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Vol. 32, No. 3

The Pith and Myth of Human Resource Administration

by Robert Hawley

Robert Hawley is the deputy executive director of the State Bar of California. Prior to that, he practiced management-side labor and employment law for more than 10 years and served as deputy managing partner of a major San Francisco law firm. He is also on the adjunct faculty of Pacific McGeorge School of Law, where he teaches labor law and professional responsibility.

Pith: core, essence, substance, heat, root, soul, gist, nucleus

Myth: delusion, fable, fabrication, fantasy, fiction, invention, lore, illusion

—Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus

The ultimate myth of human resource administration is the belief that human beings can be administered to achieve consistent productivity, efficiency, and harmony in the workplace. Like world peace, this is a noble but mythological human quest defeated by human nature. Human nature is the same everywhere: in the small isolated English village of St. Mary Mead or in cosmopolitan London; in the servants’ quarters or in the palace; digging ditches or conducting world affairs. Human nature is messy. Human beings, left on their own, are chaotic. Human resource administration is messy and chaotic.

Although the accoutrements with which we adorn ourselves and our work have changed markedly over time, human nature has not. Neanderthal cave dwellers would be dazzled by air travel, PCs, MP3s, cell phones, PDAs. But while dazzled with these technological advancements, they would find familiarity in our social interaction and organizational behavior.

When a Neanderthal sitting around the campfire commandingly grunts to a tribe member to “go fetch” more kindling for the fire, the object of the command either resentfully leaves the warm campfire to obey, or eagerly executes the special assignment; questions the authority of the other to command, or willingly accepts a subservient role. Those not burdened with the command feel either relieved at avoiding the task, or jealous of the special attention granted the other. That today’s commands are grunted and received via cell phones and text messages while flying cross-country, rather than around the campfire, does not alter the basic action and reaction of what has been in play for thousands of years.

The goal of human resource administration is to fuel the warmth of the campfire for all amidst the messiness and chaos of human nature. HR professionals seek to ensure that appropriate policies are implemented and followed, job descriptions are updated and understood, performance evaluations are timely conducted, salary and benefits satisfy, morale is high, hiring and retention goals are met, conflicts are neutralized, and employees perform optimally. But again, these noble pursuits are often defeated by human nature.

I am not a human resource expert. If anything, I am a veteran. I have operated in HR trenches in one capacity or another for 25 years. Like any combat veteran still standing after 25 years of experience, I have successfully dodged a few “bullets.” Like many combat veterans, I am cynical in my survival. With that disclosure, I share the following observations.

Peter Principle: One step over the competence line

“The Peter Principle,” formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book of the same name, postulates that everyone rises to his or her level of incompetence. Nothing illustrates the Peter Principle better than promotion from worker to manager. An employee rises within the ranks of an organization as long as he or she demonstrates competence. An employee ceases to advance once incompetence is reached. An employee inevitably seeks and receives promotions until he or she crosses from maximum competence into incompetence, at which point he or she achieves repose. This perfectly describes the progression from high-performance worker to ineffective manager in the typical workplace.

Managers manage the workers, not the work

Managing is a skill unto itself. This skill is not derived from doing the work. As manager, you do not manage the work. You manage the workers who manage the work. Workers who manage the work well and become managers are often unprepared to leave the work behind and focus on personnel administration. If you spend less of your time as a manager on direct personnel contact—coaching, directing, disciplining, and evaluating your employees—than on doing the work, you are not managing. Most managers prefer the work rather than the workers because the work is controllable; workers are messy and chaotic. But managing the work as opposed to the workers is not managing. A good manager is not the best worker. A good worker is not the best manager.

Managing is like parenting

The skill set for effective managing is the same as for effective parenting. The act of procreation prepares you for parenting as effectively as working prepares you for managing. Some have an innate knack for it; others grow into it, but many do not. There are far more effective procreators and employees than there are effective parents and managers. The skills for parenting and managing are the same: enforcing discipline and structure; administering chaos; being present and visible when needed, and invisible when not; and demonstrating patience, self-transcendence, and compassion with restraint, emotional equilibrium, and fortitude.

