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The Hidden Costs of HR Bureaucracy

The first step is realizing you have a problem.

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Despite human resources professionals’ desires and efforts to “get a seat at the table,” much of the focus in HR is dedicated to the minutiae of rules, regulations, and bureaucracy. When you combine this focus with the risk aversion typical to HR departments, the path to the table stretches even longer. This article reviews 10 telltale signs that your HR department is lost in bureaucracy and offers three strategies for how to embrace and cultivate judgment.

Although his work is nearly two centuries old, Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard gave us a lot to think about that still applies to our lives today. For example, in one book first published in 1844, he described anxiety as being the dizziness we experience when faced with freedom. He explained that when faced with freedom, we tend to shrink back from the consequent anxiety rather than move through it toward learning and positive change. In our fear, we long for and create rules and other defensive practices to escape freedom and the vulnerability that comes with it.

In the workplace, this anxiety looks like deference to policies and procedures when we really need to rely on judgment—whether our own or others’. A ready example in organizational life can be found in the salary ranges created for open headcounts. Despite these ranges, it should be understood that a particularly compelling candidate may be awarded compensation at the top of (or even above) the stated range. However, in our anxiety, we tend to offer a salary at the midpoint or bottom of the range.

In my decades working in various HR departments, I see the HR policy manual acting as a refuge for the bureaucrat … and I roughly estimate that 3 out of 4 HR professionals are bureaucrats.

The problem with bureaucracy is that, try as we might, we cannot script a solution for every problem and opportunity we may encounter in the life of our organization. The more we try to do so, the more we demonstrate our distrust in our leaders, managers, and supervisors and remove their rightful exercise of the judgment that is so critical to successful organizations. Perhaps even worse, our allegiance to rulebooks creates hiding places for those who exercise poor judgment and obscures still other problems in the organization.

An example I have observed time and again concerns policies surrounding tuition reimbursement. Take the case of Marsha, a company director enrolled in an executive MBA program. She attends class one weekend a month—all day Friday (via paid time off), Saturday, and Sunday. Additionally, she is granted work time and resources to study and complete assignments. In contrast, Sharon, a data entry clerk and single mother of two, works on her bachelor’s degree part-time at a local university. She balances caring for her children, attending class, and studying and completing assignments outside of work time. At the end of the semester, Marsha receives a “Pass” grade (equivalent to a “B”) for her class in leadership, while Sharon receives a C+, a B-, and a C for her courses in chemistry, algebra, and anthropology. Given company policy requiring at least a “B” for reimbursement, Marsha’s tuition is covered, while Sharon’s is not. This example reveals how simply adhering to the rulebook conceals the problems with the company policy and precludes an appropriate exercise of judgment to reimburse both Marsha’s and Sharon’s tuition.

So what are we in HR to do?

The first step is realizing you have a problem. Ten signs you might be a bureaucrat are:

  1. You think salary ranges cannot be violated.
  2. You think performance can be managed to three decimal points.
  3. You think every employee is or will be successful.
  4. You think e-mailing someone is the same as talking to them.
  5. You believe precedent is the final answer in any discussion.
  6. You have said at least once in the last 12 months, “We’ve always done it that way.”
  7. You think consistency is always the answer.
  8. You think treating employees fairly means treating all employees the same.
  9. You think an attendance policy will solve your attendance issues.
  10. You think tuition reimbursement payments should be made based on attainment of a letter grade (e.g., only for B or higher).

Implicit in each of these signs is a flight from freedom and vulnerability and a clinging to rules. Instead, we need our leaders at all levels of the organization to exercise judgment. We don’t need to be the salary or grade police. We need to relax our grip on our HR rulebooks so leaders can manage with the discernment their positions demand.

Three ways to turn away from our bureaucrat ways and cultivate more judgment in our organizations include:

Step 1. Hire for good judgment. What I am proposing cannot work if employees lack sound judgment. Therefore, hiring approaches need to be adapted to screen for judgment using tools such as behavioral interviewing, situational judgment tests, and trial work days for job candidates.

Step 2. Regularly evaluate employees’ exercise of judgment. The performance management system needs to be adapted to evaluate and identify problems with employees’ use of judgment. When gaps in judgment are identified, a determination needs to made regarding whether the gaps are trainable (e.g., lack of professionalism in a new college hire) or not trainable (e.g., integrity issues in an experienced hire). Once this determination is made, appropriate action needs to swiftly follow—whether this is to develop or counsel out the employee.

Step 3. Recognize when it’s not working. Despite our best hopes and efforts, sometimes we have to admit that an employee simply doesn’t have the judgment they need for their role, and that development is unlikely. In such cases, waste no further time wishing for a different outcome and initiate the process of counseling out the employee.

At the end of the day, while rules and procedures can give us a sense of safety and consistency, we must recognize they can become a trap if we rely on them too heavily. To avoid the trap, we need to cultivate and embrace our own and others’ exercise of judgment. This is our best option to fulfill our own and organization’s potential.

References

Kierkegaard, S. (1844). The concept of anxiety (R. Thomte, Trans.). Princeton University Press.

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