Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Human Resources audits 101 – 3: operational exceptions and problems

Posted in HR and personnel by Timothy Platt on November 10, 2013

This is my third posting to a series on performance reviewing and assessing Human Resources as a crucial area of ongoing business function, and how an HR department or service does or does not align with and support its business, and both operationally and strategically (see Part 1: starting a new series and Part 2: strategically selected metrics as performance tools.)

I have primarily been writing about normative, ongoing processes and procedures, and tracking and auditing them in this series, at least up to here. I have focused in this on aligning what can be considered routine and standard for a Human Resources department with the business it serves, to keep it effectively supportive of that overall business. But sometimes problems arise and so do unexpected events. And even disruptively novel exceptions to standard and routine can and at least occasionally do arise too. And even if a business rarely if ever faces the sudden and novel as an exception handling requirement, it can still face a slow and steady evolutionary shift out of alignment. And depending on the timeframe that it measures its current here and now in terms of for evaluating ongoing performance, it might not even see the extent of the change that it faces, until it has become pronounced as a trending degradation of performance quality.

That is a particularly easy trap to fall into for an HR department when it is considered a non-core and low priority asset, and the business as a whole faces significant ongoing competitive change and challenge, and has its eyes and thoughts strategically and operationally focused elsewhere. Perceived non-core resources and business elements can find themselves largely left out of essential planning and drift more into a position of simply being taken for granted. I have seen this happen and for a much wider range of services than just Human Resources, and for that service particularly when it is primarily seen from the executive suite as being just a group of personnel file paper pushers, and not for its potential for being an operational and strategic asset. As a point of reference for this posting and series, and for my basic approach to Human Resources I note here that when I write about this type of service, I presume as a given that it is a core supportive service that holds realizable value for helping to improve overall business performance and competitive strength.

With that noted, this posting is about exception handling, and in acknowledgment of a crucial dichotomy that I have just touched upon above, I divide that into two fundamentally distinct and important areas:

Type 1, or acute-problem exception handling: acute and specific-situationally based problem identification, prioritization and resolution, and
Type 2, or chronic and emerging-problem exception handling: identifying, operationally and strategically characterizing, and prioritizing and course correcting trending shifts in overall performance and effectiveness where ongoing processes that nominally work are drifting out of effective supportive connection with the business they are part of.

Type 1 problems can arise as novel exceptions and not recur except perhaps as rare and intermittent events. Or what are viewed and treated more as Type 1 exceptions can seem to recur again and again, in which case the real problem might be with the ongoing normative processes in place that make them more likely to recur and you might actually be facing a Type 2 challenge. Recurring exceptions here, should always be seen as red flags and as indicators of possible and even likely systematic operational process problems.

And to take this at least somewhat out of the abstract, let’s consider some crucial steps related to the overall hiring process, and in this case I will cite two possible emerging problems:

• There are delays and disconnects in finalizing and posting job descriptions for open positions, with hiring manager dissatisfaction stemming from the way this delays their finding and securing critically needed new employees for keeping their overall work flow on track and on schedule, or alternatively
• There are delays and disconnects in the process of bringing necessary stakeholders together to meet with and share their evaluations of potential best candidates who are brought in for face to face interviews – and hiring managers wonder if some of their best potential hires are getting away because they cannot get back to them with an offer fast enough, where the people they want to bring in the most, are also the ones their competitors would like to bring onboard for themselves the most too.

At first glance the first of these might sound to be more a problem within the HR department and the second might sound to be more of a problem with the hiring manager and their processes and prioritizations and their ability to work with others and follow through with them. Situationally these might be valid evaluations but in fact delays and disconnects in both cases could come from a combination of both HR and non-HR sources and processes. And either could be more Type 1 or Type 2 in nature.

Consider the second bullet point example in a bit more detail, and here I offer a pair of possible reasons for delay, one of which would more clearly be Type 1 and the other of Type 2.

• A key stakeholder who has meet with one or more crucial-hire job candidates for some open position, has a heart attack and is suddenly unavailable due to that, and in the confusion the fact that others are waiting for their interview evaluations gets lost as their colleagues seek to complete their open tasks. This is a Type 1 exception handling situation – except insofar as Human Resources should be tracking this process and should know that this manager is out due to illness, and they should have processes in place for working with a hiring manager and shifting to a Plan B. Should a hiring decision be made without input from this now absent stakeholder manager or an alternative from their team or department, or should these candidates be asked to come back in again to meet with an alternative representative from their service or department? That depends on the job being hired for and the needs and priorities of the people who need to sign off on any hiring decisions, so a “correct” answer might go either way. Ultimately, and from an HR exception handling perspective, it is impossible to have a set process in place for any and every possible contingency. If a situation develops where a lack of some specific exception handling process has created a sufficiently large immediate problem that might prompt development of a process to help at least limit the damage if this same problem or one similar to it were to arise again. But basically, this is probably a Type 1 exception handing situation.
• Now consider a situation where the same hiring manager brings in the same select job candidates for face to face interviews and they meet with this manager and with the exact same set of in-house stakeholders who would rely on the same types of work performed by whichever candidate is hired. No one is absent; none of these interviewing stakeholders has that heart attack and all fill out their HR provided evaluation forms with their standardized evaluation scales for candidate strengths and weaknesses. And they submit them to the HR specialist who has been assigned to manage this hiring from the Human Resources side. And those completed forms get lost in a slow, sloooow process of being entered into a database and signed off upon as being fully completed, before any results can be made available for action by the hiring manager. This is more likely a Type 2 problem and it is likely this exception is going to recur with enough frequency and certainly when key hiring decisions are going to be needed, so that it should almost be considered more the rule. How would this particular problem happen? One possibility is scale. When a business is small and few people are being hired company-wide at any one time, processes can go faster even with a few extra steps because they do not have all that many other immediate tasks to compete with for attention. As a business grows, streamlining where possible can become essential to prevent delays such as this, and better allocation of task responsibility can help too, with more effective distribution of responsibilities between HR, hiring managers and others as appropriate.

In principle, the types of exception handing and problem resolution issues that I write of here might seem fairly distinct and separate, but in the complexities of real business situations, the boundaries between them can blur.

• As a general rule, and certainly for recurring problems or even for seemingly unique ones if they have serious impact, check to see if they serve to identify where basic processes need updating or realignment, or if they identify where there are gaps in the processes in place that need filling.

I am going to add in another layer of issues and complexity in a next series installment. Up to here I have examined the issues of exception handing and problem resolution strictly from within the organization and from an internal perspective. I will add in outside regulatory and other procedural and reporting requirements, and how they might or might not conflict with at least desired business model and other internal-to-the-business frameworks. And as a foretaste to that I have to add that these outside requirements can change, so agility on the part of the business can be essential for keeping its processes aligned and fully competitively functional. I will be discussing this from the HR perspective in keeping with the thrust of this series. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at HR and Personnel.

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