Many of you will be enjoying a return to pre-pandemic normality. I am just loving the revival of freedoms that we took for granted two years ago – seeing family and friends, having the option to travel, not having my glasses steam up when I’m wearing a mask. All the usual stuff.

Returning to normal can be wonderful. For HR, it can be a mixed blessing. Yes, we don’t have to deal with constant crises. We can now offer flexible, hybrid working as the norm. We have made virtual hiring, onboarding and L&D happen.

But on the other hand, we are seeing an unwelcome return of too many of the old ways of thinking. For every company offering fantastic hybrid benefits, there are an equal number of managers who want everyone back in where they can see them. From having to trust people during lockdown to deliver outputs without micro-management, there are numerous sighs of relief as managers feel they can go back to micro-managing their staff.

I think it’s important for us in HR to take a step back and reflect – what did we learn during Covid? What did we learn about managers’ capabilities, the ability of our people to change and adapt, and what did we learn about ourselves? If we can consolidate on what we’ve learned, maybe we can avoid the slippery slope back to old ways of thinking and leading?

We learned that people can change really fast

Imagine having an HR project where the end result would be the majority of our employees working in new locations, with new technologies and in new ways. You can just picture the scale of the project plan, the amount of stakeholder engagement, training programmes and communications. And yet it just happened.

What’s the learning here for us? I think it’s about looking at people and change through a new lens. Instead of our mantra being ‘people don’t like change’ – we need to see change as something we do really fast – if the circumstances are right. ‘Right’ meaning that we make it easy for people to use, give them the space to find their own way of doing it, and have leaders role model the same new behaviours.

Personal choice matters

We all experienced the pandemic in different ways. For people like me, who are lucky enough to have the space, working from home felt like a wonderful relief after incessant travelling. I got to spend time with husband and my Mum (who was in our bubble). Yes, it got a bit tedious at times – not seeing friends, (not the spending time with my husband!) – but on the whole 2020 wasn’t too bad. For others, cramped living arrangements, home schooling and isolation made it all extremely challenging. The return to normal has been equally personal. Some can’t wait to get back to the office, whilst others can’t think of anything worse.

The learning for us in HR is that personal choice matters. One size fits all hybrid working policies are always going to be inadequate. The more that we can enable managers and their teams to have grown up conversations about what works for the individual, the team and the company – the more likely it is that we’ll meet the different needs of our people.

Moments that matter

Even the most introverted homebody will acknowledge that some things are better done in person. Whether it’s brainstorming ideas, celebrating as a team or connecting with someone new, there are times when virtual just isn’t as fulfilling.

We learned however, that it’s important to know which are the ‘moments that matter’? Rather than old-school thinking of 3 days in/2 days out – if we can discuss and agree the moments that matter – when we should be face to face – then we can really get the benefits of hybrid.

The processes that weren’t missed

Quite a lot of our HR processes weren’t missed during the pandemic. Suddenly, our annual talent reviews, performance rating exercises and annual engagement surveys seemed unnecessary or too difficult to do. We turned our long training programmes into bite-sized Teams sessions that worked really well and were so much easier to schedule. Virtual hiring or onboarding meant we had to get creative. We changed our overly complicated mentoring schemes into pop-up sessions. Leadership comms became less formal and corporate. Short and sweet pulse surveys gave us much greater insights at the right time. We got rid of the processes we had been loyally defending as ‘best practice’ since the 1980’s and the world didn’t fall apart. In fact our new approaches gave us credibility and showed HR can adapt at pace. The good news is that many of us are not going back.

We can trust our people

Finally, if we only learned one thing from the pandemic, it should be that our people can be trusted. Turns out they didn’t need the myriad of detailed and prescriptive policies to know how to show up, serve customers and do right by their colleagues.

We should be taking this new atmosphere of feeling we can trust our people and use it to recharge our employee experience. It’s time to take away the rigid policies and replace them with light tough principles that start from the premise of ‘we trust you to use your judgement and do the right thing’. If we take this learning of trusting our people, we can create an environment that is not just passive and compliant but agile and ready to thrive when and if the next crisis hits.

