People Management or HR Policy frameworks were supposed to bring transparency, fairness and efficiency. In the bright light of 2015 they can instead be chains dragging us back to a bureaucracy that we need to leave behind.
Before we get into that though, let me tell you a story.
I received an email from Amazon a few weeks ago telling me that my Amazon parcels could now be collected from a ‘Local Pickup Point’. For somebody who doesn’t work from home, this is a good thing as it means I will get an email when my parcel has arrived at my pickup point (in my case the local Post Office) and I can wander down at my convenience and collect it. I received just such an email yesterday and duly wandered down to the local Post Office on what was, ironically, my day off.
Instead of being met by the usual picture of order and efficiency that we all associate with the Post Office, I was met instead with puzzled faces. The systems were “down” so they couldn’t do anything.
“Could you come back later?”
“How long will it take for the problem to be fixed?”
“How long is a piece of string?”
You get the picture.
The member of staff I spoke to confirmed that my parcel had arrived (she showed it to me through the protective glass of the Post Office counter) and I confirmed that I had my passport as ID (I was also able to show this through the bullet proof window). The problem was that the bar code reader couldn’t zap my parcel to let the computer know at I had collected it. I agreed to come back a couple of hours later.
“I’m back again, is everything fixed?”
“No sorry, can you come back tomorrow?”
The problem was that I couldn’t as I would be in work. Another thought then occurred to me.
“Don’t you close at the end of tomorrow for two weeks?”
“Yes we do, for a big refurbishment”.
“So what will happen to my parcel?” (I pointed at it for effect)
“It will be returned to sender”.
At this point, I took a deep breath and attempted to, very calmly, draw on all my powers of persuasion. I won’t bore you with the details but my argument went along the lines of:
- The whole point of the Post Office is to move parcels and letters between people.
- You have my parcel in your hand.
- I am the recipient and can prove it.
- By not giving me the parcel you are achieving the exact opposite of what the Post Office exists to do.
To cut a long story short, and to give credit to the Post Office staff where it’s due, I did get my parcel in the end.
It wasn’t until later last evening, while pondering whether any other service organisation in 2015 would give such a blunt initial response as “computer says no” that I realised that I had heard the exchange that I had with the Post Office staff before, many times in fact. It most often happened between HR staff and line managers.
If you work in HR or as a line manager, you have probably heard it too. It was probably in response to the application of an HR policy or process which, whilst difficult to argue with in terms of interpretation, simply gave the wrong answer. I’m thinking of recruitment processes that prevent people from being hired, disciplinary processes that impose sanctions that nobody wants, and reward systems that produce bizarre outcomes. I’ve also seen the shoulder shrug before that I saw at the Post Office. The lady I dealt with wanted me to have the parcel, I wanted to have the parcel, but what could she do? What could she do when faced with a rule, process or policy that said parcels can only be handed over after they have been zapped by the bar code scanner.
This is where a set of principles would have helped us. Principles rather than specific detailed requirements allow more flexibility and scope for interpretation. Perhaps in the Post Office case the lady I was dealing with would have felt empowered, even encouraged, to think around the specific problem and identify a solution that met my needs. By feeding people detailed rules and processes, in the same way we might with a computer, we strip them of their unique human abilities of problem solving.
Developing real, useable, organisational values and specific commitments around people management can move us beyond this. Removing policy frameworks will create gaps that can be partially filled by clearer values and principles, but with space remaining for people to fill with solution focussed, imaginative new ways of taking decisions and doing business.
If the whole point of HR is to enable high performance through the good management of people, removing the blinkers of flow charts and process maps will get us to where we need to be much more quickly.