Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: Collapse the HR Triangle—Enable but Don’t Be an Enabler

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. April 22, 2019
Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: Collapse the HR Triangle—Enable but Don’t Be an Enabler

As a young associate attorney, I jointly supervised a secretary, Mary, with a senior partner, Victor.

We weren't happy with Mary's performance. Instead of confronting her directly, however, we created a management-HR-employee triangle. We went upstairs to Nancy, the firm's HR director, and complained to her about Mary. Victor asked Nancy to speak with Mary.

She did. The result?

The only change Victor and I observed was that Mary no longer smiled nor said "good morning."

Eventually, Victor and I went upstairs again. Victor asked that Nancy fire Mary. She agreed.

Two days later, and before Mary had been notified of her firing, I got off the elevator after lunch and walked down the hall toward my office. I saw Victor coming out of his office, heading to the elevator bank almost at a trot. As he passed me, I said, "Victor, what's up?"

"Nancy's coming down to do the deed," he said. "I'm getting the hell out of here!"

With that, Victor practically sprinted to the elevator bank.

I paused for a moment, looking down the hall toward my office.

I abruptly turned around and yelled, "Hold that elevator!"

Over the years, many HR professionals and managers have shared with me experiences where HR stepped in for managers and had tough conversations with employees. These conversations seldom turned out well. The employee on the receiving end almost invariably felt worse about both management and HR.

On the other hand, I've found that it doesn't work well for HR to simply tell the complaining manager to have that conversation. Typically, the manager puts off the conversation until a rupture point, which makes an amicable resolution impossible.

So how can HR professionals help managers have these conversations in a timely, constructive way? And how can HR do so without creating a communication triangle with the three points being HR, management and employees?

"Oh my gosh!," exclaims Brenda Rushforth, SHRM-SCP, chief human resources officer for Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "This is a frequent issue for me. Managers who won't manage."

Rushforth explains her approach to dealing with this issue: "When I hear from supervisors who have issues with their staff, I help them craft the documents and script the conversation for them. Sometimes the script is just bulleted talking points, and sometimes it looks like a Hollywood script.

"If the scripting approach doesn't work, I will sit with the manager in the meeting with the employee. However, the manager does the talking. I will prompt, but I won't take over. After all, the employee doesn't work for me, and if the issue is there, then it's up to the manager to manage the situation. 

"I find that employees will respond to straightforward, factual feedback. Nervous beating around the bush rarely or never works. If the manager refuses to have the conversation, then I talk to that manager's boss about his or her lack of managerial skill. Sadly, sometimes I have to force the issue, but in the long run, it helps ensure that our managers manage."

Rushforth makes some great points. HR should never enable weak managers. HR should facilitate direct employee-manager communication, but not be a substitute for it.

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.



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