HR is Not Your Junk Drawer

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, the name Peter Strzok will ring a bell. He’s the FBI agent whose text messages to his FBI lawyer girlfriend have cast crippling doubt on the impartiality of the Trump/Clinton investigations. But this isn’t about that. This is about what happened to him next.

Regardless of where you land on the politics of the FBI investigations, there’s no disputing the fact that Strzok lost his powerful position where he had a direct impact on every single headlining bureau activity. Leadership realized that he was about to be exposed for, what appears to be at this writing, a by-any-means-necessary campaign to use his powerful position of trust to influence the unfolding of events pre- and post-presidential election. There is a strong argument that he should have been fired. But he was “demoted” instead. Where did he go?  As one cable news host repeatedly puts it, “down to HR.”

It sure would be nice to start this paragraph with the sentence, “Since when…” did HR become the catchment area of an organization’s out-of-favor cast-offs? But HR has historically drawn that particular short straw. For decades, managers too spineless to actually fire an undesirable have settled on HR when desperately searching for a new place for that person to sit. Ideally that person should be sitting outside, with box on knees, and look on face that says, “What do I do now?”

This kind of reassignment speaks volumes to your HR talent – and the organization overall – about how the C suite esteems HR as a critical service to the organization. People your people department with those who cannot be fired, and you have staffed your employee service cadre with dispirited, resentful, distracted, resume-circulating, actively disengaged individuals who may or may not necessarily care about answering the ringing telephone. Or the integrity of private personnel files. Or, even, the law.

The employees of one organization I’m personally familiar with refer to their HR department as the Human Rejects Department. Why? Because that’s where the organization stashes away the attitude-saturated, apathetic non-performers who, by all rights, should be sitting next to that guy outside. I ask you: How much faith do you suppose the rest of the staff has in getting the service and advice they deserve from these people? People just don’t want to interact with, or get help from, HR departments that are harboring the shunnables. Think of how this practice destroys engagement, starting with the culture of the HR department itself.

How do you attract and retain high-performing HR candidates to opportunities inside these kinds of departments? How disengaging can it be for true HR talent to look over their shoulder and see this kind of person show up and take the cubicle next to them – someone who is only there because he is actually being punished? (And who, let’s face it, in his heart of hearts, is saying to himself, “I’m too good for this gig.”)

As an HR professional who has worked hard, invested vast sums in your education and sacrificed hugely for your career, how quickly will you start looking for a new gig of your own – one where you, your expertise, and your contributions will be respected?

Should HR Be Used as a Rehabilitation Unit?

Whenever I hear of someone being reassigned to HR from a failed performance experience, I always ask myself, “Why HR? Why is it that just because this is the people department, people think that anyone can do the job?” Just because you’re human, that doesn’t mean you have the skills in Human Resources. Especially these days when the HR function is filled with nuance that if mishandled can lead an organization to horrible litigation and security issues. If you want to spend your career representing your company in depositions and trials and be at a total disadvantage legally just because someone did or said something stupid, underestimating the power of HR to protect your company’s interests is an excellent way to do it.

There just aren’t that many immediately transferrable skills in the high-performing HR department.

Which isn’t to say HR can’t be an appropriate landing pad for truly deserving, hard-working, serious professionals who are sincerely and humbly willing to learn something new. I remember with a great deal of personal pride the time when my organization was doing a round of layoffs because of organizational reshuffling. And the company wanted to keep one of the professionals who was slated to lose her job. She was reassigned to a variety of different departments, but could never successfully find that new spot where she could thrive. The head of the organization finally asked me to take her on. And, to this day, I think back on her as one of the best hires I have ever made.

She wasn’t a rock star. She was a solid B player, open, approachable, coachable, and she was humbly, sincerely, deeply grateful to still have a job where her other colleagues were out on the job market. She demonstrated her gratitude daily through her dedication to her work. And it warmed my heart to see my team rally around her to give her what she needed to succeed in her new profession. The memory of how we helped this woman is a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude for HR that I will take with me to my dying day.

What’s the difference here? She deserved every chance to keep a job in this company. And her attitude inspired us to help her.

But This is Where I Draw The Line

The practice of sending utter failures to HR as more of a shelving initiative speaks to organizational cowardice. As a leader, if I have someone on my team who is behaving contrary to organizational values, doing something illegal, or shedding a negative light on the organization as a whole, I’m not going to reassign that person. I’m going to fire that person. In my department, if you do something egregious, you’re done.

HR deserves to be the department that experiences the feeling of being celebrated and respected. That way we can serve as the origin of an entire organization-wide culture of celebration and respect.

I want my HR department to be a shining example to the entire organization of what an engaged, passionate, professional team with high performance standards looks like.

So don’t throw your undesirables over the fence into my department and say, “Here you take him.” I will not have my people be punished by the presence of the person you’re punishing. Period.

Test my resolve on this and you’ll have my resignation by end of day.