Playing HR Detective

As the economy becomes larger, faster and more complex, human resources’ work must become more sophisticated. HR professionals need to shift resources from delivering services to looking for clues about what “crimes” are being committed that rob an organization of its competitive advantage.  
Let’s call it forensic HR management.

Forensics is the method of examining information about a past event. It comes from the Greek meaning “before the forum,” where people presented their version of what happened in a case. Typically, forensics is applied to criminal law; however, forensics is also carried out in fields like astronomy, archaeology, biology and geology. 

In HR, it’s methodically gathering objective and subjective data about what has happened in the past inside the organization and outside in the market — yielding what analysts call descriptive data.

Organizations naturally generate a wealth of descriptive data. The shortcoming is that we often believe we don’t have time to examine it. Absent such clues, we have to charge somewhat blindly into the future, leading to costly rework.

Consider General Motors’ recent expense due to its recalls. At this point, it seems the problem was a culturally accepted practice of ignoring or pushing the problem through the system. Now GM is paying big time.

Do you have any pathologies like this in your organization? Are there “crimes” being committed in the name of expediency?

When I worked in the computer industry, it was not uncommon to knowingly ship a product with problems. The cultural norm was ship it and fix it in the field later.
As a consumer, do you ever feel that some company shipped rather than fixed?

HR is supposedly the culture keeper. Working on cultural matters is more complex than designing a training program. More than one large company today is trying to shift its culture from one that worked to one that’s more appropriate for its future. Think about what it means to move from an efficiency fixation to a customer service commitment.

More difficult is shifting from an internally competitive and noncooperative culture to one that is more coordinated and united. Here are some tips for playing HR detective and applying forensic methodology.

With corporate culture the mirror of a leader’s values, that’s where we must begin. I’m not suggesting it’s easy — or possible — to change an adult’s values, but a culture change cannot happen without the leader’s acceptance.

Regardless of the leader, forensic HR starts with data gathering. What do you know about the person’s past management history? What behaviors does he or she exhibit now that are clues to his or her values?

What effect are these values having? Are there both good and not-so-good outcomes? What does it imply for the future if there is no change?

Where is the past data — the clues — to show the person that there’s not only need to change but gains to be achieved from a change to suit the new market?
The clues can be found in production, financial or human problems.

Sherlock Holmes’ well-known study of a crime scene yielded many tiny clues related to the sequence of the crime’s events. He applied a collection of what is now called trace evidence — shoe or tire impressions, fingerprints and ballistics — as well as witness testimony. Then, he matched this against the beliefs of other involved parties to paint a picture of what really happened.

But Holmes was lucky. He only dealt with the past. You, as an HR leader, have to take your forensic evidence and build a case for future behavioral change.
You might not be involved in something as complex and far-reaching as a cultural change. Those endeavors can last for years. If not, dumb it down to a smaller case where you want to drive some amount of change.

The essential point is perception. All the great fictional detectives were known for their keenness. They paid attention to clues and concentrated on potential connections.

In your case, this focus doesn’t take time — it saves time that you’ll otherwise have to devote to future rework.