HR Frenemies and Chinese Walls

HR Frenemies and Chinese Walls

It was Renaissance political theorist Machiavelli who, in his treatise ‘The Prince,’ famously said: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” His advice to leaders was penned more than 500 years ago but the concept is alive and well thanks to an expression that Machiavelli wouldn’t have heard of but which is widely used up today; ‘frenemies.’

Frenemies in the workplace can be defined as friends who are also enemies – the people employees encounter in their everyday lives. The people who are either enemies pretending to be friends or people who are friends but also their rivals. Perhaps they’re line managers; they’re definitely the people that staff may not necessarily like but which they discretely acknowledge and decide to keep close knowing that their careers may depend on knowing them. Frenemies play the long and often unsaid political game.

But, although the concept of frenemies is well known, HR functions are wrongly encouraging the very opposite of this. They think it’s good for business but, in reality, it’s the worst thing they should be doing.

A Flawed Policy

HR departments seem to work hard to ensure their workforce connects with each other in a ‘genuine’ relationship centric way. It’s this connection, they believe, that creates harmony, a better culture and groups of individuals more willing to go the extra mile. But, whilst on the surface this may appear to be the correct policy, it’s actually flawed.

Companies are so keen to be seen to develop deep and meaningful relationships amongst their colleagues and between management that they put staff through team building days, encourage more social time with colleagues and engender a friend-based culture. But whilst it’s accepted that good working relations are important, they’re only important up to a certain point.

Many leaders are deeply sceptical about really close work friendships. Rather than develop untrusting relationships, I think one option is to re-read The Prince and bring back the concept of the frenemy. Most importantly, this is a call that the HR community should take particular heed of.

The reason is simple. Let’s say that you, in HR, have formed close friendships with colleagues at work. But then let’s say it’s your and the rest of the HR team’s responsibility to have to deal with (and potentially remove) that person from the organisation. Is your ability to do your job going to be impacted? Are you truly going to work in the best interests of the organisation you work for? Or are you instead going to try and get the best deal for that affected person because they are your ‘friend?’ Even if you say the former, I suspect your loyalties may be divided.

The answer to these questions is obvious. Without being frenemies, companies are following a dangerous path if they let management (in this case HR management), form relations with employees that are as strong as what some might have with their ‘real’ friends outside work. If you work in HR, the boundaries have to be clear. But, from my observations, HR is so intent on building ‘relations’ and ‘relationships’, that it rarely pauses to think about how destructive these things can be when difficult discussions are needed.

Chinese Walls

Everyone in business needs to be aware that yes, people become close. That’s fine; to a point. But, if you work in HR, you need to build Chinese walls to avoid this happening to you so that you can create a proper barrier to the possibility of conflict.

I believe that only by becoming a frenemy with staff can HR have a professional way of removing themselves from the personal links they may have. In this way, the concept of having ‘awkward’ conversations need not apply because they become business-led conversations. Without playing this role, there is too much opportunity for HR to be drawn to the side of an employee when they’re supposed to be working for the business. Without being a frenemy they can all too easily fall into the “I didn’t want this to happen, but I’ve been told to…” mentality. It’s weak and it doesn’t help the situation when settling disputes in a non-conflict of interest and professional manner – which is what they are ultimately required to do.

But is it really possible for a profession, largely built on developing personal relations with staff, to act this way? I believe that it’s not just possible, it’s absolutely essential for the good of the reputation of HR. I’m not suggesting HR has to be rude or unapproachable – deliberately creating a function that employees feel they can’t come to – but that they should consider maintaining the appropriate arms-length distance that enables them to do their jobs properly and professionally.

HR frenemies will still be able to manage, but it is specifically because they are frenemies that they will be able to keep the professional distance that is needed. What every HR professional needs to ask themselves is just how much of a frenemy they can be; do they really know when it’s appropriate to build those Chinese walls? It’s up to them to find out where they sit on the friends/enemy scale and whether this is preventing them from doing their jobs to the highest possible standard.

Josh Sunsoa is the founder of business restructuring and executive terminations consultancy, Sunsoa & Co.

Published online on, Friday 16th May 2014.

Dry your tears with this huge cheque

Dry your tears with this huge cheque

No matter how unpleasant this essential HR process is, there’s a big difference between doing exit ‘professionally’ and doing it with the interests of the business at heart. And, let’s not beat about the bush, it’s almost a universal failing of HR to do managed exits ‘properly’.

