Why Best Practices Will Only Take HR So Far (and What to Do Instead)
Est. Read Time: 3 min.
In early 2020, many HR leaders were gearing up for performance review season and the mountain of paperwork that it would inevitably generate. Despite the fact that HR, employees, and even many managers dreaded this annual tradition, age-old best practices dictated that the reviews happen en masse and in person every year to prevent performance from slipping.
Then a global pandemic hit and countless employees were told to work from home, making in-person reviews and physical paperwork impossible. But even as some HR teams scrambled to make reviews work remotely, others began to question whether they should have them at all. It wasn’t just the location that had changed, but the circumstances and nature of the problem, too. Employees were stressed and anxious as it was, and a review might only make things worse.
As a result, many ditched performance reviews in favor of more frequent, low-pressure check-ins. Did performance slip? Well, 94% of employers reported that productivity was as high or higher in 2020 than it was pre-pandemic and managers were given back hundreds of hours, so it seems unlikely that a formal review would have made a positive difference. It makes you wonder, were these supposed best practices really that great at all?
While many companies were already starting to abandon the traditional performance review model before the pandemic came along, this still serves as a good example of what can happen when best practices are called into question. For all the negative disruptions that 2020 brought, it also created a long-overdue situation where HR teams were forced to stop and evaluate why they were taking certain approaches. In many cases, the answer boiled down to one of two things: “It worked for us in the past” or “It worked for another company/team.” In other words, it was a best practice for someone once—but it might not be what’s best in this specific situation or moment.
Best practices can be useful, but not if they’re used in the absence of critical thinking. Here’s how you can ensure your HR team is always driving high performance, rather than just imitating it.
Ask lots of questions and source plenty of perspectives
HR teams sometimes treat best practices like jigsaw pieces. Slot enough of them together and you should see a pleasing picture, right? Unfortunately, since the pieces tend to be compiled from several different puzzles, they have to be jammed into place, creating unnecessary friction—and the picture they form is jumbled at best.
You can’t just plug in a best practice and hope it will miraculously solve the problem your team is facing. Before adopting any approach gleaned from an outside source (or even one that’s worked for you in the past), ask questions about how the context differs and how the approach will impact other systems and processes you have in place. What you’ll likely find is that the “best practice” is incompatible in your situation. It may even cause more harm than good.
So what should you do instead? Keep asking questions, but focus on the problem itself, not the potential solution. What is the exact nature of the problem you’re trying to solve? How often is it experienced, and by whom? Is it a symptom of a bigger problem? With a clear idea of the issue, you can start brainstorming solutions that are tailored to your specific circumstances, not someone else’s.
It’s worth asking questions even when no immediate problem is in sight. If you always file documents a certain way, for example, take a moment to ask why. If someone says it’s best practice to do so, challenge them on what this means. Where did the best practice originate? And when did you last try something different?
By championing this inquisitive approach, you can encourage individual contributors to think more critically about every process and problem. This will allow you to tap multiple perspectives when it’s time to ideate solutions, rather than just blindly following what one source says is best.
Use best practices as a starting point, not a destination
There’s no harm in learning what approaches have worked for other companies, departments, and teams—as long as this doesn’t form the sole basis of your strategy. Copying was not allowed in school, so why should it be acceptable in the workplace?
The true value of hearing about the successes of others is the opportunity to revisit your own processes with fresh eyes. When you do things a certain way for long enough, it’s easy to become comfortable, so think of these moments as a kind of mental wake-up call—motivating you to evaluate whether you could be doing something differently.
The world-changing events of 2020 provided an almost overwhelming number of wake-up calls for HR. To help your team digest and apply the learnings that came out of the year, we’ve compiled more than 60 stories, reflections, and ideas from HR practitioners across the globe. Tap into these insights today by downloading HR, Work, and Life: A Collection of Lessons Learned From 2020.
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About Laura Zifchak (Poggi)
Laura leads the marketing team for the PeopleDoc by Ultimate Software products in North America. She joined PeopleDoc in January 2015 to help HR teams learn about HR Service Delivery technology, understand how it benefits their existing business strategies, and become expert users of our platform as customers.
Laura has experience with bringing technical software solutions to market with prior leadership positions at both IBM and RTTS. She has an MBA from CUNY Baruch Zicklin School of Business, and a BS degree in Marketing from Siena College.
With years of practice managing teams through rapid growth and constant change, Laura is passionate about employee and manager experience, and using technology to help scale and improve operations.