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Preparing HR for an Expanded Role

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This is the last article in a two-part series on the future of human resources in government.

Stewart Liff

The perception of human resources in government has never been completely favorable, and HR officials have struggled to keep pace with evolving business issues. For example:

  • Government organizations are facing increasing demands for improved performance.
  • Agencies are under enormous scrutiny from Congress, inspectors general, the media and the public, especially with the advent of social media.
  • The centralization of HR under the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative has caused an outflow of experts from the field.
  • Since the initiative, government attorneys have had more impact on the HR decision-making process, which has not always been for the better.
  • The lack of accountability in government continues to be troubling.

These are some of the key issues affecting the reputation and performance of human resources officials in government.  Here are suggestions for how to handle them.

Demands for Improved Performance

Government HR offices should begin to redefine themselves as key advisers on performance management. They should consider establishing a separate performance management section (similar to Staffing, Employee and Labor Relations) staffed with individuals who have expertise in performance management, metrics, trend analysis and organizational systems design. Their job would be to advise line officials on how to manage their performance management program, much like what the Office of Personnel Management does.

Some organizations currently house this function in the Office of the Director, which is certainly a good option. But by placing this function in HR, the activity would:

  • Have ready access to key information, such as resource distribution, organizational charts, appraisal decisions, rewards and recognition determinations, and leave data that enable officials to track the relationship between performance and people management.
  • Trigger internal discussions that might prompt HR staff to more closely examine how their roles impact organizational performance.
  • Provide senior HR leaders with critical information that would enable them to become better advisers.

Increased Scrutiny

With a push for transparency and relatively easy access to performance information on the Internet, many government officials know their organization is potentially only one report, one article, or one expose away from even more intense scrutiny. If HR begins to act as a full-fledged partner on not only personnel issues, but performance-related issues as well, it can bring a potential problem to the attention of senior leadership before it gets out of hand.

HR officials should periodically go out in the field and talk to the union, if one exists, as well as employees to get a pulse of the organization and learn about any significant issues that are percolating and need immediate attention. They should also be looking at key trends to make sure the organization is making fair and equitable decisions (e.g., distribution of appraisals and rewards, staffing/promotion decisions, disciplinary/adverse actions, and EEO cases). Officials should be conducting independent reviews of performance to determine whether there are any performance problems that have not been reported/detected (e.g., false reporting, problems that have not yet shown up through the metrics, and inefficiencies) or gaps in the performance management system.

The Centralization of HR

Many HR offices have not yet recovered from the exodus of seasoned staff under the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative. The government needs to make a concerted effort to rebuild its HR expertise by implementing an aggressive knowledge management plan.

Officials need to first determine the skill sets that HR requires so they can provide the current and relevant services needed. A comprehensive plan to develop those employees who will be providing these services should be created. Such a plan should focus on developing both codifiable knowledge (e.g., understanding the rules, regulations, processes and procedures), and more importantly, non-codifiable knowledge (the “art” of the job), which separates a journeyman from an expert.

Since it is not easy to find HR experts in government, it might be wise to turn to retirees or external consultants to help develop these skill sets.

Attorneys’ Expanded Role

After rebuilding this expertise, it would then make sense to transition the bulk of HR advisory services away from attorneys and back where it belongs—in human resources. That is not to say that attorneys should be frozen out of the process—they should not, especially if they will continue to represent the organization before third parties. Attorneys should be brought into the process if officials need to go outside the organization for resolution.

Another option is to have HR handle third party hearings once the requisite expertise is developed. Either way, a great way to develop skills is to have HR staff attend third party hearings as an assistant or an observer, so they have the opportunity to see a case unfold from beginning to end. This type of experience will go a long way toward building an employees’ understanding of the process, as well as developing their ability to provide sound advice.

Lack of Accountability

This issue is certainly not solely a function of HR, as it seems to infect almost every level of government. If HR can rebuild its expertise and reclaim the primary role of providing HR advice, however, it can begin to drive accountability across government.

It can do this in several ways. First, HR needs to work with all of the other key players that have a role in this area (i.e., the leaders, the managers, the supervisors and the attorneys) to ensure there is a unified, organization-wide philosophy and approach to accountability.  That means having reliable consequences for every level of performance and behavior, as well as dealing with problem employees, rather than simply moving them around.

Second, HR must become a trusted adviser that can help agency officials manage problem employees, including removal when it is the right thing to do.  This means offering management a series of options for how to best move forward, rather than providing reasons why they cannot.

Third, HR needs to provide extensive training for managers on how to hold their staff members accountable, especially those who are considered “problem employees.” This is critical because far too often, government managers don’t fully understand the civil service system, are fearful of being sued and are concerned about repercussions from the union. At a minimum, managers need to be willing to deal with problem employees and able to ask the right questions.

The Path Ahead

Personnel offices often are blamed for the poor performance of others when, in reality, there factors that HR has very little control over. This is why sound HR metrics are so critical. HR managers must develop metrics from the customer’s perspective that let both employees and others know how they are actually doing.

Once I consulted with several HR offices that were blamed for taking too long to fill vacancies. From the customer’s perspective, it was taking on average more than 100 days to fill a job.  From HR’s point of view, however, it was taking about 30 days. But how was this possible? HR measured the time it took to fill a vacancy from the point they received all of the required information from their customer.

We immediately adjusted the metric to track how long it took from the initial customer request to fill the job, until all of the information was received and then through all of the other HR steps (i.e., classification, announcement, rating and ranking). This enabled HR to show that most of the delay in filling vacancies was actually caused by their customers.

As a result, HR officials began working more cooperatively with customers to ensure that they understood what information was needed up front and would enable them to fill vacancies much more quickly.

If personnel officials embrace all these recommended actions, they can dramatically change perception of HR in government and transform its role into a valuable and trusted partner.

Stewart Liff is a fellow with The Performance Institute, specializing in human resources management, visual performance management and team development. He is the author of multiple books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. 

(Image via Santiago Cornejo/Shutterstock.com)

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