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Flushing Out HR Snakes

August 25, 2006
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The movie Snakes on a Plane depicts the terror of being trapped in a confined space with life-threatening pythons, rattlesnakes and the like. While some might see this movie as having no connection to human resources, I see it as the perfect metaphor for the typical HR department.

    Snakes are much like the scary types in HR who contribute to making the function less effective. They quietly undermine efforts by others to transform HR into a powerhouse function by choking off innovation and injecting paralyzing venom in the form of socialism and compliance-speak. Some might think that putting these people in the same category as dangerous reptiles is harsh, but in my 35-plus years in HR, I’ve found their actions scarier and more despicable than any real snake I’ve come across.

    Who are the snakes in HR? Every organization has people who resist change and thwart efforts by real HR professionals to dramatically improve human resources, so in reading this list, think of both current and past snakes who have hindered progressive work you were trying to do. I hope we are talking about a small percentage of HR professionals here, but it is important to remember that the damage they do well exceeds their numbers.

    HR generalists: Generalists are the ultimate silo- and boundary-builders in HR. They set up empires and resist change by saying, "That’s great for everyone else, but it won’t work in my business unit." They have made it to the top by building relationships and playing politics, instead of producing measurable business results. International HR managers, particularly those in Japan and Europe, tend to be the worst of the lot. Most lack the cojones to manage talent aggressively, blocking staffing professionals who try to innovate. You can spot these snakes easily because they are always "in a meeting." They love meetings, and think that going to a meeting is more beneficial than reviewing metrics, doing a postmortem or forecasting future people problems.

    Lazy recruiters: Great recruiters are aggressive and are constantly trying new sources and approaches to reach the best talent. However, there are snakes in recruiting. The most venomous are administrative recruiters, who are not really recruiters at all but rather requisition managers more concerned with seeking approvals and ensuring that the forms get filled out. Other snakes in recruiting include those who regularly scream "That’s illegal!" when in fact their exclamation has no basis in law, and "search firm managers" who do more to stifle the work of retained search firms than help them. The final group includes those recruiters who use the same sources no matter what job they are trying to fill, as if janitors and lawyers come from the same bucket.

    Compensation and benefit cost cutters: These people hinder great recruiting and retention by giving "equal pay" wherever possible in order to avoid conflict. They lose candidates by being slow and generating offers with lowball starting salaries in the hopes that candidates might accept them. Benefit specialists make the list when they dedicate 100 percent of their time to cutting costs while ignoring the impacts of benefit changes on worker performance, recruiting and retention.

    Pseudo-technologists: Among my favorites, these snakes will buy almost any argument that a vendor gives. They love to form task forces that endlessly study technology to the point where the system they eventually buy is obsolete. The task force approach allows them to avoid individual accountability when the system they buy handcuffs the productivity of everyone in HR.

    Employee relations specialists: No one avoids conflict better than these individuals. They will postpone firing someone for years. These snakes never have the nerve to confront—no less fire—bad managers, who cause 85 percent of all recruiting, retention and productivity problems.

    You could probably keep adding to this list, but I’m sure you get the point. When you have HR professionals who say they know the business but can’t read a P&L statement, refuse to remain current on business issues by reading Workforce Management,BusinessWeek, Fortune, Business 2.0 and leading business books like The World Is Flat and Jack Welch’s Winning, and who are unwilling to abandon intuition and emotion as a basis for decision-making, you have a bunch of snakes with individual objectives slithering sideways in an effort to derail or slow change.

    If you agree with me, help your organization by confronting them the next time one crosses your path. Incidentally, don’t bother looking under rocks. HR snakes are best found by going to meetings and looking for the people who say, "That’ll never work."

Workforce Management, August 28, 2006, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!

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