Five reasons for the death of an HR practice

Blog posts

24 Nov 2015

Penny TamkinPenny Tamkin

As I write this, IES is about to hold a provocation for senior HR professionals on the death of competences, a discussion from both an academic and practitioner perspective, on whether competencies are helping the development of more effective workplace behaviours or whether they have stifled rather than enabled performance. Are there are other… better… ways of articulating what we expect from people that will support the development of broader expertise and mastery, encourage autonomy and enable people to engage more thoughtfully with work? I’ve written on these issues before and concluded that approaches that more specifically encourage the marriage of theory and practice have more to offer workplaces than an approach which has been frequently interpreted in quite reductionist ways.

The potential debate about competencies is not an isolated one – it resonates with several people management practices or approaches which somehow don’t quite deliver what we might hope for. These practices can be quite widespread and yet sometimes the tide can turn if enough start to question their value. Some examples include emotional intelligence, workforce planning, and human capital, but the current prime example is the performance appraisal system.

We have seen a plethora of articles in the HR press deriding the performance appraisal. For example, People Management have suggested that more and more organisations are ditching the annual review this follows Deloitte’s article in the Harvard Business Review in April, which highlighted how growing internal cynicism around appraisal led to a radical redesign and a prediction way back in 2012 that performance appraisal needed to change. The thrust of the message is that the performance appraisal is not only dead; it was never really alive. It was an organisational practice which failed to deliver what it promised and instead, created annual waves of misery in organisations around the globe.

This is not the first time of course that an HR practice has been criticised for failing to deliver. So what is it that shifts what appears to be a popular people management practice to one that is unpopular? Of course times move on and cultures and people’s expectations shift but there is something more immediate at work here than the slow outgrowing of approaches. At the root I suggest there are five aspects to the way HR implements people management practice within organisations that sow the seeds of their eventual downfall.  

1. Implementation before implications

We have a tendency to go into implementation overdrive without thinking through the implications of what we do or waiting long enough for them to emerge. I’m reminded of something I learnt long ago: every HR process has something of the pendulum about it. We implement new approaches until their faults become crystal clear and the swing back begins. That gathers momentum as we introduce changes to offset previous flaws, whose own flaws only materialise as time passes (as all flaws must do).

2. Over-complication

HR professionals in their professional zealousness have a tendency to overegg what they produce. Practices become over complicated, overly structured, over processed, and heavy with unnecessary adornments… for the best of reasons:

"Striving to better, oft we mar what's well"

King Lear, Shakespeare

It is almost irresistible to demonstrate professional capability by doing what a non-professional could not do, by being more complicated or drawing on burgeoning best practice. Inevitably this seems to lead us to always adding rather than taking away. What IES colleagues have described as an overstuffed suitcase.

3. Losing sight of outcomes

HR can all too often deep dive into process and lose sight of outcomes. Process becomes the aim of activity, with outcomes taken for granted rather than actively pursued. So the appraisal form and how it is completed becomes the focus rather than the degree to which it supports improved performance.

4. Lack of trust

The fourth drive to failure is a lack of trust in line managers. Lack of trust results in over-prescription of exactly how things need to be done, of how a conversation needs to take place, and of how performance might be described. This has a similar effect to the blinkered focus on process and all that detail stifles flexibility and responsiveness.

5. Emphasising the worst

Finally, HR can have a tendency to catastrophise - placing the emphasis on the worst that can happen and seeking to prevent that rather than thinking about what mostly happens and how that can be improved. In performance management, the result is a system overly biased towards weeding out poor performers or facilitating the conversation with poor performers – with scant attention to making average performers better – arguably a much higher-impact aim. Line managers and organisational leaders lose faith if it feels that a process mops up time and energy for little result or if they are being increasingly forced to manage an assumed problem group out of proportion to a manager’s experienced reality.

Taken together these five drivers begin to close in on a process, ossifying it and cutting it off from its original purpose until the criticisms gain ground and the backlash begins. The good news is that in many cases it will reemerge with some minor or major tweaks and refreshed, live to fight (and of course eventually lose) another day.