Most managers mistake human resources (HR) for a function that manages people. Worse, many expect HR to manage their people for them. This attitude reminds me of the 1980s—the formative years of quality and safety functions in India. Line managers constantly confused the quality of products with the quality department. Safety was thought to be the job of the safety inspector. Hundreds of seminar hours were spent in educating managers that quality and safety were not the responsibility of the departments named after them. Finally, the ownership devolved to where it belongs: the line manager. The rank and file in factories and plants started owning responsibility for quality and safety—instead of “outsourcing” this to the quality and safety departments.
There is similar confusion over the HR function today. Many managers tend to abdicate or outsource people management to the HR department without understanding that managers alone can manage their people and the HR function only enables this through processes, tools and guidance.
Most of our managers make “guest appearances” in the talent cinema—believing they are too important or just too busy to suffer through the multiple takes that would make it a good movie. Let us look below the surface of a few key people processes in an average firm—there are exceptions, always—and uncover the real state of manager-HR interface on people matters.
Role play : Managers tend to abdicate people management to HR.
Getting and growing talent
On the surface, managers at all levels—junior, middle, senior and top—get involved in the talent task. Dig a little deeper, and you will find most of them are rather selective and/or reluctant partners in the talent process.
Most managers keep vital positions vacant, sometimes even waiting needlessly to bring in their “own and known” people. When that informal search fails, they notify HR to hire. Most managers are reluctant to hire people more talented or very different from themselves. The best of HR processes and templates are “used”, only to justify such cloning of the organization. Managers are eager to “interview” candidates, but reluctant to fill out the “interview assessment forms” and make honest and objective comments about what they found—or didn’t—in the candidate they interviewed. Also, once talented people come in, growing them needs personal effort. Just as you can’t have your children raised only by nannies, teachers and schools, the people you manage will not grow if you as a manager do not help them do their “homework” and give them emotional support and advice. The HR department cannot be expected to run development efforts. Unfortunately, many managers just don’t get this.
In many companies, a perfunctory process of template-driven performance programme is simply rolled out and complied with annually or periodically. Everyone fills out the forms, ticks the boxes, managers pass through the motions of goal-setting, reviews, feedback discussions and “rating”. And then HR takes over, pushes for “normalization” and bell curves . Managers comply willy-nilly. Many managers in India find it hard to give and receive feedback. Managers want to communicate the good and pleasing stuff to their employees. But when it comes to giving the bad news and taking tough calls, they pass on the task to the HR departments.
Engaging and motivating
HR is often asked “What do you do in your firm to engage and motivate employees?” And like a trained parrot, the HR leader reels out a list of programmes—we organize family days, picnics, spot rewards and dinner vouchers, etc. Managers, meanwhile, join their employees in passing judgement on how inadequate HR programmes are. Managers would be well-advised to step back and ask: Who engages and what motivates? They will know that it is no one else but them who can engage their employees. It is their actions which motivate their immediate team. What managers can do through their personal leadership, no HR executive can ever do.
HR functionaries are no less culprits in perpetuating this confusion. Most of them lack the skills to consult, advise, coach and guide managers and leaders. They are happy power-brokering or delivering simple transactions that tools, systems and shared service centres can easily handle. They rarely push back and challenge the line leader by asking searching questions and providing the right analytics. Hence they usually end up running errands or doing “inspection” for their managers. Many HR functionaries initially tend to take on a lot, get their managers to rely on them, and midway through the process, complain that managers don’t own and support the company’s HR programmes.
HR would do well not to reduce everything to mindless templates and compliance-seeking programmes. The intent and spirit of HR is to teach fishing and not hand out the fish. As long as HR runs the people tasks for managers, the true ownership of people management will not devolve on managers. Worse, the crucial task of attending to people will fall between the cracks. Employees will in the end suffer in this ping-pong between HR and managers, each looking at the other to manage and care for people.
The manager-people-HR equation needs to be rewritten. Managers must get this right: It is their job to manage people, not HR’s. The HR function, on the other hand, is best served when it learns to wither away—empowering and enabling managers.
Chandrasekhar Sripada is the vice-president and head-HR (India/South Asia), IBM India Pvt. Ltd. The views expressed here are personal.
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