Don’t get me wrong, the process of ‘managed exits’ – as many HR professionals euphemistically like to call it – is at best a painful one. Employees who face being axed are always – understandably – upset. They question ‘why them and why now’, of course, that’s human nature. In fact, I’d argue that not only do HR professionals fail to get this process right, they buckle under the pressure of doing it. In my experience, exits seem to have created a whole new, ‘back-of-a-fag-packet’, negotiation culture, that shouldn’t even exist. HR comes to the table, the employee comes to the table and what follows is a round of negotiations that ends up producing a quick outcome deal, but often an expensive one too. You only have to read the news in the last six months to see that huge payouts for failure, such as at the BBC, are now rife.

The process that got to these and other payouts, that HR brokered, may well have been conducted professionally, i.e. politely, following due process and procedure with lawyers involved on both sides. But even in the best case scenario, HR is not an equal partner, and in the very worst cases, I’ve seen HR professionals actually give departing employees the extra scope – which of course they gratefully accept – to actually bolster their nice, fat settlement payouts. In simple terms, HR professionals are at risk of conducting exits, by negotiating from a position of weakness. Sometimes they start the process by saying to those due to be exited that ‘it’s not my decision’ or ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. But this is unprofessional, they’re not taking proper ownership of the issue and employees are making hay out of the process. It’s now come to a point where we’re seeing HR sign off huge settlement payments giving away substantial amounts of money, amounts the employee should never really have expected to get and to which no tribunal would ever have agreed. And yet, by not changing their ways, staff being exited do now expect to get rich quick. It’s a vicious circle that I’m deeply uncomfortable about.

What is strange is that, in these still fiscally constrained times, where it’s never been more important to get managed exits right, these sort of large payouts should not be happening. It’s even more worrying that these ‘golden goodbyes’ happen, when we consider that HR is supposed to be a business function. HR professionals themselves want to be viewed as commercial business partners but, by their own actions, seemingly don’t operate as such.If they did, they would be controlling the negotiating position far better than they currently do. So, where are they going wrong? I understand that there is a certain amount of pressure heaped on HR at the point of the managed exit – the business wants a fast resolution and will often simply go to HR and ask what an exit will ‘cost’ them. The line of conversation will very much start about the money, and getting staff quickly ‘off the books’. The irony, however, is that in following this modus operandi this behaviour is self-fulfilling and repetitive. HR will get a sense of achievement in reaching a quick – albeit expensive – deal and feel it’s done something wonderful, but the only people that will ever know if this is true are those who review whether the deal was value for money, and this hardly ever happens. I believe that the root of the problem is not really at this last hurdle, the final moment where HR is under pressure to come up with a solution fast. The reason HR is failing to manage the process of exits is because the root of the problem is far more fundamental to that and can be traced back, literally, to the start of the employer/employee relationship.

It’s my view that exits go wrong at the very end, because HR is getting it wrong at the very beginning and hasn’t established what the ‘rules’ are. This is because HR loves to be all about ‘employee relations’ – the fluffy, caring image, the company nurturers, and the department responsible for training and developing staff. But the problem this creates is that, when an exit has to happen, employees are naturally thrown into a situation that seems to be counter to everything HR has been about. That’s why exits then become so difficult. This is HR creating and then following the wrong path; one that infers too much of a personal relationship. The only way to solve this is to establish the rules of employment early. HR needs to move away from thinking it’s about ‘employee relations’ and start seeing itself as being about ‘employment relations’. Whilst, on the surface, this might not appear too different, this subtle change is enough to reposition HR as being the function that supports people’s employment. It relates only to the relationship between the employee and their employment. After all, the employment relationship is formal and requires proper governance.

Having proper governance creates the conditions HR needs to manage exits properly. It might sound draconian but it is not incompatible with pursuing other important HR concepts, such as creating the right conditions for employee engagement or wellbeing initiatives, or a sense of a strong company culture. It simply creates rules that everyone can follow and which, crucially, they have understood from the word go. Only by having an open and transparent policy around the governance of exits, established from the outset, can the process of doing them be clear to all parties. Most importantly, however, it gives HR the audit trail and the authority it needs to enable it to have control in exit negotiations. Furthermore, if the business comes to HR with a problem, like having to take control of people’s exits, it needs to be prepared for the commercial accountability of this task. In fact, I believe HR actually has to go a step further, by being part of an executive committee that considers and approves managed exit pay and arrangements properly. For public sector employers, managed exit type committees should be independent to stop the golden goodbye arrangements at the expense of the tax payer.