Silk from sheep

It is your responsibility to manage the employee to the employee’s greatest performance potential. Matching job duties to employee skills is the art of effective management. A failed employee is a management failure. The shepherd who berates the sheep for producing wool, not silk, is the problem—not the sheep. The effective manager gets the best wool possible from the sheep. If the work order calls for silk, the effective manager looks to other resources or declines the order. Just because someone demands silk does not mean you can deliver. Identifying an employee’s highest performance capacity and then matching him or her to this capacity is the mark of an effective manager.

Termination as liberation

Sometimes, matching an employee with the optimum job opportunity requires that you liberate the employee. An employee who excels at something the organization does not do needs to be moved on to opportunities elsewhere. An employee who is regularly discontented at work needs to be reminded that he or she is not a prisoner of the organization. Such employees are in charge of their own destiny, and liberation can improve their lot.

This is not Grandma’s house

The workplace is not Grandma’s house. Remember how much fun it was to visit Grandma? She indulged you with ice cream for lunch and hot dogs for dinner, and let you watch TV late into the night. But allowing a steady diet of ice cream, hot dogs, and late-night TV is not effective parenting. The discipline and structure that effective parenting requires was absent at Grandma’s because she viewed you as fun. Fun is the escape from discipline and structure. Work is not supposed to be fun. That is why we call it work. That is why you get paid to do it. When you go to Disneyland, you go to have fun. You pay at the entry gate. When you go to work, you get paid because it is not fun. You can and should enjoy work, but it is the work itself that you should enjoy. You work to fund your fun elsewhere. If you are having fun at work, work is not getting done.

Informality erodes respect

The workplace is a formal setting. Work requires discipline and structure. Discipline and structure foster respect. Informality in the workplace erodes discipline and structure along with good manners and respect. Most personnel clashes in the workplace derive from informality: lack of respect, bad manners, thoughtlessness. Formality signals that we are expected to demonstrate our best behavior. But rigid discipline, intransigent structure, and meaningless formality are stifling. There is a balance. Strive to find it.

Discipline and structure

In administering discipline and structure, follow the standards. Orient, train, evaluate, coach, counsel, warn, discipline, terminate. Disciplinary action must follow advance notice to the employee of the performance expected, an opportunity for the employee to perform with management’s assistance, the employee’s demonstrated failure to address problem issues, management’s reasonable consideration of relevant facts and perspectives, and management’s consistent response to problem issues among those similarly situated. Call this due process, fairness, just cause. Whatever. It works.

Setting the example and being there

Managers set the example, good or bad. Your being present, on time, respectful, and hard working will be modeled by employees. Being absent, late, disrespectful, and indolent likewise will be modeled. Setting the example requires visibility. One cannot set the example in absentia. If you are not present where the work is being performed, you render yourself irrelevant to that work. No amount of e-mails, phone calls, or text messages from afar will ever substitute for being there. Employees do not want to be micromanaged. They want to be given meaningful assignments and empowered to complete them with independence. But they need to see and feel that you are there for them. Personal contact matters. Directives via e-mail, phone calls, and text messages are useful for periodic absences from the office, but they breed resentment when you use them as a substitute for being there.

Respect vacations

Employees and managers should be encouraged to get away from work by taking vacations. Office contact while on vacation should be prohibited. If an employee works while on vacation or sick leave, that day is considered a workday and therefore is not chargeable against the employee’s vacation or sick leave bank. When you are away and action is taken in your absence, accept it. If you want to be a part of the process, then be where the process is. If you leave it to the employees to do work in your absence, then you are stuck with their work product. Intermeddling midway through a project from which you have absented yourself is a sure route to resentment among those who took the initiative in your absence.

Dignity matters

It is hard to tell an employee that he or she did not do a good job. It is hard to terminate an employee. But human beings will respond when you tell the truth, treat them with dignity, and listen to their perspective. Telling an employee, “This is not up to your usual high standard,” is a positive way for you to say, “You did not do a good job here.” Telling an employee, “This is not working, for you or for us,” is a way to begin the liberation process. Humor can be effective in communicating unpleasant messages, but it can also feel like ridicule to the recipient. Instead, be sincere, firm, and direct. Listen to concerns and protests. Respond with firmness and finality.

