Rob Briner: five things HR needs to stop doing

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Every profession routinely does things that at best achieve nothing or waste resources, and at worst are actually counterproductive. What about HR? Is everything we do just marvellous? Of course not.

So what things are we doing that are borderline (or actually) pointless? What should we just stop doing? These are just my hunches for a top five. What are yours? 

1. Stop falling in love with HR fads. They are shiny, attractive, uber-cool and when you see a new one you feel you just have to have it in your own organisation. When you read about it, the HR problems it identifies are exactly the problems you’re dealing with. But soon you become suspicious. The promises of step-change transformation and awesome performance gains just don’t materialise. Not for the first time, you wonder why you’ve been such a fool. Though fads are easy to fall in love with, deep down you know they don’t love you back. It’s time to step away from our unhealthy co-dependent relationship with fads. 

2. Stop doing annual performance appraisals. This is an easy one. Think how much better life would be if someone could banish this tedious time-wasting HR tradition forever.  Well someone can. And that someone is you. For most people and most organisations the annual performance appraisal is probably nonsense. Of course people need feedback and sometimes there are ‘issues’ around performance. But are appraisals the best way to deal with these issues? No.

3. Stop giving weird and fancy names to ordinary things. Instead of referring to staff using boring and understandable words like ‘people’ or even ‘employees’ we seem to prefer the opaque terms ‘human capital’ or ‘talent’. Why use dull old ‘workforce planning’ when we have the thrilling ‘talent pipeline’ instead? ‘Data analysis’? Not any more thanks. We’re doing ‘data analytics’. Why do we do this? I guess it makes us feel good, and is a way of bigging up what we do. But in the end it damages our profession because it hinders clear communication, creates confusion, and people see through it for what it is. 

4. Stop worshipping HR gurus. These perma-tanned, jet-setting, besuited Tony Blairs of the HR world fill the groaning shelves of airport bookshops with their bestsellers. Their stories seem to show they are nothing short of modern-day corporate miracle workers. But, unless you believe in miracles, these gurus’ stories should be taken with a shovelful of salt and be seen for what they are – a branch of the management entertainment industry. The popularity of gurus tells you much more about the insecurity of their followers than the real value of their ideas. 

5. Stop doing annual employee attitude surveys. Like performance appraisals, attitude surveys have become another unthinking and ritualised HR activity. There is some value in monitoring attitudes, but only if you know they matter in a meaningful way. What does a score of 3.5 on a measure of job satisfaction or employee engagement actually mean? And how did you find out? Results should be treated with great caution. For example, benchmarking with other organisations, across departments, or changes over time is fraught with problems. It’s very difficult to know what any differences found might mean. Of course, it’s important for HR to know how employees think and feel but is the annual attitude survey the best way to do it?

And finally: Stop believing numbered lists that pretend to be authoritative. 'The seven secrets of leadership that won’t be secrets for much longer when you’ve read this'. 'The five habits of highly irritating people'. 'Eight ways to get your career as a train driver back on track'. They’re everywhere and they’re usually a bit rubbish – apart from this list perhaps.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath’s School of Management and a founding member of the Center for Evidence-Based Management. Briner was ranked third Most Influential UK Thinker in the HR Most Influential list

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