Jun 13, 2019

A Flashlight, Not a Hammer: How to Leverage Your HR Data

HR professionals have a complicated relationship with data.

The founders of BentoHR have had a relationship with HR data for over 15 years. In the beginning, HR data was just becoming the ‘it’ topic. The thought leaders of the day believed HR data, in tandem with qualitative inputs (a functional specialty), would sell organizations on a more ‘human’ path forward. And when we arrived at the destination, HR would be well-positioned as true strategic partners.

Except in a lot of organizations, not much changed.
Instead HR departments, now armed with an overwhelming volume of data, are again tasked with administration – creating scorecards & distributing reports. Rather than developing a strategic HR analytics mandate, too many HR departments are instead dutifully reconciling headcount, tracking training completion & reporting on employee turnover.

HR Data as a Hammer

A myriad of vendors and consultants have developed proprietary assessments, leadership reviews and surveys to quantify everything from happiness, trust and commitment, selling HR department’s data back to them at a premium.

More troubling, other corporate functions are beginning to ‘quantify’ HR, leveraging people analytics to advance strategic business interests, using a ‘pass / fail’ philosophy that creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ – with HR managing the scorecards and matrixes.

This is a challenge for a few reasons. First, people analytics are notoriously subjective; the result of blending quantitative measures and qualitative insights. This leads to inequities and bias. Second, because people analytics quantifies gaps in the leadership of the very people tasked with their review, in far too many instances there is accountability, though no coaching. Another unintended result? Under pressure to perform, business leaders make questionable ethical decisions, manipulating HR data to achieve a result that speaks more favourably of their own leadership acumen. Unfortunately we’ve seen several examples of this. In one case, a leader completed dozens of fraudulent employee surveys to inflate their overall worksite engagement score. In another, a functional leader bribed their employees with promises of salary increases in exchange for more favourable feedback about their leadership. In both cases the result became more important than what it signified.

The harsh reality is that when the potential of discipline enters into the equation, the behaviour of some changes. People become guarded, suspicious, and in some cases develop unhealthy fixations with the result, losing sight of the healthy behaviours and practices that help them realize good results.

Most HR professionals joined the profession to enable and support people. Though in organizations where HR data is an impetus for corrective action, partners become adversaries. Ironically, its these same HR professionals, by proxy of their roles, that are tasked with administering corrective action when leaders fail to achieve people analytics targets. This makes developing meaningful, trusting relationships with other business leaders incredibly difficult for HR. Rather than supporting the growth of leaders with evidence-based tools, many HR professionals are navigating organizational politics, debating the recency, accuracy and legitimacy of data, as others attempt to avoid corrective action. What little time is available isn’t allocated to discussing (or solving for) root cause issues.

Data Without Context Has Little Value

It’s true that data, viewed as an indicator, can reveal opportunities. Our past clients know that we love analogies, and have often likened solving problems in business to trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Data (alone) doesn’t pinpoint the needle; it merely reduces the size of the haystack.

To lean on a single data point to assess performance is often an unfair simplification. Turnover, for example, is subject to multiple external factors (economic, regulatory, etc.) that are outside the control of a single organization, let alone a single individual. However, in many organizations we hold business leaders accountable for their department’s turnover without more detailed analysis. Data requires context, and the most effective method we’ve found to establish context is an ongoing dialogue between HR and the business.

That’s why we recommend removing the disciplinary implications from all HR data.

Instead, we believe in using HR data as a starting point for dialogue; an opportunity to add context & understand both the local & broader organizational influences that lead to the result. When the potential for discipline is removed, stakeholders become more collaborative and less defensive. Together you’ll solve the problem.

As accountability is an important part of most organizational cultures, we don’t advocate for its complete removal. Rather, we believe in its application under a set of very specific circumstances. In cases of poor integrity, where a leader is found to have manipulated, falsified, or otherwise tampered with data, discipline may be appropriate. In cases where a leader is unwilling to participate in the creation and/or implementation of an action plan resulting from an HR data result, discipline may be appropriate.

We believe the key to effectively leveraging your HR data lies in creating an environment where opportunities are quickly identified, openly discussed & collaboratively solved in partnership with stakeholders – to illuminate, not punish.