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Dual focus: Look for the big picture

July 6, 2011

One of the difficulties we face in employee relations and HR capacities is keeping a dual focus on the needs of management and employees. Some professionals are quite good at this and others don’t possess the insights to take a continuous improvement viewpoint on the matter.

Keeping the needs of management and employees at the forefront of practice can be challenging. Neutrality is required and each situation must be viewed on its own merits. Bias is the killer of investigations that yield truthful discovery. Neutrality can be quite difficult when employee relations problems involve those who might be “problem children” within the organization. It’s HR’s job to view the situation with a fresh eye and understand all of the facts before acting.

In my experience, investigating with neutrality can sometimes anger management when frustration surfaces with a consistently problematic employee. Explaining the need to look at each detail of the fact pattern as if it were being presented in court sometimes sets aside the frustration; but sometimes it doesn’t. When the explanation doesn’t work I usually explain to the parties involved that it’s critical for everyone that the perception of fairness is intact so employees and management can feel that the investigation was handled fairly and in a manner that yielded outcomes which represent the best possible result for all involved.

Consulting with companies and their HR managers has shown me that consistency is the foundation for positive employee relations. When I hear “sure, we have a policy for that but we don’t enforce it”, I usually cringe. After listening for a little while longer, I will invariably have the conversation with HR that the best asset HR has is its reputation. One cannot please all of the people all of the time, but if situations are handled consistently and with fairness and mutual respect, people can accept the outcome – even if it wasn’t what they were hoping for. There are always exceptions when taking responsibility for one’s actions is met with resistance and even rebellion, however, if past practice has demonstrated consistency and fairness then “it is what it is”.

There is nothing worse than to discover that HR has been perhaps the biggest part of a declining employee relations climate. Some HR folks can be remediated and coached, but some have no clue as to what it means to act with integrity and sincerity each time an employee relations problem is encountered. HR doesn’t get “do overs” nor does HR have the luxury of not acting professionally each time a situation comes up. Some of the biggest – and most avoidable – mistakes could have been avoided by HR stepping back, assessing the situation and delaying action until all of the facts have been gathered and subject matter experts have been consulted. Nobody expects HR to have all of the answers all of the time, but they do expect HR to act in the best interests of all parties involved. It’s a difficult balancing act but it’s also an enormous part of the job. After all, if HR cannot act with dual focus how can the rest of the management team be expected to do the same?

In my humble opinion, neutrality is an important dynamic that differentiates those inclined to think and act tactically as opposed to strategically. From the big picture perspective, HR is there for the long haul and must always have one eye on the present and one eye on the future. While keeping two perspectives in this regard is far more of a broad strategy tool, such duality is necessary to ensure that decisions and actions are defensible in all contexts. Tactical players only see the “here and now” but strategic players understand that what they do today directly affects tomorrow. Asking the questions “What do I want tomorrow to look like?” and “Could I defend these actions in court?” will shift perspectives to other options that might not have been apparent and most often the right answer certainly isn’t the easy answer. Nonetheless, doing the right thing for all concerned will facilitate outcomes that will be defensible today and tomorrow.

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