The Many Problems Caused by HR Relationship Building

Note: This is one of a series of “think pieces” that are designed to stimulate your thinking about the future of HR.

I have found that “building relationships” can be the #1 factor damaging HR’s internal brand. If HR leaders want to succeed in a data-driven business world, they will need to lose their fixation with building interpersonal relationships and replace it with the more objective arm’s-length expert approach that is common in other business functions.

HR professionals have, unfortunately, focused on building internal relationships, perhaps without fully realizing that they are supporting the “please do me a favor model.” In effect, it is a political model where decisions are skewed by emotion.

In my view, HR is itself being hypocritical because it has gone out of its way to ban relationships with policies against nepotism and dating. The emotions involved in “those relationships” skew decision-making. And yet, at the same time, we purposely nurture interpersonal relationships with managers for our own personal benefit. Unfortunately, under this model, emotions replace logic, and the resulting cliques make significant change more difficult.

This Inevitable Shift Away From Relationships Started With Supply Chain

For years, the areas where interpersonal relationships were most prevalent and had the highest impact were purchasing, warehousing, and shipping. If you wanted a favor, you would call Marion in purchasing or Joe at the warehouse. They would help you because you “had a relationship.” However, once these three important functions were consolidated into supply chain, it was quickly shown that the best decisions were made without emotion and instead by relying 100% on data, algorithms, and objective criteria. As a result, supply chain results improved dramatically, and their relationship building went the way of the dodo bird. After this transition, supply chain is now often acknowledged as a profit center, while HR remains an overhead cost center.

Every other major business function has already shifted to this “arm’s-length transaction model,” while HR is still playing catch-up.

The Many Evils Associated With Relationship Building

During my research, I discovered nine major problems associated with HR relationship building. They include:

  • In a sexually charged workforce, relationship building may be misinterpreted – 71% of HR professionals are women, I find expecting or even demanding women HR professionals to proactively seek out managers who are likely to be mostly men with the goal of building a relationship is wrong. The attempt to build a relationship may be easily misinterpreted. Relationship building may require coffee talks, luncheons, and even events outside of work, which in today’s highly charged gender environment are likely to make both women and men uncomfortable.
  • Relationships unethically cloud decision-making – By definition, building a relationship lowers the formal barriers between the parties. It allows important business decisions to be “clouded” and influenced by emotions and personal needs. A great deal of today’s HR focuses on increasing objectivity in hiring, compensation, benefits, and promotions. It appears ethically inconsistent to simultaneously push for subjectivity in a manager’s dealing with HR.
  • Relationship building can circumvent corporate priorities – Many working in a bureaucracy build relationships in order to get what they want more quickly (i.e., I’ll call my friend Joe in IT, and he’ll get it for me right away). Unfortunately, expediting based on individual needs hurts the firm because those personal needs may run counter to corporate priorities. No one calculates the real costs associated with postponing real corporate priorities.
  • Performance may be delayed because relationship building takes a long time – The tremendous time it takes to build interpersonal relationships makes it hard to get anything else done. And, if you operate in a culture where established trust relationships are absolutely necessary, you will overly frustrate your new hires that have modern ideas that challenge the status quo. They will often be directly attacked by champions of the status quo (at HP they called the attackers “antibodies”).
  • Maintaining relationships also takes up an HR professional’s time – Even after you’ve established relationships, maintaining them will also require a great deal of the time that HR professionals should be spending building their expertise and providing higher-level services. Having to periodically keep in touch with key influencers both within and outside of HR means spending as many as 50 hours a month “stopping by,” having coffee, and keeping up to speed with their life outside of work.
  • The relationship-building process also takes up a great deal of a manager’s time – Don’t forget that the “target” of the relationship-building approach will also have a great deal of their time used up (or wasted), time that they should be spending on their work and their team.
  • Relationship building often means politics and silos – When you examine it closely, relying on established relationships mostly means acting politically. Whether you want to admit it or not, building relationships all too often also have the unintended consequences of restricting information, building silos, creating barriers to approvals, and a “culture of cliques.” If HR is going to gain executive respect, its leaders need to minimize internal politics and focus on becoming data-driven experts in proactively solving the highest priority business problems. That also means we must stop being the only business function that uses the term “business partner,” which by itself infers the need for a relationship between the two partners.
  • There shouldn’t be any need to build trust – Logically, building a trust relationship shouldn’t even be necessary because every manager and employee should already be trustworthy. Of course, if your leaders found that their HR professionals weren’t trusted by managers, rather than making an emotional pitch for a relationship, HR leaders could instead focus on minimizing the politics and silo building within HR. And, shift to a data-driven expert model where you become requested by consistently providing measurable business results.
  • In a global business world, relationship building is much more difficult – Well over two decades ago, when I first went to China, it was essential to hold multiple meetings over months in order to build relationships. However, today, I can build instant rapport with firms like Tencent literally overnight based on their business needs and the high ROI that I could produce. And because most businesses have geographically expanded around the globe, it’s now important to realize that it’s extremely difficult to build what has traditionally been face-to-face relationships.

