Burying our head in the sand

There’s been a lot of reaction to the concept of ‘best practice’ in HR over the last few years –  the idea being rejected primarily because no-one can identify what these best practices are, nor is there much (if any) evidence that they work. As a result, the alternative ‘best fit’ model has gained in popularity.

Superficially, best fit has much to commend it. Our HR practices are adapted to the size, sector and most importantly the strategy of our organisation. The approach that might be taken in a large corporate services business is not the same as an SME in a manufacturing sector. But we need to take care.

One of the most well-known best-fit theories  (Schuler and Jackson 1987) suggests that when a business is cost-sensitive, HR’s approach should be to control and reduce costs. This means not just keeping wages at the lowest level to attract qualified staff, but also using very tightly defined job roles (so there is no scope for ambiguity or employee discretion), using ‘precarious’ labour (what we now tend to refer to as the gig economy), little or no training and development, and short-term performance goals. Ryanair is often cited as the ‘classic’ example of this approach in the UK.

The dangers of this approach should be obvious – and if they aren’t then yesterday’s article in the Financial Times, which exposed the working practices in the garment industry in Leicester should be top of your reading list. Taken to its extreme, it leads to unsafe working conditions, below minimum wage levels and exploitation on a large scale.

“But what can we do?” I can hear many HR professionals saying. After all these businesses won’t have HR.  But our ‘just legal but arguably unethical’ HR practices do lead to other companies taking the next step across that line. And with little current enforcement of regulations it’s all too easy to get away with ignoring basic employment law.

It is, as Canadian HR writer Jane Watson describes it, a “Wicked Problem” – and demands the same approach she suggests to tackling it. HR can’t solve the issue on its own, but neither can we pretend that we are not partly responsible for this state of affairs.

Is “Evidence Based HR” the latest HR fad?

Lots of people criticise HR.

Actually I could just stop there, but the point of this post is that lots of people criticise HR for jumping on the latest workplace fad without any evidence that it works. “Netflix have dropped performance reviews – we should too” “Employee engagement is a big issue – we need to do something about it” Too often we adopt some new initiative more because it creates the impression that we are doing something about something, regardless of whether it will actually solve the problem.

So the increasing trend for evidence-based HR is something that generally I welcome – the concept that we should be able to prove, using properly constructed evidence, that doing A leads to B. And I particularly enjoy academic Rob Briner’s frequent challenges to the profession to consider the evidence for our various HR sacred cows.

But (and you sensed there was a but coming…) there are four reasons why I think we should be as cautious about evidence-based HR as we should be about anything else in the profession.

  1. Organisations are dynamic and different. A might lead to B (our preferred outcome) in one organisations but it might lead to C or D in others. Taking an overly academic approach would lead us to say that there’s no evidence that A works, because its results can’t be replicated outside  one organisation.
  2. There’s a danger of paralysis. “Should we drop or change our performance reviews?” “Well there’s no evidence that that would work” “Ok, better not do it then” – If someone doesn’t sometimes back a hunch, without evidence to support it, then we’ll always be stuck where we are.
  3. In the business world, we don’t always need to know the middle step of why A leads to B. It can just be enough to know that it happens. It’s a little like the fact that scientists know (from observation) that if you split a magnet in half, the two resulting magnets will have a north and south pole. They don’t know why (currently) but they know what will happen and can then plan accordingly.
  4. We might just end up with one size fits all “Best Practice” under a different name. If doing A leads to B, and we have evidence that this is the case, then if we want to achieve B then we must always do A. A may not fit with our own organisation, its culture and business context, but the evidence says this is what we should do.

The danger is that Evidence Based HR might fall victim to the very thing it seeks to challenge – becoming the latest bandwagon and seeing HR practitioners uncritically misapplying it. After all, we’ve already seen Dave Ulrich’s model feted then condemned, people with only a modicum of knowledge parading neuroscience as the future, and a nonsensical obsession with millennials, as flavours of the month in the last few years.

HR Theory, HR Practice

As everyone gets ready for the CIPD’s Annual conference in Manchester this week, I thought I’d provide a helpful guide for newer attendees on some of the various  HR terms they may encounter and what they really mean

Best Practice

The Theory:

A series of academic studies which suggests there are universal “best practices” that an HR department should be doing to enhance organisational performance. These practices include rigorous selection procedures, allowing employees to have some form of ownership of the company, and a strong training and development ethos.

The Practice

  1. Taking ideas that appear to have been successful in other organisations and transplanting them into your own
  2. The killer argument when a sceptical CEO or Finance Director questions your new HR initiative – “But it’s best practice!”

The Ulrich Model

The Theory

An academic view, put forward by Professor David Ulrich, that HR has four basic functions in an organisation: Strategic (or Business) Partner, Change Agent, Admin Expert and Employee Champion.

The Practice

The reorganisation of HR departments, mostly by re-designating middle-ranking HR professionals as “HR Business Partners” and creating mindless admin jobs in “Shared Service” call centres (often then outsourced to developing countries).  Usually followed by further reorganisations of HR departments as “That Ulrich model is a load of (insert own term of abuse)”

Big Data

The Theory

Extremely large amount of information (often but not always created online) which is complex to analyse, but by doing so can sometimes lead to more accurate predictions of likely outcomes

The Practice

Introducing new software to churn out employee statistics – such as turnover, applicant tracking or absence, and to give this data red, amber or green “traffic lights”.

Talent Management

The Theory

There’s considerable academic debate about what talent means – whether it relates to an inherent genetic ability to do something or a willingness or commitment to the organisation and the work required. A related but separate debate is how talent management can be aligned to business strategy

The Practice

  1. Pushing up salaries to retain existing staff and to attract staff from competitors (“the war for talent”)
  2. Moaning about the poor standard of candidates when you are recruiting (“there’s a lack of talent in the market place”)
  3. Giving some employees (“the talent”) better training and development opportunities than others

Feel free to add your own in the Comments section below…