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The HR diet: how to change things one bite at a time

by Jo Ellen Whitney

Sometimes it seems you can’t turn on the television, open a magazine, read a newspaper, or look at the Twitterverse without hearing all about the latest diet craze. Despite what marketers have been selling for ages, we all know that none of those promises is true. Any kind of drastic change, including changes in HR, is going to take consistent hard work to make it happen. So how does the most sensible type of diet advice stack up in the HR world? 

Clean out the cupboards
Every diet guru will tell you that you need to clean out your cupboards, dump the junk food, and keep healthy food at eye level. Translating that advice to HR: Maybe this really is the year when you do the equivalent of eating healthy. In other words, look at the employees you have, address any lingering issues, particularly with performance, and showcase the employees who are your best performers.

It’s easy for good performers to get bogged down by the bad behavior of others. Although it sounded good when your grandma said it, the idea that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch isn’t true, either scientifically or psychologically. One bad employee can drag an entire team down.

A lot of the time, poor performers are employees who haven’t been well managed, so you don’t have adequate paperwork about their performance problems. You have the whole HR year in front of you—now is the time to figure out how you’re going to clean things up and maximize performance.

Focus on your core
Everybody knows you can’t do anything without a good, solid core. What is your core? In HR, it has everything to do with improving communication, understanding expectations, and moving forward.

It doesn’t help if you have a mission statement that nobody understands or if you never take any concrete actions to achieve the aspirational goals it sets forth. Employees can’t measure or improve their performance if they don’t know the company’s core expectations or how to meet them. You need to know what you’re trying to achieve in order to plan.

Core policies, core goals, core expectations—don’t forget core HR practices. When was the last time you updated your job descriptions? Your interview questions? Your personnel files? This is the time to make sure your HR policies and practices are in tip-top shape.

Buddy up
A workout partner helps keep you honest and focused and gives you somebody to vent to. Don’t forget to buddy up in HR. It can be a complex and difficult area fraught with emotion, where everyone has an issue and every poor performer has a backstory.

HR is complicated, and things can change and shift before breakfast because the rules and laws seem to change every day. Consider partnering with another HR professional so you have someone to talk to about your concerns. Explore professional organizations that may offer assistance, and think about whether you need additional education to implement your own career goals.

HR can be a swamp in which everybody’s emotions will drag you down. A buddy will help you stay out of the quicksand.

Mix up your routine
Everybody knows muscles get tired, and it’s good to mix up your exercise routine and your eating habits. What about your HR training? Do you offer the same training over and over on the same schedule every year, or do you incorporate new ideas, new training, and new methodologies?

Employees get bored with the same old training delivered the same old way. It could be time to bring in someone new to conduct your on-site training or maybe take advantage of some online training to mix it up. Remember, if employees hear the same message the same way every single day, they start to tune it out.

Budget time for exercise
Articles offering diet advice always tell you to write yourself into your own calendar and budget time for exercise—which is easier said than done. There are probably some things you haven’t gotten around to in HR. Maybe it’s updating your policy manual, maybe it’s reviewing your benefits and compensation package, or it might be training your supervisors to be better managers or perform more accurate evaluations.

There’s always something hiding under the bed that we just haven’t made time to clear up. Now is the time to create a schedule for addressing any tasks that may have fallen between the cracks. You’ll feel better once you’ve accomplished a long procrastinated task.

Keep a log
Statistically, people who keep a log of the food they eat are more successful at losing weight. Nobody knows that better than HR professionals, who understand quite well that if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Think about what you are documenting, how you are documenting it, and whether your documentation is serving your corporate purposes.

Do you have a general log tracking absenteeism that incorporates everyone at your workplace? Is it something that would be useful if you’re facing litigation or some other liability? Do you need to split the log up by department or some other way so your records aren’t commingled if you need them for a lawsuit?

How do your personnel files look? Do you have a checklist for everything that’s kept in the personnel files? Is it up to date? Do you have a plan for how and when personnel documents are destroyed? What types of records are your supervisors keeping?

Finally, how are your supervisors communicating with the employees they manage? We’re seeing more and more situations in which supervisors are having critical conversations with employees by text. Discussing the need for, say, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave through texts isn’t a good practice—in fact, it’s likely to lead to an FMLA claim against your company.

Buy nice gear
It could just be a good marketing ploy by the companies that manufacture athletic wear, but many magazine articles will tell you that if you dress nicely when you exercise, it will be more fun. Does your HR department have nice gear?

Do you have the tools you need to do the job? That might include wage calculation or benefit software, updated training videos, or similar items. Do you have a training budget? Do you have the ability to train assistants and supervisors so HR can be a fully functioning department?

Avoid fad diets
I still remember when my grandmother, who was a perennially charming, intelligent, and chubby woman, went on the grapefruit diet, the avocado diet, and a diet during which she basically ate nothing but sauerkraut. There are fads in every area of our lives. Perhaps this year’s trend in HR will be that everyone implements open-ended paid time off (PTO) policies, brings their pets to work, or sets up ping pong tables in the break room and serves ice cream in the hallways. The question is, does that sound fun or actually work for your company?

You need to know your company culture and goals and your employees’ expectations. A company with a highly creative culture and rapid change probably will do better when it provides frozen yogurt and ping pong for its employees. An employer with a rule-bound culture, such as a law firm or a bank, will typically need more structure and slower change.

New ideas are great. Shake up your training, change some of the ways you get things done, and present your messages in a way that catches employees’ interest while still being clear. But keep in mind that change has to work for you and your employees, not some unnamed company somewhere else.

Don’t sweat your mistakes
HR is quintessentially the profession where nobody notices if you do your job right; it’s only when something goes wrong that you have an unending stream of people at your door, vying for your attention. Mistakes will happen. None of us hires the right person every time or always manages accommodation issues to the gold standard. When a mistake happens, understand it, learn from it, and move on.

Jo Ellen Whitney is an attorney with Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa. She may be contacted at