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HR: Police or Interpreter?

Recently, I had a conversation with an early career HR practitioner about a quandary they had. Their top leadership wanted them to be more involved disciplining employees for any issues or infractions they discovered while walking around. And by more involved, they did not mean partner with the supervisor and recommend a course of action but to “just do it”, as a sort of HR police move. The HR practitioner’s initial reaction was:

IMO, that is the “right” instinct in this situation. There’s something off when HR is expected to act as the police or enforcer for performance issues of folks who do not report to them. This devalues the role of the immediate supervisor who should be the main person to lead, coach, train, and counsel their team members. It can also entrench an “us vs them” culture.

The positive in this situation is that top leadership has noticed there is a problem and they want HR involved in solving it. That’s great! In the dance of business partnership, strategic support, and policy interpretation, there is room in how we approach this.

I am not a dancer but I have noticed that interpretive dance is nuanced, intentional, and thought provoking. As HR practitioners, we can model evaluating the task at hand (results required) and deciding what actions we need to take to yield the best outcomes for all. We do this in conjunction with leaders as we provide our expertise in line with best practices.

If a leader says “We just need to take care of this!” regarding an employee issue, we don’t have to jump to “Well, I guess we’ll go fire the person!” (for some reason this seems very mafia-esque to me). We can take that information and interpret it. We confirm what outcome they want and what is off the table. From there, we can review what previous actions we’ve taken in similar circumstances, review our own guidelines (rules/policies/procedures), partner with the supervisor, and agree on what is next. Through the discussion with the supervisor, we may learn additional details and also learn their thoughts on how to resolve. Many times, they have a more suitable resolution (notice I didn’t say better; it’s not a competition). Other times, the resolution is a combination of all our ideas.

Sometimes there is pushback. And that’s okay. Learning to communicate with each other is part of problem solving and team building. I want to “get there with them”. When possible, and as long as it’s ethical, legal, and not completely outside of what we normally do, I will support their decision. I restate any concerns I have and set a time to check back in. If my concerns are serious, I let the leader know I’m concerned enough to escalate to, in my case, the Executive team. I do not do so without their knowledge in this context.

As we lead this interpretive, collaborative dance, we build goodwill along the way. We don’t have to be a Fred Astaire, but we can become sought after business “pardners”.


If you were to name your HR style after a dance, which would it be and why?

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