HR: Hemorrhaging Responsibility

Over the past few years, I see a trend taking shape for tech executives, and that is learning how to cooperate with their counterparts in HR (nowadays, sometimes called “VP People”). At its core, this change has a lot of positive benefits. By having partners for taking care of the company’s culture and environment, leaders can devote more time to other responsibilities. Further, it is healthy to have more people involved in the wellbeing of the employees and care about making time for things like personal development and training, aiding with performance reviews, and enabling a platform for ongoing training.

However, I have recently come across too many companies that take this too far. Let me start with a disclaimer: I know quite a few very talented HR executives that have helped their companies tremendously. My beef is with the tech executives who are, in a sense, abdicating their own responsibilities.

Here are a few scenarios that I see more and more of in the industry. If you can spot these taking place in your organization, I urge you to take 30 minutes to introspect about this and whether you are using HR as a crutch.

Daily Management and Regular Feedback

Even if you think it makes sense, you should not try and create a scheme where engineering managers or tech leads perform only “professional management,” and the “rest” is taken up by HR. I have heard of this notion and, frankly, think it makes no sense. Assuming that HR will not take part in technical discussions or interviews, they will be unaware of a big part of the “rest” that they’d be supposed to manage (i.e., soft skills). Also, these kinds of structures result in needless complexity and an organization that feels bureaucratic.

Performance Feedback and Firing

More common than daily management is (ab)using HR to do the dirty work of management. Managers shy away from providing negative feedback promptly. Instead, they let it get staler and staler until matters reach a point-of-no-return and then escalate it to HR to deal with.

I especially dislike the tendency to leave matters like demotions and letting people go to HR. These are your people, you and your management team hired them and are managing them. To paraphrase Eddard Stark, the manager who passes the sentence should swing the sword.

Person in the Middle

Another emerging pattern is that HR is used to replace direct communication between employees and their managers—in both directions. An employee has a complaint and brings it up in front of HR. Sometimes this even reaches absurd situations where managers are notified by HR of the issue but have to pretend they are unaware. This flawed communication stream, which resembles school kids playing a game of telephone more than a professional environment, is a dead giveaway for HR abuse.

Deciding on Training

Lastly, you ought not to completely delegate the formation of trainings and growth experiences for your team outside of technical circles. Cooperating with HR to do so effectively is great, but at the end of the day, you and your team are the only ones who can evaluate professional content, even if it’s not purely technical, like management training.

As someone who has delivered his fair share of such content or was brought in to companies after others have, I see how often it is that these end up having no tangible ROI. People invested a few hours sitting in a room together. They may have enjoyed the food between sessions or the concept of the company investing in their growth, and that’s it. No actual changes in the way they work, no improvements or changes to the way things are done afterward.

Tech executives are great at the tech part, but the executive half is an integral part of the job. It requires handling these situations, even if HR will gladly help you with them. It is fine to consult with them, but the responsibility, my friend, remains yours. Take ownership of these and work with your management team to treat them as they would the technical aspects of their work.