When we started Disruptive HR seven years ago, even having the words ‘Disruptive’ and ‘HR’ together in our company name raised eyebrows. Now, our name isn’t so much of a provocation. It’s more a statement of fact! HR is disrupting – sometimes with rapid speed – often very slowly – but it’s happening!  It is so great to see the increased appetite for change. The continued increase in business challenges such as digitisation, plus major global events such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have combined to prompt even the most traditional to think ‘Maybe it IS time to do something different in how we lead and engage our people?’

We are seeing bold and ambitious people plans. And we’re seeing business leaders making greater demands of their HR colleagues. But are we ready for this increased appetite? When we look at the team around us who will take on these challenges to do HR differently – are we confident that they have the skills, the mindsets, the experiences and the relationships to make it happen?

If we’re not confident in their change readiness, then it won’t matter how ambitious our plans are, we won’t be able to deliver. So how can we check our team’s change readiness? I think we need to assess it against 5 criteria:

Credibility

Attitude

Skills

Relationships and

Resilience

Let’s break this down a bit.

Credibility

It’s not enough to actually have the skills and abilities to deliver – we need our leaders to believe that we can. Sadly, I still meet plenty of leaders who don’t see their HR business partners as having the wherewithal to deliver significant change. Their perception of us as ‘order takers’ for their people needs remains a problem. Ask yourself whether your team has a voice that’s heard and valued. Are you and your team seen as an essential part of strategic decision making? Do they genuinely want us at the important meetings because of our strategic insights – and not just for the potential employment legalities?

Attitude

One way of checking whether your team has a change ready attitude is to ask yourself, ‘how do my team get their sense of the value they add?’ Do they like providing a service to others, for example? Do they quite enjoy the power of being the HR compliance officer? Do they see their role as being about protecting employees from managers who can’t cut it?’ If you’re answering YES to any or all of these, you might have a problem. Change ready HR teams get their sense of value from creating the conditions where leaders and employees do their best work, not from a traditional caring parent or critical parental relationship.

Skills

Do your HR team really only excel in employee relations and employment policy? Yes? It’s not going to be enough! A change ready HR team needs to have a blend of skills in disciplines such as marketing, agile product design and behavioural science. If not, we risk trying to deliver the same old stuff in the same old ways.

Relationships

How tight is your team? Have they managed to overcome the traditional silos of Centres of Expertise and Business Partnering to work together on shared priorities? Are they comfortable challenging each other? Or do your team meetings comprise a series of ‘show and tells’ from each department, whilst their colleagues sit scrolling on their phones? And how about their relationships outside the team? Do they REALLY know the business and understand how the people agenda drives the commercials? Do they have impactful relationships with key stakeholders and understand how different HR products will land in their area? Do they have a strong range of connections outside of HR and the organisation – to bring outside intelligence in? Change is a team sport, and you’ll need these relationships if you’re going to succeed.

Resilience

And finally, how resilient are they? Embarking on significant change is not for the feint hearted. Will they be able to hold firm when the inevitable setbacks occur? Are they flexible enough to adapt their approaches and ideas if they seem to be facing a block in the road? Do they believe, deep down, that change has to happen – and not just telling what you want to hear? Above all, are they confident? Will they back themselves against the resistors and find agile ways of working round them to achieve the goals you’ve set yourselves. More than anything, you need them to believe in what you’re doing – and themselves as being ready to take on the change.

If you want to check out the change readiness of your HR team, why not check out the HR Team Change Readiness Diagnostic here

When we in HR want to achieve a change in behaviour, we tend to resort to a training programme as the way to help deliver it. I’ve done it countless times … Let’s say we wanted to deliver a change in leadership behaviour? I’d put on a day’s training around the skills required. This would usually involve designing the programme, finding an expert to deliver the content, co-ordinating peoples’ diaries and then counting the ‘no-shows’ on the day. I’d probably even throw in a bit of ‘making it mandatory’ just to make sure I’d got to everyone.

Now there are clearly some issues with this. Aside from the time it takes to get the training put on and the time taken from busy people, we know that the human brain will forget 80% of what’s it learned on the programme within 30 days – not because the attendees are stupid, but just because that’s how the human brain works.

