Monday, August 27, 2012

Like Every Function, To Be Strategic, HR Must Bring Expertise to the Table

This week I’ve been thinking about a Harvard Business Review article by J. Craig Mundy entitled “Why HR Still Isn’t a Strategic Partner.” Human Resources professionals have been debating this issue for over 20 years, which Mundy says must mean that HR has been unsuccessful in many organizations in proving our strategic worth.

The article and the hundreds of comments posted in response give a good overview of the debate about whether HR should be a strategic function, and how to get there, from both HR and line management perspectives. Many people have weighed in on what’s good about HR and what’s wrong with HR. Every HR professional, and everyone in business who cares about the effectiveness of HR, should read Mundy’s article and a good sampling of the comments.

Mundy argues that HR professionals should evaluate every action they take based on whether their act creates flow or causes friction in the organization.  He defines “friction” and “flow” as follows:
“Friction is anything that makes it more difficult for people in critical roles to win with the customer. Flow, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to remove barriers and promote better performance.”

In my experience, these definitions – and this focus for HR – are insufficient, because they are too subjective. Who decides what is difficult? Who decides what removes barriers?

HR has the reputation of only being interested in compliance and transactional work and therefore thwarting what the business needs to get done.  Many times this is true, but what happens when non-compliance brings on litigation that threatens the profitability – or even the existence – of the company? Isn’t it “strategic” to recommend compliance that is necessary to keep the organization in business?

People in organizations tend to think of friction as anything that makes it more difficult for them to do what they want, rather than whether it fosters the creation of a good relationship with a valuable customer.  Similarly, they view flow as anything that removes barriers for them, and not necessarily whether it promotes the overall performance of the organization.

Given the parochial interest of most corporate managers, what is HR to do? To be a truly strategic partner, HR must make its own assessment of the best long-term needs of the organization.  Obviously, this cannot be done in a vacuum, and requires consultation with – and even obedience to – the leaders of the organization.

But for HR professionals to be strategic, they cannot allow others to determine the right course of action without bringing their own experience, expertise and influence to bear.

By arguing that HR must bring an independent expertise to the table, I am not disagreeing with Mundy’s point that HR needs to have a business perspective.  To the contrary.  I am saying that HR is no more and no less likely to be taking the business perspective than any other function.  All divisions within the company need to avoid taking parochial positions, and all are prone to it.  All groups need to work together for the benefit of the whole.

The true debate isn’t whether HR is strategic or not, but whether HR brings a valid and valuable perspective on what direction the organization should take, and whether HR has the expertise and capacity to move the organization in the desired direction. It’s the same debate that is needed about every other function in the organization.

In your experience, when has HR been a hindrance, and when has it been a help?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Favorite Firings – Next in the Series: Fired for Donating an Organ

Would you donate a kidney to your brother?
Here’s a recent Missouri case that makes me wonder “what was this employer thinking?” I don't think all terminations resulting from an employee’s medical issue are against public policy. But in most cases, showing a little compassion is the right thing for an employer to do. Managers should think long and hard before firing an employee with a serious medical situation.

The Facts: In Delaney v. Signature Health Care Foundation, No. 97419, 2012 LEXIS 694 (Mo. App. E.D., May 22, 2012), Norton, J., the Missouri Court of Appeals decided that Phyllis Delaney had been wrongfully terminated for taking time off to donate a kidney to her brother.

Ms. Delaney worked for Signature Health Care Foundation as a data entry clerk. When her brother needed a kidney transplant and she was a match to provide him with a kidney, Ms. Delaney told her employer that she would be off work for four weeks. According to Ms. Delaney’s allegations, Signature Health first approved her absence, then changed its mind three days before surgery and fired her.

