“No one takes HR seriously.”

This was one of the first things I heard when I started my undergraduate studies in HR. When I finally entered the workforce and started working with HR professionals in other companies I encountered a lot of talented, strategic thinkers who deserved to be taken seriously, but weren’t. While there were some who certainly gave HR a bad name, there were plenty more who not only had all the right skills, but did all the right things. Yet, when it came down to it, the CEO and other executives just didn’t care. HR was going to be ignored and that’s all there was to it.

“No one takes HR seriously.”

Over the past few years I’ve travelled to several countries and spoken at multiple HR events and I’ve noticed an interesting issue affecting HR professionals – the problem isn’t that they can’t think strategically (they can), the problem is that they are still waiting for executive leadership to 1) care and 2) do something about it.

To be clear, there are a lot of companies where HR is valued and taken seriously, but there are still plenty more where that is simply not the case. In situations like this it turns out that the problem isn’t that HR doesn’t think strategically, the problem is that HR wants to be nice, follow all the rules, and get executive permission for anything and everything. The result is that HR comes up with some really good initiatives, and then does little to nothing with them because its stuck waiting for approval that may never come.

The only way out of this, the only way to start getting more done, is for HR to stop worrying about executive involvement so much and start breaking rules. In companies where HR is taken seriously this just means that HR will be able to move faster. In companies where HR is ignored it means they’ll finally be able to start getting things done.

When I refer to breaking rules I’m not talking about breaking the law or burning internal bridges, I’m talking about ignoring bureaucratic policies, trying strange things, and asking forgiveness instead of permission. Sales, product, and marketing teams do this all the time – and they manage to deliver results AND get a seat that the executive table. Why can’t HR?

“From rule-following HR to rule-breaking HR”

For instance, what if your company had several “brilliant jerks” walking around and management wasn’t interested in correcting their behavior? Rule-following HR would come up with a plan, present it to management, and then watch their plan get thrown in the trash bin. Rule-breaking HR on the other hand would find where it could make things happen. It would skip the permission phase and do things like launch a program that recognizes and rewards team players (implied public shaming can work wonders), or start heavily filtering the kinds of CVs it passes to hiring managers (which should be happening anyways).

These actions don’t get rid of the jerks directly, but it starts to reform the culture in ways that either change behavior or cause bad actors to leave. What makes them effective is that they are small enough in scale so as to avoid creating any major political conflicts, yet they work well enough that you can actually start measuring results and deliver those to management.

If you’ve never engaged in rule-breaking HR here are a few key things you can do:

Always tie your work to the bottom line

Ever heard of a sales team spending waaaaaay too much of their budget on a dinner with a prospect, getting scolded by finance, and then praised by the CEO? That’s because the sales team used the dinner to close a major deal, even if they broke the rules. Connecting your actions to positive business outcomes (while remaining ethical) will get you out of jail free almost every time.

Stop asking for permission all the time

This one is tricky, but the basic problem a lot of HR professionals have is that they wait for management to decide everything. They create plans with multiple options and then give the choice to someone else. A more effective approach is to identify the best plan of action and start rolling it out. If it works you can present results, if it starts to backfire then just stop and start over. Trust me when I tell you that nine out of ten times management would prefer you simply report on what you’ve done than constantly ask them to choose everything for you.

In the instances where you absolutely must ask permission take the approach of presenting only one option. This ensures you get your way!

Leverage internal branding

When I refer to internal branding I’m not talking about motivational posters. I’m referring to sharing successes, highlighting great work by other teams, and creating visibility for key HR projects. Some quick wins in this area include publishing quarterly reports about HR results, using newsletters and internal social networks to give recognition to other people/teams, and running internal email, poster, ad campaigns on your most important projects.

Doing this allows you to create more visibility and trust, which in turn helps you have an easier time breaking rules in the future.

Pick your battles

Internal politics are unavoidable, which means you can’t go breaking rules all the time. Be smart and identify the areas that are most essential to you. Other things may be important as well, but you can only do so much.

You may work for a company that takes HR seriously or you may not. Either way, there’s no reason you can’t be getting more done. Executives will be happier if you spend more of your time making things happen and showing results and less of your time running each decision by them. As long as you stay focused on the bottom line and can show business results you’ll get a lot farther than you might think.


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