Human Resources Management Needs an Overhaul

Jan 29, 2001

It’s becoming more apparent to me every day that human resources management as we know it needs a total overhaul. Many human resources experts (staff and consultants) are perpetuating bad advice, and the typical A/E/P or environmental firm principal is eating it up. Here’s some of what I’m talking about: Underpinning human resources management. Many of the premises that these HR “experts” base their advice on are false. This misdiagnosis of the problem results in providing the wrong solution, or should I say the right solution to the wrong problem. The assumption that good people work for firms with good pay, good benefits, and nice policies, for example, may be entirely wrong. I have seen many firms with good pay and great benefits that have high turnover rates. Why? Because these companies were lousy places to work. Perhaps the founder was an egomaniac and treated everyone else like dirt. Or the company was run by a committee of 12 fools, none of whom had any real interest in leading a firm that makes money and grows. Or perhaps the firm changed direction constantly and kept everyone in the dark. My experience is that people want to work in firms that dominate their markets and for leaders they can respect who have a clear idea of what they are trying to do. Yet the HR people rarely even speak these kinds of words. Most are not schooled in business planning, marketing, or open-book management— the very areas that are most essential to employee morale and motivation! Performance appraisals. The whole notion that every manager should do structured performance appraisals on his or her staff members once a year is bogus, if you ask me. It’s also crazy to think that appraisals, the way we do them, will actually lead to any performance improvement on the part of the employee. In fact, there are so many problems with this process in the typical A/E firm that I almost don’t know where to start! Once a year is not often enough for an appraisal. Feedback should be continuous. And these appraisals don’t help us in terminations. Many times, they only document the fact that the firm hadn’t been giving any negative feedback to the employee who was “unfairly” let go. And how can one appraisal form work for every employee? Yet try to come up with different appraisal forms and see how difficult that can be. Everyone needs constant feedback, good and bad. Put the managers out on the floor with the troops. Encourage them to fire off verbal praise and criticism as well as written praise and criticism. Teach them about how to communicate good and bad feedback. Encourage them to give feedback immediately, not save it for later. This is how you get real performance improvement, not by filling out some dopey form that everyone— both employees and managers— dreads. Formal job descriptions. Where did we get the idea that super-structuring every single job in the firm is the way to make people feel better about where they stand and where they can go in the firm as well as essential to holding people accountable for their performance? Having job descriptions isn’t the way to do it! This is especially true when they define minimum requirements for the job such as “3.2 years of experience and an associate’s degree,” or they have a salary range attached (e.g., “Engineer IVs make between $3,345 and $4,097 per month). I find that most people, except for the most uninspired and least motivated, don’t want these kinds of boxes drawn around them. Where did the idea come from that all people with the same job title should have the exact same responsibilities? The managers they work for have different strengths and weaknesses and need different skill sets in the subordinates who work for them. Not to mention the fact that the managers who have to make up these job descriptions and the HR staff that has to coordinate it all hate the process too. I’d like to know where we ever got the idea that private consulting firms should emulate the management practices of the government agencies they serve. Seems kind of dumb, doesn’t it? Who do they work for? This has always bugged the hell out of me when it comes to HR staff. Many of them think they’re working for the oppressed employees in their struggle against the evil firm management. I would never accept that! For starters, I don’t find many evil managers, at least in this business! And second, that’s not why we are paying the HR person’s salary. We are paying them to help us find out how to make better use of our human resources (i.e., how to get more out of our people). They aren’t union shop stewards, for cryin’ out loud! As usual, I could go on, but I’ve run out of space. And I need to get ready for the barrage of angry letters and e-mails that will be coming from some of our HR manager readers. I’m ready! Originally published 1/29/2001.

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