Tip for HR: Don’t Be a Management Tool

HR Management
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

Special from SHRM’s Legal and Legislative Conference
Tip for HR: Don’t Be a Management Tool

In yesterday’s Advisor, SHRM’s top-rated speaker, attorney Jonathan Segal offered the first 10 of his “they won’t tell you but I will” principles. Today, 11 to 15, plus an introduction to the unique guide specially directed toward the smaller or even one-person HR department.

Segal, who is a partner with law firm Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia, combined what he’s found in engagement surveys, discussions with CEOs and COOs, and his own observations in a well-attended session at the SHRM Employment Law and Legislative conference, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Here are the rest of Segal’s 15 principles:

[Go here for 1 to 10.]

11. Don’t Be a Management Tool

It’s not easy when you don’t agree with management. You should:

  • Advocate for best HR practices by linking to the bottom line.
  • Do not try to defend the indefensible, but do not undermine senior leadership, either.
  • Develop strategies for how to address areas where you do not agree with organizational change, policy, or practice without setting yourself up for termination.

12. Be Careful of Foolish Consistency

The law prohibits unlawful inconsistency that is based on protected factors, but it does not mandate foolish consistency. You can consider (and document) legitimate, nondiscriminatory factors. Ask, are there reasons that might warrant an exception?
Don’t just say “but policy provides.” If you act like you have a union contract, you may end up with one.

13. Don’t Lawyer Up Too Quickly

Do not assume every employee is trying to set you up, says Segal. For example, there is a risk in over-documentation (or documenting too early).
Talk! says Segal, but not like a lawyer. If you say to an employee, “This is to confirm that you came today and raised one and only one issue …,” you sound like a lawyer, and when they hear that, employees will call their lawyers.


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14. Do Not Tolerate Mediocrity

Ordinarily, we want to provide employees with due process, says Segal, and we want to minimize (not eliminate) legal risk, but also need to hold employees accountable. When paralyzed by fear of litigation, we tend to retain mediocrity.

There are risks in terminating, but there are also risks in not terminating.

  • Employee relations risks: Failure to terminate can damage employee relations and foster resentment among those who have to work with the mediocre employee.
  • Business risks: The quality and quantity of products or services can suffer.
  • Legal risks:
    • Comparators. You’re setting a bad precedent.
    • Negligent retention when mediocre turns into violent.

15. Don’t Avoid All Personal Interactions

Is there a risk in being human? Yes, there is, says Segal. Here are some typical situations:

  • Disclosure of health condition of parent. (“My mom has breast cancer.”) You say, “My thoughts are with you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • Employee appears depressed. You don’t say, “You look depressed.” But you could say, “Are you OK? Is there anything you want to talk about?”
  • Pictures on desk. You don’t say, “Are those your children?” You could say, “Nice picture.”

Segal’s bottom line: Don’t let lawyers take the humanity out of HR.

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