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HR Is Broken. Here’s How To Fix It

These days, human resources departments basically just enforce company policies. They can do so much more.

HR Is Broken. Here’s How To Fix It
[Photo: J Kim/Getty Images]

Companies typically view their employees as their most strategic asset, so it stands to reason that there should be a profession devoted to making sure they’re reaching their top potential. But in recent decades, the human resources field has been strangled by its own mandate, becoming a mere enforcement arm for company policy.

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HR departments today screen job applicants and process benefits paperwork, but they’re no longer very good at getting the most out of human capital. To fix that, they need to think bigger, reimagining their roles as consultants on organizational structure. And to do that, they’ll need to utilize data much better. Here’s how to get started.

Getting Up Close And Personal

When I first began working as an HR partner in a large organization, I had one meeting each with two senior executives. The first asked me right off the bat to “be a consultant” to him, to alert him to issues I saw and prescribe solutions based on my experience. The second said the reverse. “Let me set really clear expectations,” he told me. “I don’t want you to come in here and try to be my consultant. You don’t know me, you don’t know my business, and until you do I don’t want to hear any advice from you. I will let you know if I need anything from you.”

Where one had essentially opened the door on a productive working relationship, the other promptly slammed it closed. So I started meeting with the company’s directors, managers, and front-line employees–anyone who would talk to me. I began to understand the challenges and opportunities within this business unit, and it helped me customize programs and initiatives in a way that minimized disruption and matched the company’s talent to its needs.

It took almost six months, but the more recalcitrant exec finally started inviting me to meetings. I realized that in order to contribute strategically to the organization, I had to embed myself within it, not just drive compliance with its policies. And in order to do that, I needed to form relationships at every level of the company over an extended period of time, person by person.

Using Data To Deliver

One of the main reasons HR departments in many organizations are so ineffective is that they’re laser-focused on being people-oriented. When it comes to building relationships, that’s absolutely critical. But that attitude becomes a liability when it’s taken too far. HR professionals shouldn’t overlook quantitative tools, even if they worry they’ll their very “human” profession seems too much like a science.

The reality is there are now more ways to collect and analyze valuable data about a company’s staff than ever before. And if HR departments are to live up to their potential as consulting forces, their recommendations needs to be grounded in real research, not just intuition or generic best practices. That means being able to measure the relationships between behaviors and outcomes.

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For example, one huge challenge in the health care industry is staffing the right number of nurses in hospital units. Constant admissions, discharges, transfers, and varying degrees of acuity (how much work is associated with caring for patients) make it tough to plan ahead or to respond when staffing needs shift abruptly. Yet when those needs aren’t met, the quality of care plummets and costs rise. Understanding these statistical relationships can help justify a push–which might not be heeded otherwise–to change the way a hospital staffs and schedules nursing shifts.

There are countless other ways data can be used to predict performance and outcomes. Here are a few more examples:

  • Attendance data: How frequently are employees arriving late or calling in sick?
  • Training/development data: When was the last time employees took coursework or renewed their skill sets?
  • Performance management data: A manager might rank herself a 4.2 on a 5-point scale, but her team members might rate her a 3.1. How soon can a company identify that disparity and begin closing the gap?
  • Employee relations data: Has an employee been reprimanded for poor judgment or interpersonal problems? Has it happened more than once?
  • Workplace engagement data: Which employees are participating in optional wellness programs, referring potential candidates for hire, or volunteering at company-sponsored events?

Any of these data points alone could point to how well (or poorly) a given employee is faring within the organization, but the combination of all of them makes for a much more robust employee profile. And that has real business value, especially at scale–indicating the likelihoods of underperformance and turnover company-wide.

I admit I didn’t enjoy my statistics classes in college, but as HR professionals, we need to be able to identify these correlations and use them to justify our programs, initiatives, and recommendations.

You might not be able to hire a team of industrial and organizational psychologists, but you can at least draw on reliable metrics in order to make a business case for meaningful change. If you don’t, you won’t be using your company’s actual human resources as powerfully as you could.

Marcus Mossberger is HR strategy director at Infor. His passion for managing HR solutions in the health care industry stems from years of working as an HR practitioner, as well as his experience developing products and services, managing partnerships, and improving operations.

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