We also know that if the people who’ve been trained don’t put their new skill into practice soon after, and don’t have the opportunity to practice it over a few weeks, it’s unlikely to stick.

An alternative you can use to influence behaviour is to use so-called ‘nudges’. Now in the purest sense, a nudge is about influencing the choices people make at the point where they are about to make them, as opposed to trying to push people into doing things using threats or regulations. One of the most famous examples of an effective nudge was used in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Instead of exhorting users to aim into the urinal properly, they etched an image of a housefly onto the urinals in the area they wanted them to aim! Very simple and very effective.

We can use these nudges in HR to help influence the behaviour of our leaders and employees too – by subtlety encouraging a different choice of behaviour at the point when a choice is being made.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Nudges are being used a lot in approaches to Diversity and Inclusion. At Pinterest, they simply suggested that hiring managers be more aware of the amount of hires they were making from under-represented groups. Just this simple prompt or nudge just before they went into interviewing led to a more diverse group of hires.

There’s also the example from the Chief Fire Officer for East Sussex Fire Service – a woman called Dawn Whittaker. When one of her female team passes an exam or does something notable, she sends a congratulations email with a little drawing of a fire chief’s helmet in it! It’s just a nudge to subliminally tell her female staff that they are good enough to think about the top job.

Boston Consulting Group uses nudges to help prevent burn out amongst their staff. They created a macro in the company email application that causes a pop-up window to appear whenever leaders attempt to send a message after hours. The nudge appears at the exact moment leaders need a reminder that the action they’re taking may be putting extra stress onto their teams who might think they should reply to the email immediately, even though it’s late. It doesn’t block their ability to send the message. It simply offers the choice of marking as low priority or deferring the email to the next day.

And finally, Google, who use this nudge technique – or ‘Whispers’ as they call them – to help influence behaviours. They send Whisper emails to managers suggesting one small leadership skill they might want to practice – and they also send an automated nudge email to hiring managers on the Sunday night before their new hire starts. Because let’s be honest, the Sunday before they start is typically when managers actually think about what they’re going to do during onboarding! The email prompts them to introduce them to a buddy and to get a few 1-2-1’s booked in.

So instead of a laborious and costly training programme, maybe you could think about introducing nudges to help you change behaviours.  

HR has a bit of a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the finance function, don’t we? On the one hand, most HR professionals groan at the thought of Finance going anywhere near the people agenda. Insufficient empathy. Overly focused on the tangible assets and the numbers, rather than the intangible value of people. Too interested in short term deliverables and not enough in building long term capability. Too black and white in their judgements. Every HR professional I’ve ever known has voiced these concerns, particularly if we’re unlucky enough to report into them!

On the other, we admire and are slightly envious of their status amongst the leadership team. FDs never seem to struggle with impact and gravitas at the Board. They are pretty good at saying ‘no’ in ways that doesn’t seem to annoy our colleagues as much as when we do it. They are typically great at presenting a coherent argument based on intelligent data and analysis.

‘It’s not you, it’s me’

It’s time to make our relationship with the Finance team a bit healthier and, as in real life, it’s about changing our attitude, not theirs. And the first thing we need to do is to stop trying to BE them.

For too long, we have tried to compensate for our lower status in the hierarchy by copying them. We have adopted their language, for example. We use terms like ‘human capital’ or ‘FTE’s’. We talk about employees being our greatest ‘assets’. We even have our own ‘asset registers’ of people data where we list things like, how many we have, what they’re costing us, and their productivity, in terms of absenteeism rates and churn. But ‘assets’ are things like buildings or computers. We, in HR deal with human beings – beautiful, wonderful, frustrating, mercurial human beings. All of whom are different to one another, who have different needs and wants and who are essentially, unpredictable. Talking about them as assets undermines the complexity and value of our people.

It also means we don’t give our leaders the insights into their people that might help them make better decisions. Churn rates are relatively meaningless in the way we present them. If we are going to copy anyone, we could adopt the approaches used by our Marketing colleagues. Adapting techniques like consumer persona for our employees for example or using a blend of qualitative and quantitative measures to tell a strong and compelling narrative about how our people feel and might be persuaded to change their mindsets and behaviours. We need our own language – one that isn’t filled with finance-like words but which reflect the very different – and human – nature of our work.