Impartiality matters

You inevitably like certain employees more than others, just as a parent cannot help but have different feelings for different children. One is diligent, another creates havoc; one complains, another does not; one seeks attention, another avoids contact. Showing preference and partiality breeds dysfunction in the family unit and in the work unit. For you as a manager, this has double meaning. Not only must you strive to administer discipline and structure with impartiality, regardless of your personal preferences, but you must inevitably deal with the 50-year-old employee who is still acting out his or her sibling rivalry and rage: “You were always Mommy’s favorite!” The behavior of the child formed in the family unit translates directly to the behavior of the employee in the work unit, where employees are children at an advanced age and parenting is now called managing.

Everyone is a player

As long as you have authority, your employees will play you. Employees act as if they like you. They tell you what you want to hear. They behave better in your presence. They create the impression that they are working, even if they are not. Do not be fooled. You would not be so popular if you were not “the boss.” Never completely believe what you see and hear.

Take time to filter

In today’s world of instant gratification, we think that every stimulus requires an instant reaction, every e-mail, an immediate reply; every complaint, prompt action. In human resource administration, speed does not serve well. Ineffective managers act quickly to create the false impression that they have taken effective action. Promptly passing on a complaint to the object of the complaint only demoralizes the object. Finding out if there really is a problem takes time and work. Fixing the problem takes skill and ingenuity. Complaints about staff should not be ignored. But you should take the time to gather and examine the facts, consider possibilities and alternatives, weigh the need for a remedy, and work to resolve the problem if there is one. If there is not a problem, make your inaction the appropriate action.

It is about the work

It is the work that matters at work. “Let’s get back to work now,” is the appropriate response to any number of inquiries. “What happened to John (who was recently terminated, or is on medical leave, or is in some other state that is nobody’s business)?” asks an employee. “Let’s get back to work,” should be your response. “I need tomorrow off,” states an employee. “Let’s discuss how we are going to get the work done,” should be your response. The work comes first at work.

Morale: The 10% rule

Complaining is an American pastime. Ten percent of any group is going to complain excessively about everything. In an office of 50 employees, five will never be satisfied. Count the actual complainers. Likely, there are only a few, but their constancy feels like the clamor of multitudes. If they are within the 10 percent rule, there is nothing you can do to satisfy them, ever. Morale is created by everyday gestures in the workplace, not institutional endeavors. Company picnics, office potlucks, holiday favors, and anniversary gifts will not enhance morale. Employees want to see you in the trenches with them, knowing who they are, seeing what they do, valuing their work. Anything less is disingenuous, and they know it.

The rearview mirror approach to decision making

We all know what we think. And we like folks who think the way we do. We are inclined not to like those who disagree with us. When seeking guidance on a troublesome issue, we seek out the like-minded. We isolate ourselves from what we need to hear, in favor of what we want to hear.

Consider the rearview mirror. You are driving down the freeway. You see what is in front of you. That is the direction you want to go. Your passengers see what you see, and that is the direction they want to go. Suddenly, you need to change lanes. Your passengers agree that there is no problem in sight. But there is a speeding 18-wheeler barreling down from behind in the lane you are about to cross into, and this is visible only in your rearview mirror. Unless you consult the rearview mirror, which shows you what no one else sees, disaster awaits.

When making tough decisions, talk to those who are most inclined to say what you do not want to hear. Evaluate it and then proceed. If you believe you are right, have the courage to stick to your path. If you are wrong, have the courage to admit it, change courses, fix it, and get back on track. There is nothing wrong with being wrong, except not admitting it and not fixing it.

Are you part of the problem?

This is the first question every manager should ask in any situation. It takes two to conflict. The odds are 50-50 that you are contributing to the conflict. Think about what you have done to contribute to the problem and what you can do to solve it. This is not a competition or contest. There is no winner. There is no finish line. It is simply about the work.

The perception of authority is more powerful than the exercise of authority

Managers are perceived as authority figures. Your strength is in the possibility that you might use your authority. This is more powerful a tool than the actual exercise of authority. Once you take action, you lose the power of anticipation. Rather than taking the action itself, use the power of what you might do to move employees toward positive action. “Help me out here. Don’t make me follow up on this,” is far more powerful than, “Because of your failure, your vacation request is denied.” One employee is motivated to work toward a goal; the other grieves a loss.

Managing and human resource administration is hard work. The end.