These people need to monitor and make HR accountable for the cheques it signs off on behalf of the business to ensure these cheques aren’t blank. They need to ensure that settlement agreements are made in the interests of the business, and not solely in the interests of the person receiving the payout. Yes, it could well be that you want to pack someone away with a year’s salary but, unless it’s debated properly, the business won’t know if it’s in its best interests to do so. An honest HR professional should be able to say that they don’t know what the appropriate payout is to someone exiting the business. I’d far rather they say that than have them be scare-mongered into accepting over-inflated compensation payouts from an employee’s lawyers, where they have been intimidated into submission.

Am I bashing HR too hard? I may sound harsh, but I am genuinely sympathetic to its plight. Managed exits are an area that is often fraught with legal-speak. Most HR directors are good with people and they’re not (quite rightly) employment relations experts; and a legal update as an email feed to them does not equip them with the knowledge they need in real-life situations. But this doesn’t mean they can’t add value to the commercial reality that is involved with the people side of business. Most of their knowledge on exits, will have been what they’ve learnt on the job; of coming to some form of agreement. Those that have at least taken some advice will be more knowledgeable than others about what can be done. These HRDs, with the inquisitiveness required not to accept the status quo, need to become the majority rather than the minority.

First published in theHRDIRECTOR, May, 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Firing people – it’s never personal

Firing people – it’s never personal

Firing people is part of doing business and dismissals happen a lot more than resignations. It’s time we dropped the euphemisms.
There are lots of phrases in business that describe the same thing. In my world, they’re called ‘letting people go’, doing ‘managed exits’ or ‘releasing people’. But is the reason there are so many euphemisms for doing what is actually a core HR role down to the fact most HR professionals find themselves unable to handle them in a business-like and professional way? I think the answer to this question is a big fat ‘yes’. Why? Because HR still finds itself too wrapped up in the ‘personal’ side of personnel.

OK, let’s be frank, no-one likes a ‘managed exit’; they’re uncomfortable. But, in my experience, they’re destined to be this way because they’re done by HR professionals that simply don’t know how to do them properly. This is dangerous. When this is the case, exits will never be a straightforward process.

“An employee’s friend?”
What HR forgets is that, when doing a managed exit, HR is not there to be the employee’s friend. They’re there to act in the interests of the business. But, what I often see is HR being the former, shying away from their responsibilities. They tell those due to be exited that ‘it’s not my decision’ or ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’ but that’s bad. They’re not taking proper ownership of the process.

Most HR departments I observe lean too far towards the ‘people’ part of the business and they forget they need to wear their commercial HR hat – one which has the interests of the employer, not the staffer, at heart. Yes, it’s easy to tell employees that ‘it’s not my fault’ because HR folk want to be known as messengers of niceness. But what they really need to grasp are the strategic reasons behind why someone needs to go – and then not be afraid to tell this to people.

Fluffy & caring
Part of this problem is the fluffy, caring image HR often wants to portray for itself. It leads it to attracting ‘people-people’ rather than ‘business strategic-people’. Too often HR wants to promote itself as the company nurturers, the department which trains and develops staff. The problem is, when an exit has to happen, employees are thrown into a situation that seems to be counter to everything HR has been about. That’s why they then become so difficult.
Too often the only way HR knows how to deal with exits is by deferring to ‘policy’ but this too is flawed. Discussions become so process-driven that all humanity is actually driven out of the process and sometimes even untruths are relied on to explain things.

The point is, that if exits are done properly – and that I mean strategically – they do not have to be totally bereft of the human-touch. The way they do this is not hard but it requires discipline because it requires them to have established the rules first.

To establish the rules, you first have to take a leap of faith. There’s a lots of talk right now about HR rebranding as ‘employee relations’. To me, this is still HR following the wrong path. It still infers too much of a ‘personal’ relationship. Much better is ‘employment relations’. This very simply positions HR as being the supporter of people’s employment but it relates only to the relationship between the employee and their employment. Viewed like this, ‘employment’ can be couched more as a contract and, with it, can support proper governance with HR being responsible for the conditions of employment.

The importance of an audit trail
Clearly, companies have to operate within the parameters of the law but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the right the hire and fire who it wants. By having an open and transparent policy around the governance of exits, however, the process of doing them will then be clear to all parties. It gives HR an audit trail and the authority they need.
Having proper governance is not incompatible with pursuing other important HR concepts – such as employee engagement. It simply creates rules that everyone can follow and which they have understood from the word go.
Getting rid of someone isn’t personal, it’s just business. The fact is, dismissal happens a lot and more than most people think – certainly more than resignations. All of which makes it so important that it’s done properly with HR realising who their ultimate reports are; the business and the CEO not the person they need to remove.

Published in HRZone on 28th February 2014 – “Firing people – it’s never personal”