You either believe people matter or you don’t

One of the most frequent requests we get from HR professionals is access to data that will help them convince their leaders that it’s worth doing things differently. For example, data that proves offering flexibility will improve engagement. Or proof that getting rid of ratings will improve performance. Or to quantify the ROI on our training investments. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evaluate what we do. But as the polarisation in the current vaccine debate shows us – data rarely convinces people to change their behaviour. We often find that asking for ‘data as proof’ is usually a way for leaders to put off making a decision or to camouflage their fear of change.

People are not as easy to measure as revenue or profit growth. It is incredibly hard to provide proof on people issues. Instead of trying to compile data that’s bound to be ignored or refuted – we need to appeal to our leaders’ common sense, their own relationships and experiences and the feedback from their own people. Take individual annual bonuses as an example. There’s a ton of data and research that shows individual bonuses fail to either motivate or drive the collaborative behaviours we need today. None of this has made the slightest difference to leaders’ preference for them. If we use scenarios, stories, compelling evidence from our people themselves – we might start to have more of an impact.

As I get older … and probably more impatient with leaders who aren’t prepared to acknowledge that people leadership needs to change… I am increasingly of the view that you either ‘get’ the people stuff – or you don’t. If we spent more time hiring and promoting leaders who ‘get it’ and less time trying to find proof for the ones who don’t – maybe we’d stand more of a chance!

Rather than trying to be as credible as the finance team by copying their language and approach, HR can build our credibility by being deliberately different. We will have a stronger and more powerful voice if we own our role as the people experts. We can do so much better than being a second-rate finance partner. We should stand proud as HR – the experts on human beings.

As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer light-touch, agile and less perfect solutions to the challenges we face.

Messy HR has a number of features that differentiates it from the traditional neater version;

So, what do these messy HR solutions look like in practice? I thought it would be useful to look at one of our most popular ‘neat’ HR processes – talent management and compare it to the newer messier alternative.

The neat approach to talent management The traditional neat approach is all about the annual completion of the 9 Box Grid as part of our annual talent review, seeing this as the complete picture of talent strength.

The leaders I have worked with who seemed to enjoy the Annual Talent Review were always those who got a kick from structure and process rather than the great people leaders. The latter were able to do the exercise fairly quickly, but it didn’t create any real value for them as they already had a clear picture in their mind about their people and some idea about how they were going to develop, manage or reward each of them. The leaders who enjoyed the process of neatly categorising were typically the ones who did little with the results and saw the activity as being completed the moment they placed the last name on the grid. We know that great talent management is all about movement – moving up, around, in, out and yet the 9 Box Grid often fails to generate that movement and becomes more about allocation. I can see that having a snap shot of your senior teams at a point in time might be useful as a wake-up call or a reassurance but not much more and, given the inaccuracy of that snap shot, why bother to do even that?

It’s not unusual for talent reviews in larger organisations to take several months to complete. Not only is this time consuming for questionable results, it just doesn’t mirror the true pace of most organisations. Every Talent Review I’ve ever produced was always out of date by the time it was complete and leaders who want to move quickly to recruit or promote are justified in their irritation at the time it takes to get a perfect picture.

So, we spend crazy amounts of time and effort producing a complicated (but neat!) grid that is inaccurate and doesn’t add value. Not a great use of time at best and at worst, yet another HR activity that fails to add value and damages our credibility. Finally, messier alternatives are emerging with much greater impact.

So what’s the ‘Messy’ Alternative to the Annual Talent Review? Firstly, it’s not annual! Instead we’re seeing much more fluid and dynamic talent processes and interventions that don’t have a rigid and irrelevant timetable. Approaches like Western Union’s approach where they get clusters of leaders together for an hour a month to ‘talk talent’. No documentation to fill in, no 9 box grids – just conversations about their teams. I’ve always found that most leaders like to talk about their people, they just don’t like doing the paperwork. Getting leaders to discuss talent on a regular basis helps them get better at it too.

