Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | June 6, 2011

Does Everything Have to be the Same?

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

Equal treatment is a basic tenant in Human Resources management. It is implicit in every HR program from selection to performance management. It is built into the analytical process that an HR professional uses in their role as a coach, advisor, and colleague for executives, managers, and supervisors.

A wise person long ago noted that there is an exception to everything. While equal treatment is an important HR principle, there are circumstances where it is appropriate for an HR professional to treat one group different than another.

Achieving Organizational Goals

Human Resources Management is the process of designing and implementing formal systems to allow an organization to make efficient and effective use of human talent to achieve organizational goals. This definition is at the heart of strategic Human Resources Management. It mandates a focus on developing and implementing operational and support systems that help drive the organization toward a strategic goal. But, the question arises as to whether all of these operational and support systems need to be the same for everyone. The immediate answer is yes. It is an answer that often creates disharmony between HR and line management.

A performance review provides one example of this dilemma. In many organizations one performance review form is used for all nonexempt positions. It is a one-size fits all approach that results in a front office worker getting feedback on the same dimensions used for a production worker. The approach may be convenient, even efficient, but it is not usually effective. The job duties between the two positions are vastly different. The work environment and interrelationships are distinctly unique to the actual work being performed. Asking the two managers to provide feedback with the same tool will not likely produce the result of effective performance feedback that HR had in mind.

Attendance policies provide another example. A policy should describe and support the manner method in which an organization actually operates. Unfortunately, many employee policies describe a one-size fits all attendance policy. In fact, different departments operate according to different rules. In a hospital, for example, it may be critically important for a surgical team member to be at work and ready to begin working at a proscribed start time. The marketing team on the floor above the operating room may, however, operate on the basis of a flex-time schedule.  The same policy simply does not work for both departments. A more effective corporate policy provides general guidelines that enable each departmental manager to define a policy and practice that support the operational needs of the department.

“A” Positions

The traditional practice of developing and implementing operational and support systems that are the same throughout the organization runs counter to a strategic business management approach. A successful business depends on a unique combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities that vary in importance and value to the business. Treating them all the same may actually inhibit progress toward strategic goals.

There is a significant amount of management literature that argues for HR to reconsider its traditional one-size fits all approach. One example is what is referred to as an “A” position. An “A” position has a greater impact on the strategic results of an organization than a “B” position. It has more value to the organization. Losing an incumbent in an “A” position has a more dramatic impact than losing a “B” position incumbent. The HR system must enhance the value of these key positions.

An “A” position is not always easy to identify. Finding an “A” position requires an in-depth knowledge of the business and the strategic goals it seeks to achieve. A fast food restaurant chain provides one example of an “A” position. At first glance, the Front Counter Crew Person is an “A” position. Customer service is clearly important to the success of a fast food restaurant. Remember, however, an “A” position has a direct impact on achieving strategic goals. It has a significant impact on long-term success of the organization.

A more careful analysis of a fast food restaurant chain would reveal that an “A” position is a behind the scenes Location Planner. Remember, this is a chain of restaurants. It operates on low margins that require high volume. It must place stores in strategic locations that attract significant numbers of customers over a long period of time. Selecting a bad location significantly impacts both short and long term success of the chain.

The HR challenge is to recruit, motivate, compensate, and retain top quality employees in the “A” position of Location Planner. Put another way, the chain may tolerate an “average” Front Counter” person. It cannot sustain itself with an average Location Planner.

HR Systems

The question for an HR professional is, “Do “A” positions require different systems than “B” or “C” positions?” In other words, do you use the same processes to recruit for an “A” position that you use to recruit for a  “B” or “C” position? Do you use the same performance metrics, compensation plans, or supervisory techniques? Traditionally, the answer in HR has been yes. Strategically, the answer is no; there is too much riding on the outcome.

Two examples will make the point – performance reviews and training. Performance feedback for a “B” position based on job knowledge, skills, and abilities may be sufficient in many organizations. They would be woefully inadequate for an “A” position. An “A” position drives revenues, margins, and strategic goals. Those are specific measures that require careful analysis and detailed discussion. A standard performance review form does not support feedback on them. A savvy HR professional recognizes this difference and designs a system to support the manager’s need to give feedback on the key metrics.

The same concept applies to training. Suppose an HR Department has a limited budget that will only permit one training program for the fiscal year. How should it allocate those precious funds? The traditional answer would be to spend them on program that includes as many employees as a possible – perhaps a two hour stress management program for all employees. The strategic answer would funnel the money toward a program to maximize the skills and abilities of “A” positions – the selected few positions that have the greatest potential for achieving strategic goals.

Conclusion

Every position is important. If it is not, it should not be in the budget. However, some positions have a greater impact on organizational success. Traditionally, HR programs failed to fully recognize the unique nature, needs, and values of these positions. It is important for an HR professional to identify the “A” positions in an organization build systems that support their contributions. For more information on this concept add these books to your library – The Differentiated Workforce, The HR Scorecard, and Beyond HR.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for first-line supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at mike@deblieux.com.

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