Talent Management Column

The Courage to Go it Alone

There are limits to professional norms and best practices. To be successful, each organization must address its employee issues in the context of its own unique setting. And that's one reason HR executives may want to rethink talking about HR as a profession and establishing one set of practices or standards.

Monday, June 21, 2010
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In a previous column, I raised the question as to whether HR has become more of a profession. That might sound like an unambiguously good thing. Lots of people in human resources refer to themselves as professionals now, and various associations talk routinely about advancing the profession of human resources.

We think of a profession as an occupation with some importance, such as medicine and law, which along with ministry, were the original professions.

But being a profession means more than that. It means having a set of standards and responsibilities -- professional ethics -- that transcend one's job. It also implies having a set of practices for conducting one's job that transcend the setting.

We think of accountants, for example, as having a common set of standards for audits that do not change across companies, which is why we know what their results mean and can trust their conclusions.

Are managers and executives professionals? No, they are not.

There certainly are ethics in business, but no one would argue the ethical standards and practices in business are the same everywhere: Cost vs. quality judgments in healthcare are not like those in manufacturing. And more to the point, the work of managers and executives is deeply tied to the organizations and the context where they are employed.

We can clearly imagine an accountant doing a great job even if the organization for which he or she is working fails. It's hard to imagine anyone saying that about a CEO.

Nor is there anything like a set of best practices for being an executive, a checklist of what the best business strategy is or best organizational culture. Instead, the right solutions are those that fit the unique context of the operation.

And that takes us to the question of whether human resources is or should be a profession.

The best case I've seen that it should not be comes from a couple of recent presentations that John Murabito, head of human resources and services for Cigna Corp., gave recently at The Wharton School. What I find impressive about the changes in practices John described is the common theme behind every one of them: They were what made sense for the company, whether or not it was the trendy or best-practice thing to do.

The key skill executives need is the ability to solve problems. Doing that requires analysis, and these days, the analysis requires both data and financial acumen.

This magazine named John HR Executive of the Year in 2009 for his work with metrics. But metrics, per se, aren't important. Most organizations use them simply to benchmark, and by itself that's not so useful.

Data and metrics matter because we need them to solve problems. So, for example, Cigna looked at the data on their employee-healthcare costs to see where the biggest burden was. Not surprisingly, it is with employees who have manageable diseases: diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Smoking, exercise, and diet play a big role in managing those diseases. So they took those issues on, and they did so aggressively: Employees fill out risk assessments, and company healthcare staff follows up with them -- you might say, coach them -- to pursue change in their behavior.

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They incent their employees to not smoke and to keep their weight under control by reducing their healthcare premiums if they do so. This is the way we would expect an operating executive or a CFO to think about problems and to go about solving them. The skill set here is closer to root-cause analysis than to anything in human resources.

Were those decisions best practices? They are controversial, probably too controversial for employee advocates to be HR best practices. But they are the best way to address the company's concerns about costs.

The best examples of what it means to be an executive in HR stand out when what makes sense for the business is not the trendy or best-practice approach from HR. For example, John describes how he put in place a simple performance-distribution system for performance management at just about the time those had fallen out of favor in the HR community.

The reason was, supervisors at Cigna had yet to learn the discipline needed to manage more nuanced systems. He put off developing competency models because the company was too distracted by other issues to take them seriously.

An executive whose first priority was the needs of the company would do that. I'm not sure an HR professional would.

A point worth considering about those decisions above is that they also take some courage to pull off. That's one of the risks that executives bear: They can't fall back on professional norms to protect their decisions. But it's also what gets them and keeps them in the executive suite.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School.

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