HR Administration

You Call It: HR Best Practices or HR Biased Practices?

By Gabby Burlacau

Aug. 17, 2017

Have HR’s best practices of the past become biased practices in today’s shifting workforce?

People in human resources often refer to certain methods as their “best practices.”

The term best practice is somewhat misleading since it is not possible to find a method that is best for every company’s culture and industry. Nevertheless, it is commonly used when referring to HR practices that are widely accepted as “the way we do things.” These tend to be traditional HR processes — things like merit increases, annual performance reviews or the nine-box grid for succession planning — that haven’t changed in decades, and continue not to change simply because, well, they continue not to change.

The problem with many of these best practice methods is they were designed for a workforce that looked different in the past than it does today. Decades ago the workforce was much more homogenous than it is now with significantly fewer women, minorities and older workers.

At that time the norm for these individuals was to pursue other life goals that weren’t necessarily compatible with a traditional career. Now they are entering the workforce in droves, but the concept of career remains traditional, and so do the practices we use to develop employees and grow careers within our organizations.

The annual performance review is a great example of a common “best practice” that is now being recognized as being far from best for today’s workforce. In the past several years, organizations realized that this practice isn’t effectively meeting the needs of their people. It has prompted a performance management revolution with companies ultimately finding ways to embed more ongoing feedback, continuous learning, and relationship-based coaching and guidance into those traditional evaluation processes. What a great thing it was to be able to recognize so broadly the need for change in this area.

But what if your pain points were hidden beneath the surface? What if your company was adopting other traditional best practices that were ultimately hurting the productivity of your workforce and you didn’t even know it?

Chances are this is happening in your company to some degree. But the people your practices are hurting are underrepresented and are therefore sometimes invisible when it comes to your company’s programs and initiatives designed to engage, retain and develop them. Somewhat ironically, your company is also probably struggling with how to build and maintain a diverse workforce. This is ironic because the resolution to one challenge lies in resolving the other.

There are key decision points that tend to favor majority status employees over the underrepresented ones. But it can be difficult to create change in these processes, especially when we’ve done them a certain way for so long. Take, for instance, the extremely common practice of awarding merit-based raises and bonuses that are a percentage of an employee’s current salary. This practice makes a lot of sense. After all, we want to motivate employees to perform well in a way that effectively rewards their contributions and encourages them to strive for more. Where it doesn’t make sense is in the real world, where salary gaps continue to exist between men and women, and between white employees and those of different races and ethnicities. Those who start out with higher salaries are going to see greater rewards, and more importantly, they’re going to grow that salary at a faster rate because of their initial advantage, perpetuating the gap to an even greater extent over time.

Consider also the example of employee self-assessments as part of the performance evaluation cycle. For a long time we’ve used self-assessments as a way of giving employees voice in the process, allowing them to make the case for the performance rating they feel they deserve. The problem is research has shown that women tend to underrate themselves in an effort to appear humble and cooperative, and these lower self-ratings influence how their manager then evaluates their performance. And yet we continue to encourage employees to rate themselves and share these ratings with their manager. In an effort to be fair in our performance management practices we are unknowingly creating a further obstacle for women seeking to grow their careers.

We are in a new era of workforce management where we are increasingly realizing that solving the diversity challenge is not going to happen with greater investments in diversity training or by continuing to carry the “be less biased” message forward that business leaders adore hearing.

Where we need to focus is our people processes, recognizing that the best practices of the past have become biased practices that are no longer what is best for our changing workforce.

Gabby Burlacu is a human capital management researcher at SAP SuccessFactors. Comment below or email

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