HomeFuture of WorkHR EffectivenessIs there a crisis of confidence in HR and people leadership?

Is there a crisis of confidence in HR and people leadership?

  • 5 Min Read

With work-related conflict on the rise, Simon Fanshawe OBE shares a workplace mishap that spirals into an unexpectedly taxing HR process, sparking crucial conversations about judgment and process HR leaders must be having.

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The unintended misstep: A case study

You are a pub quiz enthusiast. The organisation you work for also uses quizzes as learning tools. So, it was bound to happen. One day you accidentally send out your local pub quiz to colleagues rather than the learning one. And there are a couple of images in there, nothing egregious but ones you wouldn’t probably share at work. You immediately realise your mistake. You email everyone to point to what you have done and send them the right quiz. But HR leaps into action and before you know it, you are in a process.

Dejected and worn out you are raked over the coals for a mistake you knew you’d made, which, by the way, appears to have caused no one any offence and which you rectified immediately. But the ordeal you go through uses up everyone’s time resource and patience. With what outcome?

A crisis of confidence within HR

I didn’t make this up. It happened in a client of ours recently and it really depressed the Head of HR. The main issue that concerned her was that HR staff seemed to have lost confidence in their own judgement. Instead of focusing on what they wanted to achieve out of any process, they had just defaulted to the process itself as if that was all that was needed. Not only did that stress everyone out. But did it achieve anything positive? Or did it miss out on the fundamental point of having a process in the first place. As another client described their Health & Safety codes to me recently “It’s about outcomes. It’s about people being safe and healthy, not just about ticking the box”.

Three strands of workplace behavior

Our actions and language can cause problems for our colleagues. Clashes and misunderstandings are an unavoidable part of human interaction. But have we got ourselves into a position now where we are more interested in punishment than dialogue, in accusation rather than finding solutions?

As a framework I divide language and behaviour into three broad strands: careless, thoughtless and malicious. The distinction between the first two is probably a matter of degree. And the third is a question of evidence. It needs to be collected and evaluated through a trusted process.

However, do we jump to readily to the assumption of malice? Oftentimes, we upset or hurt each other accidentally. That doesn’t let us off responsibility for our actions, but it should influence the way we deal with their consequences.

Cultivating a culture of learning over punishment

Take the hoary old issue of what men think are compliments to women at work. Using our Insight process once a woman told us that she’d worked for this guy for seven years as his PA and everyday he commented on her dress and her shoes. She was just wearily fed up with it. When we read back the story anonymously to the (all male) Ex Co, he put up his hand. “That was me”, he said, “I thought I was giving her a compliment.” So we went back through the stories women had told and it started to dawn on them that compliments are defined not by how they are intended but how they are received.

Realising that gap between intention and effect becomes crucial to all of us in learning how to work well together. “I didn’t mean it”, “I made a mistake” are not a get-out-of-jail-free’ cards but they are the gateway to learning. The immediate default to process precisely defeats that outcome.

Prioritizing active listening to foster resolution

Offence and upset are real. However much you think you wouldn’t feel the same as someone when they say that’s how they do, in the first instance you need to listen to their feelings. You need to listen to hear. Not listen to respond. Solutions need to come second. More than that, as a manager, you need to hear both people. “That was sexist” Tell me. “I didn’t mean it” Tell me. Then you are in a position to try and find a solution by equipping managers and leaders at all levels to actively listen.

Power of collaboration in tackling recruitment bias

An example: A recruitment process. Four shortlisted candidates. Three external, one internal. One of the externals is successful. The internal candidate, a British Asian woman accuses the process of being “racist”. The manager of both the person who ran the process and of the internal candidate. He speaks to both and listens. He ponders for a day or so.

Then he says to each of them “For this department to have access to the best talent, we need to make sure that our recruitment processes do not exclude any one with the talent we want. So, will you both help me to audit our process to ensure that they don’t”. Both agreed. He had listened. He hadn’t answered back or tried to defend the process, he’s just heard both and then managed to focus them on a positive goal on which they could agree. Ensuring the department got the best talent.

Guiding principles for handling workplace misunderstandings

  • Think what you want to achieve when things go wrong – don’t jump to process
  • Remember language and behaviour is not always malicious – it can also just be careless or thoughtless. So find out which, before you act
  • Train your HR staff and managers to listen to hear, not listen to respond…hear both sides
  • Ask each person to write up what they learned or understood about what happened. Encourage them to share it confidentially with their manager
  • Support managers to use their judgement – process is costly, waring and doesn’t necessarily produce a positive result
  • Businesses saying they have “zero tolerance” rarely produces a good culture. Learning does
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