Three principles to unify the modern HR team

HR becomes a complicated amalgamation of roles, processes, and systems as an organization grows. Each center of excellence (Learning, Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, Field HR/HR Business Partners, Operations) develops its own mission, initiatives, and solutions to meet business needs, and each individual HR practitioner begins to adopt a narrow, process-centric view of her or his work. All of this happens for a very logical reason: repetition leads to learning, accumulated learning leads to expertise, and expertise leads to scalable efficiency. The activities of HR become broken down further and further into their component parts.

What, then, unites all of the components of HR as an organization grows and roles separate?

Part of the answer is the shared intrinsic motivation amongst the HR team: the common calling to do whatever it takes to help human beings unlock their full potential in a way that benefits both themselves and the company.

Another part of the answer is less obvious but just as important: common principles through which all HR practitioners approach their work.

What are those common principles for a modern HR team? I propose three.

Principle 1: Design intentional experiences.

People are complex and emotional, and within HR, we see it daily. To build trust and engage the hearts and minds of candidates, employees, contractors, and alumni, we have to be thoughtful about what emotions we elicit, when, and why, and then design an experience to cultivate those feelings. Within HR, we have hundreds of daily interactions with our employees, and each interaction is a chance to add to or subtract from a person’s bucket.

We within HR are workplace designers and must view our roles as such. Whether you’re in Talent Acquisition or Learning, take time to view your processes and offerings from your customers’ point-of-view. Have empathy for their values, priorities, workflow, interactions, and relationships, and do everything you can to add to their bucket much more frequently than you subtract. Find out what moments matter most to your candidates and employees — and be intentional about how they experience those. Company recruiting videos and blogs, an employee’s first 30 days, the transition from individual contributor to people manager, and communicating a change in reporting structure are just a few of many experiences that require extra thought and care — not only because they matter to employees, but because they either create or destroy business value.


Making this Real: Airbnb’s CHRO Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer

Airbnb has redefined the role of HR to include facilities, food, and collaborative technologies because they realize that it’s all part of the holistic employee experience. Each component is intentionally designed to reflect the values that both employees and Airbnb share. You can read more about Airbnb’s focus on the employee experience here.


Principle 2: ‘Nudge’ behavior change, don’t force it.

When trying to change employee behaviors, a traditional big bang approach will undoubtedly fail. There is abundant evidence against one-size-fits-all approaches to behavior change, but because we look at the wrong ‘success’ metrics such as, in Learning & Development, who attended a course, we often revert to training programs as the favored intervention. Unfortunately, people learn and retain very little through information transfer — we learn by doing. Research suggests that only 10% of learning happens through formal classroom training — and 70% of learning happens on-the-job.

Smaller, thoughtful interventions trump peanut butter approaches to behavior change for a long list of reasons supported by experts across psychology, economics, education, and neuroscience. Starting small also minimizes the threat response we feel when someone tries to force us to make big changes quickly— to our brain, change is pain. As an HR practitioner, it’s important to apply ‘nudge theory’ — the use of nonintrusive interventions that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way — when driving behavior change. If you think the solution to average leadership is to develop content and gather employees for a day-long training, think harder. A smaller, more targeted nudge might have twice the impact for half the cost.


Making this Real: Encouraging Conversations

Deloitte is currently undergoing a multiyear journey to revamp their performance management processes. Because they know that frequent conversations between managers and employees are one of the best performance management tools (much more valuable and real-time than an annual performance review), they ‘nudge’ employees by sending a short weekly email reminder: “Did you have a check-in conversation with your team leader this week?” You can read more about Deloitte’s revised performance management processes and this ‘nudge’ here.


Principle 3: Experiment and test in a structured manner.

It’s easy to assume that everything is an experiment — if it doesn’t work, we’ll learn and adjust. It’s much harder to experiment thoughtfully — in a structured that allows you to draw clear insights and conclusions. A structured experiment involves a hypothesis and then either confirmation or disproval of that hypothesis through a series of tests, all guided by clear metrics and data. The A/B testing framework outlined in Optimizely’s guide to website optimization can be used as one way to quickly comprehend how these structured experiments apply in a different context. (Medium is most definitely collecting data and running experiments as I type these words!)

Google’s People Operations team has set the bar for evidence-based and data-driven approaches to HR and serves as an inspiration to all HR practitioners. Their unique capability combined with massive scale (50,000+ employees globally) enables Google to study almost every question imaginable: from how to best recognize and reward top performers, to how many interviewers to include on a hiring panel.


Making this Real: Developing Managers

Nordstrom Technology People Lab had a hypothesis: a simple guide to structure manager and employee one-on-ones would make these meetings more career development-focused (rather than tactical). They developed a one-pager, established a control group and test group, established clear metrics, and evaluated the results. You can read about their experiment here.


Whether you’re a Recruiter, Content Designer, HR Business Partner, Compensation Manager, or People Operations Analyst, think about how each of these principles could be used to approach a current issue you’re attempting to solve. Designing experiences, changing behavior through nudges, and experimenting in a structured way are three common principles that the full HR team can rally around and use to problem solve and propel growth for the organization.