Secondly, we’re seeing greater customisation to reflect the different needs of the talent themselves. At 3M, the HR team identified a number of different segments based on the employees’ main motivation for working at 3M. Three examples of these clusters include employees who are:

“In it for my life”—those motivated by alternative work arrangements, as in “I have a life.”

“In it to win it”—those motivated by a fast-paced, highly challenging, risk-taking environment.

“In it to experience it”—those motivated by developmental stretch assignments.

The clusters provide managers with the ability to tailor programs to various employee needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to career development.

Thirdly, talent management is much less about focusing on an elite few who have been anointed during the talent management process but instead about creating an environment where employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own career development. Initiatives such as Nielsen’s ‘Ready to Rotate’ where employees are encouraged to flag when they believe they are ready to do something different is a great example of this change of ownership.

Finally, messier talent management is all about regular conversations between a line manager and their team, not the once a year career discussion at the annual appraisal. Numerous organisations are now embracing this less structured approach and encouraging leaders to have frequent check-ins which include discussions about career development instead.

Messy HR is often going to be harder sell to our Execs than the neater one. Providing proof of leadership capabilities or talent bench strength feels good because it offers the seductive illusion of certainty. Advocating approaches where there are no guarantees, where ‘it depends’, where it takes longer and where it’s harder to measure may meet with greater resistance but it’s honest and in the long run will deliver greater results. I believe the truly impactful HR teams are the ones who are brave enough to promote ‘messy’ in a world that craves ‘neatness’.

Of course, we work in complicated businesses with a myriad of issues – but the people strategy shouldn’t be a remedy for insomnia. We can produce short, punchy documents that get people energised by our plans and which, more importantly, focus on a few key ambitions that actually matter. In this video (just one of the regular 5 Minute Monday series for members of the Disruptive HR Club) we look at what a People Strategy could look like.

When you look at the research into who we trust, there are some challenging implications for HR.  So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.

And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that we trust our leaders much less than we trust ‘people like us’.

Marketing cottoned onto this a while back. They’re obsessed with Facebook “likes” or positive customer reviews. They know that we will trust a TripAdvisor review over the hotel PR blurb any day and so they have exploited the rise of social media to ensure that their customers hear great things – from people like them. We in HR have been a little slower to embrace this societal change and to use it to our advantage. If we assume that the Edelman Trust Barometer results are relevant for our employment relationships, then this should challenge us to rethink our approach in a number of areas. If we have “trust in people like us” at the forefront of our minds then maybe our reliance on our leaders for communication, engagement and training would lessen and we would start seeing the value of using our frontline employees far more?

Instead of grimacing when we sporadically click on Glassdoor to check out what our latest disgruntled ex-employee has been saying about us, we might follow the L’Oreal example. They had a big campaign where they encouraged their current employees to write reviews on Glassdoor. This didn’t just result in a 200% increase in the numbers they had on there, but also a much more accurate summary of what it was like to work there.

Whether online or via the old-school paper newsletter, internal comms teams still rely heavily on leader-led communication to broadcast corporate information. When I joined the BBC, I was initially horrified to learn that our version of the newsletter was an editorially independent magazine called “Ariel”. Paid for by management – but free to say whatever they liked as long as it adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines. It used to drive me mad that a big chunk of my budget was being spent on a newsletter that would regularly be critical of my latest HR policy announcement. But I eventually realised that it was the one piece of communication that was really trusted. When you have 6000+ journalists working with you, many of whom had the regular emails from Internal Comms on auto-delete, to have a trusted form of communication was vital, even if occasionally uncomfortable.

We have known for a while that referrals from current employees often make the best hires and employee referral schemes have been around forever. But it works the other way too. Who are you more likely to believe about what it’s like to work somewhere? A recruitment advert or a current employee? Equipping your great people with a strong brand message and trusting them to actively promote you either in person or via social media will build far greater belief in your employment brand than a nice careers website.

Some organisations ask employees to help each other onboard. Southwest Airlines, for instance, invites people from all levels of the company, to talk about their jobs to recruits. Whole Foods, the US grocery retailer, actually gets its employees (not the HR manager or the store manager) to decide whether a new starter should stay or not. After 90 days the team is invited to vote on whether to keep the employee; this sounds quite brutal but actually makes a lot of sense given they’re the ones most likely to know if the person is right for the company. Commerce Sciences, a Silicon Valley tech start-up, has a tradition in which the last person to join the team is responsible for creating a starter kit for the next person.