Shifting To Data Will Force HR To Adopt An Arm’s-Length Expert Approach

When you’re dealing with experts in investments, accounting, supply chain, or taxes inside or outside the firm, you certainly don’t need “a relationship” with your advisor. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead, you prefer to rely on a data-driven expert where the advisor is purposely neutral so that their judgment and decision-making isn’t clouded. Now that almost every business function (outside of HR) has become 100% data-driven, executives and managers have come to expect the same level of approach from all service functions. An additional push is being generated by leaders at dominant firms like Amazon and Google, which have taken the lead into transforming HR into a more “scientific” and businesslike approach. As a result, data, hypothesis testing, and business level proof are well on their way to becoming the only acceptable HR approach. In fact, in my recent not to be missed article, where we exclusively surveyed only the top 10 firms, becoming data-driven was the #1 investment area by far.

HR Has A Long History Of Pushing Relationships Over Expertise

If you’re interested in a historical perspective, it’s hard to argue against the fact that traditional HR is a relationship-building function. In fact, the minute I took a job in corporate HR leadership, I was told to immediately start building relationships with executives and managers. That was the way that HR got things done. I later found that relationship management is actually a SHRM core competency. They state that “job success is a function of an HR professional’s abilities to maintain productive interpersonal relationships.” To be honest, many build relationships because it often gets reluctant managers to be more willing to work with you. Not because you’re an expert at solving their problems, but instead because you are friendly, likable, and visible.

Action Steps For Moving Away From The Relationship Building Model

Here are seven action steps that you should consider if your goal is to speed up the elimination of the relationship-building model.

  • Educate those that insist on relationships – The first step in discouraging the practice is to make all of those in HR and management aware of the problems created when you rely on relationship building.
  • Declare HR to be data-driven – Let everyone know that HR is permanently shifting to a more scientific, businesslike, and data-driven approach. And simply don’t tolerate any new programs or ideas that are not supported by data.
  • Maximize expertise – I have found that many in HR build relationships because they have great personalities, and it’s much easier than building and maintaining expertise. So, make it clear to everyone in the organization that they should expect the highest level of expertise from everyone in HR. Measure and reward HR service providers based on their knowledge of proven data-supported solutions that noticeably move the business performance needle of those that they serve.
  • Hire different HR professionals – The most impactful step is to begin hiring and retaining HR professionals that insist on data-based decision-making. Also, hire data scientists and engineers, who inherently seldom have much interest in building relationships.
  • Insist on following corporate priorities – Insist that HR service functions provide services based on corporate priorities and not on emotions, favors, or interpersonal relationships.
  • Identify roadblocks to service delivery – Relationship builders are often also silo builders. Proactively identify HR silos and identify individuals that hold up service and cooperation. If necessary, punish those that require relationships in order to do internal business. Reward those that provide seamless arm’s-length service. And if you must, prioritize managers, by those with the highest business impacts.
  • Periodically rotate HR leaders – Entrenched leaders are the ones that are most likely to rely on relationships. Periodically shift them to new HR responsibilities where there simply won’t be time to build and rely on relationships in order to immediately perform.

Final Thoughts

I have found that one of the primary reasons why HR is slow to change is because of the many established relationships. Those relationships and the emotions tied to them dramatically slow and sometimes even prevent the elimination of underperforming programs and individuals. Those relationships also allow line managers to circumvent rules and priorities and go around the chain of command to get the personalized help that they really don’t deserve. In my experience, it’s not hyperbole to classify HR relationship building as a historical evil that must be consciously eliminated. Casual friendships, yes, but not emotionally loaded consciously built relationships that cloud decision-making.

Author’s NoteIf this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and subscribe to TLNT Daily.

As seen on TLNT on 2/24/2020.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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