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How to: Get in the way of leadership

I had dinner last week with a smart, strong, amazing woman. She also happens to be a mother, wife, daughter, and the Regional Controller of a $2B specialty contractor. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time so we caught up on our kids (and their shenanigans), our parents (and their health challenges), and our pets (and their ridiculously poor choices).

Then, we started talking about work.

She has a low performing employee on her team that has ultimately cost the company approximately $250k in issues. She has tried coaching, training, and holding this person accountable. None of it has worked and she is now done. She went to her HR Business Partner and their response was, “no, you don’t have the documentation in place yet. And you can’t put her on a Performance Improvement Plan until after the first of the year.”

Wow! (I was fuming at this point. I am passionate about this and have written about how HR can, and should, be a partner to operations before - check it out here and here. Argh.)

Oh, but wait, there’s more (why is there always more?). This employee is currently living with the Regional Operations Manager and thinks that she is untouchable to discipline.

To sum up: a tenured leader in a successful organization can’t manage out a performance issue on her team AND HR is getting in her way.

Sound familiar?

If so, let me first apologize to you on behalf of all strategic HR professionals.

Now, to all of my HR professionals out there – please, please do not be this person. This is why other organizations don’t want to even have HR. If you are struggling to get buy in from leaders, would you stand in this leader’s way like this? If so, time to change your approach. Now. Not sure how or why, shoot me a quick note and let's talk!

So what should the HR person have done?

…so glad you asked…

Let’s first start with what the role of an HR Business Partner (HRBP) is (or should be).

An HRBP is embedded in, or assigned to, an organizational unit. They act an internal consultants for leaders and often implement corporate programs and initiatives.

They can be viewed as a conduit for that unit and corporate HR. In any given day they can help an employee navigate an issue with their manager in the morning, develop the next year’s workforce management plan over lunch, and spend the afternoon in a project review. In essence, they help enable the leadership team to do what they do while ensuring a focus on people is kept at the forefront. To be clear that does not mean that HRBPs take a backseat to operations. Rather, they are partners in the journey who can help influence, manage change, and think strategically.

OK, back to my friend and her situation… the HRBP missed a BIG opportunity to partner. Rather than say, "no, you can’t terminate the poor performer," the response should have been, “I am sorry that all you have tried hasn’t worked. Let’s talk about a path to mitigate any potential risk to the company.”

This may be an unpopular opinion, but poor performance documentation only serves two purposes: (1) documents conversations with the employees, and (2) protects the company from a potential lawsuit.

Performance documentation can come in the form of a Performance Improvement Plan, a recent Performance Evaluation, a follow up email to a conversation had with the employee, your handwritten notes from a conversation, text messages, voicemails, etc. (are you getting the point here: there are lot of different types of documentation).

There are also many ways to mitigate the risk to the company.* For example, you can offer a financial package coupled with an agreement not to file charges or you can write a formal letter summarizing past issues and let an employee know they have 60 days to change their performance, based on measurable criteria.

If you already have a strategic, supportive, HR team, that is awesome - nice work! If not, it could be a scary transition, but trust me: it is worth it. Having a true partner in the role can absolutely make your life a bit easier.

While I am not the HRBP for my friend, there is a big part of me that wants to be sure that she, and the other leaders out there, get the support they need to lead their businesses.

* Please note: I encourage you to consult your employment attorney as to the best ways to mitigate risk for any particular circumstance that you may be facing. No two terminations are the same and should not be treated as such. Many factors, including past precedent, local jurisdictions, etc., need to be taken in to account. My recommends in this situation are high level in nature and should not be taken as legal advice.


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