Instead of the parental, leader-led approach to performance reviews, more and more companies are seeing the value of peer to peer review. Whilst getting feedback from your manager is clearly important, understanding how your team members view your contribution can often be even more impactful. The proliferation of employee feedback apps such as Culture Amp and Achievers show that this method is gaining in popularity. But there is also the underused team performance discussion where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers.

Our reliance on the leader as the source of truth is diminishing and smarter HR teams are seeing how their frontline employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. Engaging your employees as the designers of learning content, as the advocates for your employment brand and the genuine voice of the organisation takes more than just time and creative thinking – it takes guts. Leaders and HR find it hard to relinquish control of the message and methods of delivery. But if we don’t, we risk missing out on a huge, untapped resource that can be so much more effective.

We know we’re in trouble when the thinking behind our latest HR initiative is that “if HR doesn’t manage it, THEY won’t do it properly”. The “THEY” in question is, of course, our managers; the people we trust enough to lead the business but not enough to lead our people! You know, I struggle to think of a time when a new strategy or tactic I introduced as an HR Director wasn’t shaped by a desire to compensate for poor leaders. You know how it goes …

…THEY won’t have conversations with their team members? Let’s introduce a system that makes them sit down once a year to do it.

…THEY won’t tackle poor performance? Let’s make them rate their people via a distribution curve that forces them to put 10% at the bottom.

…THEY won’t reward their people fairly? Let’s design a bonus formula that has a number of different measures so they won’t have much room for manoeuvre.

…THEY won’t tell their people what’s happening in the organisation? Let’s produce a script and insist they cascade this through their teams by a certain date.

Whilst our desire to compensate often stems from a positive intent – to protect and help employees or the organisation – the impact, I believe, is corrosive and damaging for three key reasons:

  1. We often make things worse

Instead of achieving our aims of great conversations, fair rewards, effective communication and so on – the processes we make “THEM” carry out often deliver just the opposite. We have produced cumbersome performance systems with complicated ratings and distribution curves that often make it impossible for managers to simply have a great conversation. Instead of rewards that surprise, delight and motivate our people, we have created bonus structures that dissatisfy and confuse. Instead of effective communication, managers end up parroting sterile scripts that they don’t own. Instead of allowing for differentiation based on personal style, the needs of that particular area of the business or the simple common-sense requirement to use discretion, we push one-size-fits all processes that managers often box tick or try and find ways of ignoring.

2. We create a culture of co-dependency

By continuing to compensate for poor managers we create a co-dependency with HR that is unhealthy. Whilst we might enjoy the sense of being needed, by failing to address the doubts about their abilities to lead and manage their people, we remain necessary and fail to help them develop the judgement and skills they need to do it on their own. In a world of pace and ambiguity, where the ability of managers to make the right decisions quickly is paramount, we keep them childlike and limit their potential.

3. It stops HR from doing what it needs to

Compensating for poor managers places HR in a kind of hybrid role of Chief Super-Nanny/Police/Monitor. Not only does this little for our credibility with the business, it also means that we devote hours to measuring who’s done what or doing it for them. If I had diverted just 50% of the time I invested in thinking up new ways to make managers do things into creating the conditions where they would do it themselves, I would have been a much better HR leader.

So how can we begin to change the focus for HR?

Sadly, there are a lot of poor managers, but maybe fewer than we think if we changed our approach? I believe there are four ways in which we can begin to do this.

  1. Don’t design around the lowest common denominator

If our starting point in HR is about how “THEY” won’t or can’t then our focus will remain on making them or doing it for them. An alternative approach is to use “appreciative inquiry” and to look at what’s working well and re-focusing our energies on how it could be even better.

2. Play to their strengths

The traditional leadership competency framework is dated. Instead of producing a list of behaviours that we expect managers to model, it can be helpful to focus on the unique strengths each manager has and how they can lead, engage and develop their people in a way that works for them and feels authentic.

