HR – To Debate or Arbitrate


In this season of presidential debates, one thing is not debatable: the undeniable importance and value of your workforce to the organization’s success. The political players debate each other, they debate the other party, and occasionally (through calculated flip-flopping) they actually debate themselves. Not to mention the debater’s best friend — spin doctoring. In the end, sometimes it appears their primary interest is in themselves (getting elected), and less about “We the People”, their constituents.

Politicians (as we are learning from all-to-many debates) have the luxury on the debate stage to pronounce unambiguously that their “new and innovative policies” are beneficial to the full electorate. After all, as several candidates have pointed out, some candidates have actually never run anything, though they are competing for the most important leadership role on the planet.

Unlike political candidates, business executives are held directly accountable for their actions, to shareholders, customers, and the company’s personnel. Executive management can “debate” the virtues of cost-cutting vs. greater investment in the business all day long, for instance deciding either to add staff or cut staff to hopefully improve productivity, but in the end, their decisions directly impact the workforce they are entrusted to lead. So it is mission critical to get their decisions right the first time. If they make the wrong choices, the consequences can be fatal to their careers, and potentially the livelihoods of many employees.

Every decision management makes will directly or indirectly impact workers. From major decisions like a merger or acquisition to purchasing new office equipment, changes touch every employee in some way, be it large or small. And that impact can translate into some measure of employee productivity gain or loss.

Personnel problems can come from many different directions, and many are related to executive decisions. This is where HR comes in. HR is essentially the gatekeeper for employee performance and satisfaction. Divisional and/or department heads may manage the employee day to day and week to week, but ultimately HR must take charge to address any negative issues (as well as positive situations such as pending bonuses and promotions). Here there is no debate. HR is tasked with finding the root cause of every personnel issue, and HR is charged with resolving those issues to the mutual benefit of the employee and management (if possible).

To accomplish that mission, HR needs all the facts, documents and details of all the dialogs that led up to the issue at hand. Only with that comprehensive level of information can the right decision be made. Bad data leads to wrong conclusions. Most importantly, there can be no spin doctoring of the facts. It’s not about making employees happy; it’s all about doing the right thing for all involved. Political candidates may have the gall to twist negative records into positives on the campaign trail, and often get away with it, but in HR, actual facts are (or should be) indisputable. Contradictory statements or data about an issue should certainly be noted, but not discriminately weighted in favor of one party or another. There should be no biases in HR. In the context of our political system. HR should truly remain Independent.

Often HR must act as an arbitrator, and never a debater. There is a distinct difference. An arbitrator listens to each side of the issue and makes an independent analysis. By definition a debater argues for one side or the other. The disagreeing parties are therefore the defacto debaters, pleading their case to the arbitrator. HR should strive to remain independent, even though one of the parties may likely be their employer. With this pressure in place, it may be a difficult task to be truly independent, but executive management should place their full support in the recommendations HR makes, even if the recommendation is contrary to their personal interests (but potentially best for the organization).

Many personnel issues have obvious solutions and outcomes, but for those problems that require input from multiple parties (such as disputes), HR should arbitrate, not debate. Let’s leave debates to the political candidates. Your employees will be thankful for your fairness and impartiality.

© Andres Rodriguez |