The 2017 HR Hitlist #1: Saying “No”

jasonheadshot-2The time is upon us for human resources to step up as a practice and lead. Neverbefore has the work of HR been so critical to organizational success. To meet this challenge requires that we break some old habits. This is the first in a series of  guest posts from thought leader, Jason Lauritsen, called the 2017 HR Hitlist. Each of the five posts will outline one practice or behavior that HR needs to eliminate, and what they should do instead.  


If I had one wish I could use to transform the work of human resources, it would be to remove the word “no.”

This tiny word is at the core of why HR is too often viewed as an obstacle to progress rather than a facilitator of results.

  • Want to fire a problem employee? “No, you don’t have enough documentation.”
  • Want to let an employee work from home? “No, you don’t have the authority to make that decision.”  
  • Want to give your star performer a big raise? “No, that goes beyond what our policy allows.”

Managers can feel like “no” is the only thing they hear from HR.  

It’s not that HR doesn’t want to help—they just feel caught in the middle. HR can feel like their job is to hold the line, maintain the order, and reduce risk for an organization. And, every day, HR professionals have at least one “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment courtesy of a lazy manager. Eventually, their humor wears out. It’s hard not to become a little cynical over time.

So, they start saying “no,” early and often to protect themselves and the company.  

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extremely talented web developers, and I loved working with them. The process of creating a product from an idea is awesome and energizing.  

But, the part I loved most about working with them is that they always said yes. No matter how crazy or hair-brained the idea or request, they would say, “Yeah, we could probably build that.” Every conversation began with optimism and possibility. They never told me something couldn’t be done.

That did not mean, however, that it should get done. That’s where their process came into play.

The next step in the development process was to declare and clarify your specific goals and specifications. What are you trying to accomplish? What issue or opportunity are you addressing? What does success look like? What do you imagine is the best solution?  

They call this process “documentation of requirements.” Only once requirements were clear and documented would they actually begin the process of creating something.  

What I learned from working with developers was that they shared something in common HR: They also get a lot of ridiculous and time-wasting requests. The difference is in how they respond. HR says no. Developers say yes, but use a simple process to determine what’s most important.

The developers’ process helps them eliminate bad requests, refine the poorly conceived, and get to work on the rest. HR could transform its impact (and reputation) with this same approach:

  1. Always say “yes.” When a manager or employee asks if you can help, say “yes.” Even with ridiculous requests, respond with, “I can help.” By doing so, you support the possibility of a solution and commit support.
  2. Ask them to clarify their intentions. “Tell me what you are hoping to accomplish. What problem are you trying to solve?” These questions lead the person making the request to get decisively clear on the problem they are trying to solve. “I need to fire Max” becomes, “I need to deal with an employee who is a behavior problem and is impacting my team’s performance.”
  3. Give them some homework. Ask them to write down exactly what they believe is the solution and why. Also request that they include a “plan B” scenario for how they would resolve their concern if their desired solution isn’t feasible. This helps keep the focus on the problem at hand, not the particular solution they have in mind. For example, maybe they can’t fire Max immediately, but they can address the behavior specifically and create a plan to minimize his impact on the team.  

This is a simple approach that can work wonders. It transforms HR from an obstacle to an enabler of solutions.

And, here’s the dirty little secret in this approach: Many of the ridiculous requests that come to HR will either resolve themselves or go away completely when you start saying “yes” and put the job of documenting requirements back on the requestor. Less time wasted on bad requests means more time working on what matters.  

Make a commitment in 2017 to stop saying “no.”

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