Which “Best Practice” is Ruining Your HR Operation?

There is a brilliant article over at the Harvard Business Review titled, Which Best Practice is Ruining Your Business, by Freek Vermeulen (I’m naming my next child “Freek” by the way!).

Best practices” are a sore spot for me when I attend HR/Talent conferences. No matter what the conference you’ll find some HR/Talent professional talking about their “best practice,” and God bless them, you’ll see a standing room only audience of HR/Talent Pros trying to find out all about this “best practice’ to take back to their own shops.

Therein lies the problem. From Vermeulen’s article:

Most companies follow “best practices.” Often, these are practices that most firms in their line of business have been following for many years, leading people in the industry to assume that it is simply the best way of doing things. Or, as one senior executive declared to me when I queried one of his company’s practices: “everybody in our business does it this way, and everybody has always been doing it this way. If it wasn’t the best way of doing things, I am sure it would have disappeared by now.”

But, no matter how intuitively appealing this may sound, the assumption is wrong. Of course, well-intended managers think they are implementing best practices but, in fact, unknowingly, sometimes the practice does more harm than good.

One reason why a practice’s inefficiency may be difficult to spot is because when it came into existence, it was beneficial — like broadsheet newspapers once made sense. But when circumstances have changed and it has become inefficient, nobody remembers, and because everybody is now doing it, it is difficult to spot that doing it differently would in fact be better.”

Do you want to just equal your competitors?

Best practices aren’t new ideas; they are tried and true ideas, proven out over time to work well for the organization that started using them. Theoretically, if you use another organizations “best practice,” the best thing you can hope for is that you’ll equal what they’ve accomplished.

I know a ton of business leaders that would kick you out of their office if you came to them saying “Hey! I’ve got an idea that will allow us to equal our competitors!” Most leaders want ideas that will allow you to beat your competitors, even when you’re trailing in the industry that you’re in.

I’m not saying that many HR/Talent shops can’t improve by using a best practice from another organization. That actually might be true. But, again, you’ll only improve, at best, to the level that other organization has achieved.

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You’ll never be industry leading; you’ll be industry following. I always assume when I hear a best practice that it was something that worked really well for that organization, at a specific time, and then ask, “what are you doing now?” Almost always, I’ll get a response of something new they are actually working on – but it’s not yet a “best practice” in their eyes! That’s what I want to hear – the new stuff – not what they’ve been doing for five years

Why not be a best practice creator?

For me, true innovation does not start at best practice – that is an ending point. If you truly want to innovate and turn your HR Shop into World Class, you have to be a best practice creator, not a best practice follower.

I’d rather hear presentations at SHRM (or any other conference) about stuff people haven’t even tried yet – but they think it could be out of this world and why they think it would be great! Then we both go back and try it, fix it, try it again, and compare notes.

So, which “Best Practice” is going to ruin your HR Shop this year?

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


4 Comments on “Which “Best Practice” is Ruining Your HR Operation?

  1. This is one of those areas that will likely be dramatically affected by Big Data as long as companies bother to actually track their data and CEOs begin forcing change based on those results. Ie. Companies will actually have data to tell them when a practice isn’t the “best.” One remaining hurdle may be getting enough companies/people involved in alternate practices to provide comparative data points.

    However, sometimes the starting point of a “Best Practice” has some merit. Granted, it makes the word “best” nonsensical–so let’s call it “proven”, as your article suggests. It’s analogous to “the fundamentals” when learning any skill. For example: In affirmative action compliance and with a growing body of _scientific_ evidence showing that diverse and compliant companies make more money, why is it many companies still don’t keep records of their diversity levels or recruiting activities (hello! ROI!)? Because “It’s just not done that way.” Although we call proper record keeping and recruitment ROI tracking a “best practice”, I’m content to know it’s simply a “proven” one that _still_ makes sense. Once a company has learned to do the basics properly, they can then begin to look at ways to improve the process to outshine competitors.

  2. It’s not just “why do you want to look like other companies”. The main reason I see is that companies are different and this “one size fits all” idea does not work. HR does this frequently — latch on to what another company is doing in hope that it will create the same results. “One size fits all” is unfortunately the mantra of too many of us. Are we lemmings?

  3. It cuts both ways: If you just use best practices, you’re only matching what other companies do and never getting ahead of the pack. If you don’t use best practices, you may innovate but you may waste time/effort reinventing the wheel.

    It seems to me the best plan is to research best practices, and use that as the basis for innovation. There’s also a need for willingness to try something entirely different from a best practice, rather than being handcuffed to them.

  4. Add 401k education to the list of ‘best practices’ that hurt HR and employees. It’s been used by most employers pretty much the same way for 30 years. Yet most employees age 55-64 have less than $120k in their 401ks and IRAs (Fed Reserve). Using the 4% withdrawal guideline, they can count on $400 or less a month for life. Retirement ed is the largest failure ever of adult education…a failure that’s been visible for 20 years. But the ‘best practice’ label has covered the awful results.

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