You might be familiar with the idea of ‘high concept’ films – movies that be compressed (as ‘pitches’ to executives and financiers) into a single sentence. Releasing one called ‘Snakes on a Plane’ kind of gave the game away, I thought, and those Orange cinema ads shown in cinemas might have been funny, but a bit too ironic for a serious lover of the cinematic form. Partly it’s that old issue again – don’t simplify, clarify – and partly it’s a case of single-mindedness not always being a good thing. If you have a one-track mind, it has to be a really great track (even The Birdy Song had a b-side). And sometimes the opposite problem sets in. Being complex becomes such an obsession that the wood disappears for trees, each one labelled with the same level of priority.

Some organisations have similar problems. Parts of them become so concerned with their own function, that they become irrelevant sub-plots in their own movie. In their own heads (and process manuals and flow charts and checklists), they are ready for the close-ups. Meanwhile, the rest of the organisation is wondering if the cutting room floor wouldn’t be a merciful destination …

Sadly, for many organisations, HR is one of the worst offenders. One friend who spent many years working in local authority social services departments and often said that there were only two things you dreaded: circulars from the IT Department explaining why something wasn’t working, and circulars from HR explaining nothing at all.

Another friend recently spent about half-an-hour getting her frustrations with her organisation’s HR Department off her chest. (I’m not an impersonator of Reggie Perrin’s Wellness Person in my spare time, you understand, but I’m sympathetic to a friend about to blow a gasket.) Now, as she said, you’d think HR’s role in supporting her in her fairly new role as Financial Director would be to help ensure that she could put a strong team in place as quickly as possible to ensure that the organisation met its statutory requirements without undue pain – there are major financial reports to be delivered early in the new year.

I nodded. That sounded sensible and straightforward: if you’re responsible for supporting the business’s objectives and responsible for recruitment, that’s what you’d do. My friend duly explained her requirements – job spec, person spec, deadline for interviews so appointment could be made so any new hiree would be in post before end of 2010 and up to speed before deadlines hit. Simples, as they say in the adverts.

Well, no. Someone decided to throw a meerkat into the works. My friend accepted phoning the recruitment agency she’s used for many years probably wasn’t an option, even though their thorough understanding of her specialisms, working methods, personality and preferences make it a mutually fruitful relationship. She accepted that online adverts would probably be placed, and that she’d have to make time to read a larger group of CVs (with a broader range of ‘relevance’) than she might like. She has a sense of humour, and a sense of the absurd.

What was threatening the structural stability of her proverbial gasket was the degree to which the sense of the absurd came to be required. While they acknowledged her deadlines in conversation, HR placed an online ad – copy unseen and unapproved – with a closing date a week beyond that previously agreed, and without relaying any of their actions to their internal client. Meanwhile, working in (blissful?) ignorance, she received the first few CVs, and scheduled interviews for the day after the previously agreed closing date. One of the candidates proving outstanding, she informed HR of her intention to appoint them and asked them to send out any necessary letters and documentation.

Having done what was agreed, working as quickly as possible to meet the business’ objectives while wishing to accommodate the process requirements of its HR function, she then found herself not only unable to appoint her chosen candidate (who she’d already – seeing no reason not to – verbally informed of her decision by phone), but reprimanded by HR for failing to follow procedures. No letter of appointment can be issued as the closing date – set without consultation or notification – has not been met. And the management accountant post will not now be met in time to ensure that the organisation will be able to meet its statutory requirements.

Red tape? Clerical error? Communication failure? Well, yes but … while no-one would argue that policy and process should be given due respect, policy and process exist to serve. The conversation between senior employee and HR function started because there was a clear, urgent business need to be met and the employee was concerned to involve HR to make sure that they could support the business in meeting it.

The outcome so far is not only that meeting the business need is as endangered as it was at the start of the saga, but that HR has acted to its own agenda, failed to consult or inform, alienated its organisation’s own FD and is now at the point of issuing a written warning for failing to follow procedures.

I made a weak joke at HR’s seat at the top table, hoping a cheap giggle might lend a little cheer to the conversation, at which point my friend’s sense of humour failed. There was a pointed remark about being fit for ‘a ******* picnic in the car park in the ****** snow’. I got the impression she wouldn’t be lending them a flask or a woolly hat. She might not even lend them her snow shovel.

And I was left reflecting on CIPD’s Next Generation HR’s call for HR to step up to the plate and demonstrate its worth and value to the business, and how this particular HR function had not just singularly failed but singularly failed to even try.

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