor asking the speaker ‘what do you think of HR then?’ to which they replied ‘if they stick to what they are good at instead of blocking things, then they are ok’. This was from a senior and respected figure in industry.

The day after this conversation I was in a room at a meeting dealing with a difficult performance issue. I have often been expected to ‘manage people out’ as part of change exercises and have got used to the fact that lots of managers go to extreme lengths to get rid of people they don’t like instead of dealing with it properly. In this case I soon realised that the HR manager knew that this was not a performance issue but a personality clash. But he was sitting there trying to go through the process (and heading rapidly to a constructive dismissal case in my view) instead of sitting with the manager and saying ‘what you have asked us to do is unacceptable’

I reflected on the two conversations, and saw that they were the two ends of the same question. What are HR really there for? The business leader saying ‘HR blocked things’ could have worked with an HR person who regularly did what I’ve advocated above I.e telling them ‘you can’t do this’, and they didn’t like it. But they could also have been meaning an HR manager that worked to their own agenda. I’ve seen both and seen mixed results from both approaches.

HR as a voice of conscience:
I’ve often told of a manger I worked for who regularly sat his HR director down and said ‘tell me what I’m not wanting to hear?’. He knew he needed to know what was going on ‘people-wise’ even if it wasn’t his favourite topic. He knew that he had to pay attention to company values as much as he needed to understand potential employment law issues. His HR director was a voice of conscience, but a permissive one. You don’t listen to your conscience if you don’t want to. Does your HR manager have to force you to hear what you don’t want to hear? do you see that as part of their role? Or are they there just to wipe up your mess?

HR as a strategic partner:
How often have you heard that phrase? How often has it been true? I bet the former beats the latter. For HR to be a strategic partner their initiatives and business initiatives need to be seamless. I’ve recently been talking to one great HR manager who is looking to work with a merger team that sits within the business to test, trial, role out and prove a whole load of change tools and processes that the business is lacking. Not just rolling out some training to managers and seeing what happens, but actually working to make the change successful and that being the way the rest of the business says ‘I’d like some of that’. Not dancing to their own tune or just doing what business tells them, but working as a partner. It takes two to tango though, and you can only do that in a business that sees HR as a strategic partner.

And it genuinely does take Two to Tango. HR that dances to its own tune or doesn’t take moral high ground in the face of poor management behaviours does itself no favours. Likewise a business that takes HR out of a box each time they want someone to do the hard stuff and doesn’t engage with strategic HR initiatives deserves the HR team it gets.

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