Who You Gonna Call? Your HR Physician Can Diagnose What Ails Your Organization

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Imagine going to your general practitioner, and after a few questions, you get a prescription.

During this process, she pulls out a list of best practices to treat your symptoms and writes your prescription. You walk out after a 5-10 minute interview and you’re prescribed with this miracle cure to heal what ails you.

However, if you go to a specialist who deals with your ailment, you will be put through a battery of tests to get to the root cause. After the results come back, this specialist will evaluate your results thoroughly and begin the process of coming up with a solution.

Last week, I got a note from an HR friend who told me that they were asked to gauge employee engagement in their firm. She went to HR and HR sent her a survey with a list of questions.

When I say the questions were”sent,” they were sent back to her via email. The problem was that the list of questions did not touch on what she wanted. Her group was looking for help with the manager-employee dynamic and not the organization-employee dynamic.

We are the specialist

There was no interview process with the client; just a phone call and the prescription was sent back forthwith.

In the medical profession, this is called “bedside manner.” If you have not figured it out yet, we are the Human Capital physician in our organization. We are the ones that people come to when there is an organizational ailment, because we are the specialists.

If your medical professional took you though a similar, one-size-fits-all approach, it would not be long before you were in the hunt for a new doctor. You would run in the other direction to find adequate help.

There is no one-size-fits-all that works regardless of how many best practices we apply or how many 4, 5, or 6 steps we take to workplace nirvana. There is none.

We have to get in, roll up our sleeves, and investigate — and then possibly investigate some more. So many times in this fact finding phase, we start in on their assumptions, but after some questioning, you can almost see thoughts veer off in the other direction. The beauty of it all is when the client also begins to notice the shift.

Self-diagnosis is dangerous

Managers should not self-diagnose. They may be experts in finance, marketing, or IT, but they are out of their league when it comes to the human capital dynamic. As HR professionals, we are the in-house physician and that is the brand that we want to have.

I will never forget dealing with a working group with a division president and her team who, in describing my team, said, “I do not know how they do it, but this group is full of diagnosticians. I have learned so much about human dynamics from working with them.”

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She went on to explain how in the past we had come up with a working solution [a prescription] to an issue within her department.

I looked at my group and told them afterwards that our brand had been solidified, and that this is what every HR person works for. We want to be seen as the department that they call when there is a problem. HR’s brand should be seen as that of the human capital strategist and not the general practitioner  — or as we were commonly called, the generalist.

We can’t be seen as always having the quick answer to everyone’s question or problem. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to get at the root cause.

HR as part of the medical model

In the medical analogy that we have used here, it’s easy to understand the difference between treating symptoms and curing a medical condition. We want to be viewed as curing the condition and not just treating the symptoms.

So when there is a problem at work and the HR professionals are called in, how do you approach it? Our approach will go a long way in determining our brand. Do you jump in and start treating the symptoms? Or, do you stop to consider whether there’s actually a deeper problem that needs your attention?

If you only fix the symptoms – what you see on the surface – the problem will almost certainly crop up again, which will lead you to have to fix it again, and again, and again. If, instead, you dig deeper to figure out why the problem is occurring, you can fix the underlying systems and processes that are the root cause of the problem.

After successfully curing a few organizational problems, you will be viewed as the diagnostician within your organization. Once that happens, you will not be on the outside looking in, but at center stage — maybe not with the white coat and stethoscope, but the respect of your workplace “patients” will be the same.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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