3. Focus on the impact

Instead of driving and measuring inputs (numbers of appraisal forms completed, numbers of people trained etc) we can set expectations about and measure how we want their people to feel and what we want them to experience (ie: we want you to help your people perform at their best, we want you to help your people grow and learn, etc). If we focus on the impact we want them to have as managers but allow them the freedom to deliver it in ways that work for their people, their authentic leadership style, their business context, etc, then we both challenge them to develop and use their particular strengths.

4. Allow judgement

Finally, we must avoid the urge to create more and more rules and instead learn to back-off. Whilst it can be tempting and reassuring to have everything nailed down so there’s no room for error, it also doesn’t allow for managers to use and build their judgement and so we are stuck in this cycle of co-dependency.

The sad truth is that HR cannot really compensate for poor leaders and managers. At best, we paper over the cracks and at worst, we can create conditions where the better managers struggle to do it well. If we spent more time making sure we chose better leaders in the first place and less time compensating we’d do everyone a favour.

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I was reading in the news today about a guy who had just won a legal claim against unfair dismissal. He’d called in sick complaining of a bad chest infection but had been spotted out later that day, drinking and smoking in a bar. His company fired him but lost their claim that they had been right to do so because, their detailed sickness and absence policies hadn’t specifically mentioned that employees couldn’t socialise whilst off sick.

Apart from despair, what should our reaction in HR be to cases like these?

Should we immediately add in a new rule about not socialising whilst off sick? Maybe we even need to clarify what we mean by socialising? Is seeing family and friends ok, but not drinking alcohol? How far a distance from their home should they be allowed to travel? And how long could the socialising last for? Is one hour ok, but not two?

I know I’m being facetious and whilst this particular case might seem absurd and extreme, HR does have these sorts of issues cropping up with depressing regularity.

Full disclosure – I’m not an employment lawyer and my colleagues have suggested that I’m not even a proper HR person as I didn’t come up the traditional HR route of policy and process. But, it seems fairly obvious to me that more rules, more detail, more specifics are not the answer. We can’t possibly legislate for every eventuality. What’s even more important is that by trying to protect our organisations from people like this guy, we penalise the vast majority of our people, who have no intention of calling in sick and heading down the pub.

Tons of rules scream ‘we don’t trust you!’

Tons of rules speak volumes about how little we trust our people – to either behave decently or be capable of using their judgement. And this at a time when we are crying out for innovation, personal accountability and the ability to work with agility and cope with ambiguity. For all our values posters about integrity and teamwork, the pages of fine print we get employees to sign point to a very different culture.

And the biggest irony? We potentially leave our organisations more exposed to risk of damaging claims because we have so many rules – but not the precise one that caters for every scenario.

So, if the answer isn’t to provide more detail, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe this company that is right now reeling from the absurdity of their legal battle, should be thinking about how they take a step back, move away from the detail and instead work with principles, not policies.

Principles not policies

Fortunately, this is a growing trend for HR. Instead of being placed into the role of compliance officer, HR is replacing rules and policies with broad principles that use notions of reasonableness, that start from a position of trust – or assume positive intent.

Let’s look at some examples:

We’ve got social media policies that encourage employees to ‘play nice’, ‘use common sense’ and ‘if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ being used by companies such as Gap, Intel and Ford.

We’ve got dress codes that suggest you ‘Dress for your day’ being used at Legal and General.

We’ve got expenses policies that give employees the freedom to spend without pre-approval on the basis that they do so ‘within reason’ at the company Base Camp.

We’ve got Telefonica showing they trust their people to ‘work where you are most productive’ instead of the worrying post-pandemic trend of 3 days in, two days out of the office.

And we’ve got organisations like HubSpot who dispense with rule books almost entirely and encourage their people to ‘use good judgement’.

I’m not naive enough to pretend that there doesn’t need to be some kind of legalistic framework to some of our policies. Of course there does. But I do think we can revisit many of the countless rules we inflict on our people and take a different approach. So maybe the next time you’re thinking about tightening up on the detail of a policy, maybe instead just write a statement based around common sense and sound judgement and see how that goes down?

Next time we’ll look at how you help managers cope without the detailed rule book and how HR can help them to use their judgement.

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