Missouri is an employment-at-will state, which means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason, but not for an illegal reason. Missouri recognizes a “public policy” exception to the employment-at-will doctrine – an employer may not fire an employee for a reason that is contrary to well-established public policy in the state. Specifically, the Court of Appeals in Delaney said:
“Missouri Courts have recognized four categories of the public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine. Specifically, an employee has a cause of action when he or she has been discharged for: (1) refusing to perform an illegal act or an act contrary to a strong mandate of public policy; (2) reporting the employer or fellow employees to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy; (3) acting in a manner public policy would encourage; or (4) filing a claim for worker's compensation. Hughes v. Bodine Aluminum, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 353, 356 (Mo.App.E.D.2010).” 

In her lawsuit, Ms. Delaney claimed that Signature Health had wrongfully terminated her employment in violation of Missouri’s public policy encouraging organ donation. Signature Health won a dismissal of the lawsuit in the lower court, but the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed.

Based on a review of several Missouri statutes, the Court of Appeals held that Missouri public policy does encourage organ donation. Therefore, firing an employee because he or she is an organ donor gives the employee a claim under the public policy exception to Missouri’s employment-at-will doctrine. Ms. Delaney deserves her day in court, according to the Court of Appeals, and she will now have an opportunity to prove that in fact she was discharged because she had decided to donate the kidney to her brother.

The Moral: Before managers decide to fire an employee, they should take a step back and think about how the termination would look to an outsider. I always told managers to ask themselves how the case would look in the newspaper, or if they were telling their mother about the situation. If you don’t want to explain yourself to the public or to your relatives, then the termination is probably not a good idea.

In this case, would any rational manager want to explain that they fired a woman because she was going to give her brother a kidney?

In addition, managers should consider whether there are any statutes or regulations that might support a public policy claim like in the Delaney case. If there is any question, talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Ms. Delaney has not yet won her case. It might be that the employee’s absence in this case would truly cause the employer a hardship, and the employer might be able to prove that public policy does not require them to endure the hardship to support her organ donation. But Signature Health had better be able to prove some defense that overcomes the policy in favor of organ donation at trial. Could they not have hired a temporary data entry clerk for the work that Ms. Delaney would miss for four weeks?

In my opinion, they are facing an uphill battle in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. What do you think about this situation?

* * *

I’m still soliciting ideas for stories on workplace terminations to publish. If you have an interesting situation, please email me or leave a comment below. But please disguise the facts to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent) unless the situation is well-publicized, and then include a link to support your story. I will only publish verified stories.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Not Use Conjoint Analysis To Determine Citizen Preferences?

I recently participated in a couple of online surveys that used conjoint analysis techniques to determine my preferences as a consumer.  Conjoint analysis is a statistical technique used to determine what combination of features or attributes people prefer and how those attributes influence people’s decision making.
So, for example, one of the recent surveys I answered dealt with choices a company could make about new products they could offer – which would I be more likely to buy at what price? The other survey I participated in was about transportation services, and which services I would value at what cost. The questions got harder. As I made choices, I was shown packages of products and services that I valued more and more similarly, or where the costs got closer to what I was willing to pay. Still, I had to choose, and that gave the survey sponsors more information about what I valued.
These surveys and my memories of other conjoint analysis surveys I’ve taken in the past on employee benefits and other topics got me thinking about use of this technique to address many of our nation’s problems.
Do we really know what choices our citizens would make, how they weigh various options? Why don't we ask?
Conservatives assume everyone would rather pay lower taxes and have less government intrusion in their lives. Liberals assume everyone wants more even income distribution and a higher level of subsidized or free government benefits. But has anyone ever asked the citizenry what they want? And been willing to deal with the responses?
Obviously, we would all like to get more for less, the most goods and services for the least payment. And ideally, we would all like to live on a generous dole without having to lift a finger to work nor to pay a dime for our comfortable leisure.
But we know that is not an option. So which, among the many realistic options our society could choose, would you prefer?
Should we leave our federal government spending at its current level and raise taxes to cover it, or should we reduce federal spending and keep taxes the same? Or reduce spending further and reduce taxes as well?
Then let’s talk about income redistribution. How much should a billionaire pay in taxes? How much a millionaire? Someone making $250,000? Or $50,000? Or $20,000?  What is raised by each of these levels of taxation? What does that mean for spending? Are you satisfied with that level of spending? If not, whose taxes would you raise by how much in order to cover the level of spending you desire?
The technology exists today with conjoint analysis to put a variety of baskets of government goods and services and taxes and regulations in front of people and ask which they prefer. With a conjoint analysis survey, as I indicated above, the choices get progressively harder, as people are asked to differentiate between things they value more and more equally.
But at the end of the survey, you would have a pretty good idea of what our citizens really want. There would be a range of what people want, but you’d know where some consensus might be found. Wouldn’t that help our hidebound politicians on both sides of the aisle?
The issues of government taxation and spending are complex. But so are the issues we address in our daily lives. Only the dollars are smaller in our households than in our government. Maybe we should treat our citizenry as responsible adults and let them have a voice.
What is stopping our lawmakers and think tanks from asking what people want? The fact that they don’t want to know, because then they would have to try to address the citizenry, rather than satisfy their own predilections.
Would you like to make your choices known?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step Four = Recognize the Difficulty of Change

