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Why modern HR requires rethinking the old-school employee handbook

In his new book, ‘Redefining HR,’ Fast Company contributor Lars Schmidt explains how modern people teams are transforming antiquated notions of what HR can be.

Why modern HR requires rethinking the old-school employee handbook
[Source photo: Devonyu/iStock]

When you go back to the origins of HR, the function was largely driven by compliance and risk mitigation. How do we keep the company out of the headlines? How do we ensure employees don’t get the company into trouble with bad behavior? There was a default lean toward designing policies and procedures with risk aversion as a primary driver.

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Given this focus, companies created complex employee handbooks, policies, and procedures that ensured the company’s interests were prioritized and protected. This fed the bureaucratic narrative that dominated early views of HR and laid the foundation for some of the current perception challenges HR faces. VaynerMedia Chief Heart Officer Claude Silver reflects:

“Prior to coming into the role of chief heart officer, my perception was that HR was on the defensive all the time. They were protecting the company rather than protecting and working for the employees. That was a big shift that I wanted to make as I formed the team. I come from a long line of working in restaurants and bars in my earlier years, and I believe in hospitality. I believe in being of service. It was important to me to shape this team in that mold. We are here to serve. We are always going to be neutral, like Switzerland. We are not going to be in the ‘no’ business, and we’re not going to be ‘yes’. We are going to listen with intent and not be the judge and jury in any way, shape or form. We are here to guide, connect and serve the employees so that they may turn their ambitions into success for themselves and the company. That’s the change I made.”

In the early(ish) days of social media, I was a heavy user and leaned heavily on platforms like Twitter to drive our talent strategy at National Public Radio (NPR). I vividly remember being asked to contribute a quote for an author who was writing about social media in the workplace for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). I had never been in a book before and was really excited about contributing to my first book on a topic I was passionate about. I put a lot of thought into capturing some of my views on the benefits, value and potential of social media in HR and recruiting.

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I believe this was the first HR book on the topic of social media. As the publication date approached, my anticipation grew. I was going to be in a book! I had a platform to share my excitement about social media in HR and recruiting. This is going to be awesome! Then I caught the title of the book: A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites. The cover literally included horns in the shadow of a tablet with a Facebook logo. Horns?!

As much as I liked the author, I was disappointed to see the governing body of my industry promoting this fear-based take on social media. I pictured stereotypical archetypes, old-school HR managers, grabbing their copies and seeing how they could craft a social media policy that protected them from the worst-case scenarios presented in the book. This compliance and fear-based approach of assuming worst possible scenarios and applying policies to prevent them was representative of this old-school view. Policies aren’t necessarily bad; in fact, when applied practically they’re necessary.

Modern people teams and leaders take a different approach. Rather than designing policies fueled by preventing worst-case scenarios, they’re rooted in the assumption that you’re hiring capable adults who will generally make good decisions. Rather than defaulting to a “policy against the few” approach, they embrace “policy for the many” views that assume good intent and deal with bad behavior as individual issues to be addressed individually.

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Employees want to be treated like adults—responsible humans capable of making good choices. When given that respect, the benefit of the doubt, they can thrive. When burdened with bureaucratic policy and program shackles that stifle innovation and impact, employees are less likely to feel empowered and impactful. Resist the urge to over-engineer policies and procedures and watch your employees (and organization) blossom.

Employee handbooks, guides, and manifestos have come a long way since the compliance-driven versions of legacy HR. Much of this can be traced back to the now legendary Netflix culture deck developed by its former head of HR Patty McCord. Netflix’s culture deck set a new standard for communicating organizational values and operating systems. It brought about a new era where HR teams had more license to get creative in their communications.

Netflix broke the mold of what employee handbooks and policy guides could look like. It raised the bar on how to clearly articulate your employee experience—shaped by the style of the CEO. What if your CEO was a former stand-up comedian? Former Twitter HR leader David Hanrahan shares the role of humor in employee handbooks:

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“At Twitter one thing we did was put a manager playbook together. It wasn’t really policies, but more about how to handle these types of situations. We tried to imbue a lot of humor in it. Dick (Costolo), the CEO, was a former stand-up comic. We had really funny routines at our recurring town halls. Humor wound up being something of a way to remind you of humanity and create interest in this thing that I’m reading from HR. It wound up being a very simple thing that we did to create interest.”

