Having worked in HR, I find the Dilbert cartoons and in particular the HR manager Catbert not only very funny, but right on target for many of my less esteemed former colleagues. (They would probably know who they are, reveling in how evil they are in the treatment of people, like Iago in Othello, but they won’t ever read something like this blog; in fact I doubt they read anything other than Catbert’s ‘Evil HR Digest’)
Why is that? Because much of HR sees its role as primarily ‘go fetch rover’ for leaders like Dilbert’s boss. And Dilbert’s boss likes HR to do his dirty work so he doesn’t have to directly confront employees. There is not much enlightened role of ’employee advocate’ to try to balance business imperatives with a culture that actually supports people to achieve the desired results, remain motivated and develop their skills. ‘Give me a break‘ my friends would say: ‘HR do that! Come on….’
So what conflict tips would we suggest for those HR professionals who wish to be unlike ‘Catbert’:
The ‘not Catbert HR Tips’
- Actually frame part of your role as employee advocate, advising your line managers on how to balance people and business, and on what is or is not reasonable people behavior on their part
- Try to be part of the business decision making that has people implications: don’t just wait around and try to make it all work once the major decisions are made
- Business results are enormously affected by employee’s behavior: see your role in managing training as changing behavior to get business results, not just get folk through courses of doubtful utility. The optional training is probably useless.
- Your most important role is probably selection: making sure that the selection process is rigorous so you don’t hire or promote the wrong people. Unfortunately most of your line management are not good at this. Improving the selection processes and leaders’ skill to pick good people (and themselves pick good pickers below them) is your job and has huge returns if done well.
- Structuring effective organizations is also part of your role and preventing them being merely wrap rounds for management personalities or places for empire building is also part of this
- A slogan driven organization is probably not a good idea in terms of peoples’ motivation: you should have a point of view on what slogans mean anything
- Another key focus for you should be helping people grow: my friends laugh when I suggest that HR has any interest in this. But at a fundamental level, what else are you for? Helping people grow is also very satisfying though you have to grow too.
- It is best to get rid of poor performance cases early in their career; your role should be to ask who is not performing, and then try to up skill them, refit them within your organization or let them go. But you have to make sure this is not some management whim or prejudice.
- Find out what do employees (not managers) think of HR and work on the results, which are unlikely to be favorable in my experience
- You need to learn from your mistakes and not ex-post rationalize them as Dilbert’s boss and Catbert are so good at.
And to make my point, here is a story of an anti-Catbert HR person: a story of what one of the people who once worked for me recently did.
Chris was the senior Human Resource Director for a major business unit of a large company. He was concerned about the team behavior of his clients: the senior line management of his organization. He arranged they all go to a weekend off-site meeting with skilled organizational development (OD) professionals to work more strategically as a team.
On the Monday following the off site, the Senior Leader returned to work full of enthusiasm and called Chris to his office. He told Chris the weekend had been a fantastic success and the leadership team had come up with a bunch of new values and behaviors they wanted everyone in the organization to adhere to. He asked Chris to get with the internal communications department to deploy the new approach to all 50,000 employees in the organization within 10 days.
Chris being a person of some courage and integrity, said: ‘Boss, I am not going to do that. I have a better suggestion: why don’t you and the leadership team simply agree to behave in the new ways, but don’t tell anyone what is going on. Now if in the next few weeks, people start coming up to me and asking: ‘what’s going on? Meetings have a different focus and are being handled better; we are working on the right stuff for a change, we seem to have a strategy etc’ ‘Then I think we know we are on a roll. At that point, I will get my OD people to construct a good survey process and we can measure and then improve on the progress we find. But I am not going to get them to design the survey right now, because I doubt we will ever need it. I predict that you and your team cannot change their leadership style in a way that anyone will notice, and to announce that you are will merely generate destructive cynicism. There is no downside to just doing it without fanfare.’
The boss was silent and did not repeat his request.
When HR takes stands like that it has moved beyond Catbert and got some guts.