HR Responsibility Stop Whining and Take Ownership of Your People Processes

By Dr. Sullivan

Jan. 30, 2008

I routinely hear complaints like this one (paraphrased only slightly):

    “Get real. HR can’t be held responsible for hiring, retention or development because managers actually do the managing of their team. Expecting HR to affect the bottom line is not fair because HR authority doesn’t equal HR responsibility. HR is the scapegoat.”

    My response is a visceral one. If I hear this series of excuses from the HR whiners one more time, I will gag.

    Professionals take responsibility. In business, those who manage a process are responsible for the process’s results. Period. For brand results, for example, product branding takes the heat, even though plenty of managers can do things that actually damage the brand. The same established connection between ownership of a process and accountability for its results must finally be accepted in HR.

    Process owners in every area of business routinely accept the fact that if you design a process and manage it, you own the results, and the associated blame or rewards. They also accept the reality that with that accountability, you will never have total control. Sales, for example, must sell or get no bonus, even though the sales organization might be provided with weak advertising, a bad brand and marginal products. Can anyone honestly argue that HR doesn’t design, modify and manage the processes of hiring, development, retention and, by the way, manager appraisal?

    Excuses, whining and finger-pointing don’t change this relationship. Just because you find it unfair really doesn’t matter. No other function attempts to cry that demanding results from process owners is unfair. Fairness and responsibility are not even measured in corporations. True fairness and authority that equals responsibility only occur in academic textbooks and, maybe, in the Land of Oz.

    The corollary to the “designers take the heat” rule is the “owners must influence” rule. This rule says that if you design and manage a process, you must find a way to successfully educate, convince or cajole everyone that has touch points in the execution of the process—even though they do not report to you.

    In fact, most process managers must flawlessly execute this maneuver again and again—despite the fact that they do not have the power to fire or severely punish. Accounting, purchasing, security, sales and, yes, even corporate counsel all have the relative authority of pussycats. They can’t force. They can only point out and then use the credibility that their expertise and their data carry to persuade those who often have a higher rank to change their behavior. Even lowly accounting has to produce results with no more power than the ability to send managers a threatening e-mail. Influencing others to do something your way also requires that you present it so that others see the direct value to them. If you don’t, you will never achieve great results, let alone be fully respected. Successful process owners must learn to persuade, not order, to produce results.

    Now, turning to HR’s business impact: People really are an organization’s most important asset. Jack Welch said it best: “What could possibly be more important than who gets hired, developed, promoted or moved out the door?” But HR rarely functions as it should. That’s an outrage. HR should be every company’s “killer application.” In sports, the connection isn’t even seriously challenged: Great players and managers produce wins and thus profits. To think or argue that it’s the shoes that made Michael Jordan great or the clubs that vaulted Tiger Woods to the top of the game would be laughable.

    In the business realm it’s the same: Most new product ideas, process innovations, marketing campaigns and customer service come from people, so it follows that business results must also result primarily from people. In the cases where software, machines or smart investments increase outputs and profits, people still make the decisions as to what software and equipment to buy or where to invest. Studies by Watson Wyatt, the Russell Investment Group and the Gevity Institute have already demonstrated a direct relationship between great HR and profit or stock value. So yes, people management does affect profits!

    To me, the reason we in HR don’t take full responsibility is clear: Too many in the profession lack the courage and influencing skills to guarantee results from the processes they own. It’s time for us to stand on the table and shout once and for all: “I own people results and I guarantee our firm will have the best people metrics and results in the industry—no exceptions, no more excuses. If I don’t meet our deal, consider me gone. Any questions?” 

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