Now we just need to broaden the influx of talent into HR with more stand-up comedians and take our handbooks to a new level.

DECENTRALIZE AND EMPOWER, OVER COMMAND AND CONTROL

We work so hard to find exceptional talent for our organizations. Why do we diminish their value and impact with unnecessarily burdensome and complicated processes and procedures?

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“The people have the power. All we have to do is awaken the power in the people,” said John Lennon. It doesn’t take a Beatle to understand the power in empowering your people. Yet that’s a lesson that’s taken HR a long time to learn. Legacy HR was built on a foundation that valued command and control and saw that as a path to power. We overengineered systems and procedures, becoming a chokepoint through which things got done. In our quest for the proverbial seat at the table, we added layers of process and approvals that impacted most areas of the employee experience: promotions, vacations, benefits, hiring, firing, performance reviews, and anything else we could control. HubSpot Chief People Officer Katie Burke shares the risks of micromanagement:

“Our founders rail against micromanagement. Most talented people hate being micromanaged. One of our core values is autonomy, so we care much more about the output of your work than the hours you spend. We don’t believe in face time for the sake of face time. We believe in hiring great people and giving them great latitude to do big things.”

The reality with this overengineering process approach is that we shot ourselves in the foot. HR can’t control every facet of every aspect of the employee experience—nor should they. It’s not about authority through ownership, it’s about engagement through empowerment.

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Contemporary HR is more focused on providing strategic value to drive business outcomes. The focus is less on control and ownership, and more on understanding and aligning the people strategy to business goals, supporting and empowering the employees to do their best work. Provide the framework to maximize your employee’s capabilities, then get out of the way and let leaders lead and watch your employees thrive.

A key element of moving the field of HR forward is actually letting go. A point A.J. Thomas, head of people products, strategy & operations at X, the Moonshot Factory, reinforces:

“When it comes to being a transformational people leader, there’s a moment where you cross the chasm and realize you cannot hold people accountable to the sacrifices your function makes that they cannot see. Whether it’s layoffs, hiring the best talent, managing performance to drive the business forward, tough issues in the workplace—one rule still stands. Be compassionate always, and lead with purpose. That is true impact.”

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Focus on creating frameworks to enable and support success is often seen in the tech and start-up sectors where companies run leaner and often have less established processes. In an industry that celebrates mantras like Facebook’s “move fast and break things,” this bias toward speed and innovation sometimes comes at the cost of ensuring our leaders have the support they need to lead effectively. Former chief people officer at Mozilla, Michael DeAngelo, weighs in on the impact of speed in tech:

“The strength in tech is you can move fast. People are more open to doing innovative things in the people space and testing. It tends to be a more open environment. There’s higher tolerance for change because people’s work and the industry change so much that the DNA is a little bit more change-minded. The downsides are there are areas like diversity and inclusion where we haven’t made fast enough progress. We’re still way behind. The one key difference is that the seasoning of managers or leaders is always harder in tech. People move so fast and they’re going through promotion tracks so quickly, often they’re not getting the seasoning of what it takes to be a really good manager or leader. It’s not just judgement, it’s going through mistakes and learning and getting the experience and wisdom of having some battles you’ve lost and you’ve learned from.”

Rather than a vertical HR function that was often siloed from the business, modern people teams are integrated into the teams they support. You can trace some of this shift back to the creation of one particular position: the HR business partner. Rather than keeping HR isolated as a centralized team, this model embedded HR practitioners inside the business functions they support, allowing them to integrate more deeply into business units and support employees.

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These embedded relationships allowed HR executives to have a much clearer view on an organization’s people dynamics, organizational health, turnover risks and culture shifts—enabling them to be more proactive in addressing challenges and developing people strategies more closely aligned with the organization’s mission and goals. We got closer to the businesses through these partnerships so we could be an additive resource in supporting them to implement their strategic plans.


This article is adapted from Redefining HR by Lars Schmidt ©2021 with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.


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About the author

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and consulting firm that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX navigate the future of work. He is also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.

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