Last week, I wrote about office politics, based on Chapter 7 of Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge.  Now let’s look at Chapter 8, in which Bellman describes the realities of the change process and why it is so difficult.

In Chapter 8, Bellman lists nine realities of change. His descriptions range from a paragraph to a page and a half. I’m going to give a one-sentence statement about each reality, then explore a couple that struck me as particularly important for change agents today.

Bellman’s nine points about change are

1. Change is profoundly difficult: Most change agents overestimate their ability to bring about change and underestimate the organization’s ability to maintain its current state.

2. Rapid change is dangerous: By definition, change contradicts the established way of doing things, and we underestimate the difficulty of changing people’s ways, so change is likely to be slower than we would like.

3. Sound change is rooted in respect: As explained in an earlier post, [link] we need to respect the reasons why the organization is the way it is; if we do not, the organization will resist our efforts at change.

4. Resistance demonstrates power: Resistance is how the people in organizations demonstrate their strength; we need to involve them in the process so they help, rather than resist our efforts.

5. Perseverance is a lost art: Determining what changes are necessary in an organization is easy, compared with the difficulty of embedding the change into “how we do business” so that our changes maintain themselves.

6. Continuous innovation is crucial: We can’t move on after one huge change effort; making continuous small changes over time might be more effective.

7. Ideas must find their time: Our ideas for change might not fit the time, and old ideas that were passed over might be right for now.

8. We change changing organizations: While we are in the middle of our change initiative, the world and its impact on our organization continues to evolve – organizations are not static and we need to remain flexible.

9. There are perils to success: Once we are successful, people move on, and we must be prepared to change again.

And there, in nine steps, is Bellman’s discussion of how to bring about change. As I re-read this chapter, I recalled the following from my own experience:

  • The organizations I worked in hated large-scale change initiatives. The organizational design folks took on change effort after change effort, and most managers resisted. Their resistance was not futile; they often could delay and sabotage even the best designed change effort. Maybe small nudges would have moved us further in the long run than large-scale programs that took legions of people who didn’t want to cooperate.
  • One organization I worked in focused for years on “continuous improvement.” Some efforts saved a few thousand dollars, others saved millions. All improvements were celebrated. This organization was one of the more innovative groups I worked with.
  • Change does not take place in a vacuum – no organization remains the same for more than one sales season, and often for far shorter. People change, customers change, we ourselves change. The reality of change is messy; it’s not a laboratory, it’s a marketplace.

* * * * *

In this four-week review of Part 3 of Bellman’s book on empowering yourself with the truth, we have looked at how we need to analyze our current reality, how to empower ourselves, at the realities of office politics, and this week at the difficulties of change.

What has your experience been with these issues? What has brought you success on change initiatives?