When should HR break the Rules

Writer: 
Rita Trehan
Rita Trehan

In all the companies for which I’ve been fortunate enough to work, there are traditions and rules around promotion scheduling. From how long you must be in the role to the qualifications for moving up or around within the organization, these rules are put in place to create order, fairness and to set appropriate expectations. We want to make sure people know that they can expect to be rewarded for hard work, and this is the appropriate schedule and guidelines upon which they can rely to achieve those changes in level, responsibility and compensation.

But there are times where those rules were meant to be broken. Sometimes, we have to throw our bylaws out the window when capacity calls.

In my new book, I talk a bit about this in Chapter 6 where I put the ideas around my proprietary decision-making tool, the Capacity Framework, along with other leadership coaching into actual practice. Where HR succeeds many times is our ability to keep the machine of the company seamlessly humming: people get paid, benefits are administered, the workforce is happy and all feels well. But there are times when HR can stand in the way of progress, citing rules and regulations when corporate agility is at stake.

There is no better example of this than an off-schedule promotion.

Fellow HR leaders, corporate capacity is the whole reason we are in our line of work: we exist to create the ability for our chosen employers to expand and contract in a global business environment. While I am not saying that we should throw all corporate promotion schedules and guidelines out the window, I am saying that for the larger argument of retention and corporate growth, sometimes exceptions must be made.

A colleague of mine once worked for a global bank that, at the time, was in the process of acquiring another smaller institution to secure its foothold in one of the states in the US. The move was a strategic part of their expansion from the southeastern part of the country to expand westward, thereby securing their status as a national institution. This acquisition was a cornerstone to owning the lion’s share of the accounts in the southeast. The merger team that would pull off the logistics of the merger was set in place, and the two senior executives were identified and blessed by the CEO and the Board of Directors. Everything was ready to go…until one of the senior executives unexpectedly passed away three weeks into the project.

There was one heir apparent, the protégé of the gentleman who had passed. Cocky, younger, smart, talented: the stakes would be high. He had also just been promoted to a higher grade and position only six months before. My colleague met with the other senior executive as the HR executive assigned to the team, and reviewed the information. It made sense to promote him for the good of the project, but she used the tools of HR to make his rapid promotion schedule a bit more fair and level with his corporate counterparts: based upon certain guidelines, his salary would be incrementally raised to that of his former mentor, and if he hit all his targets, he would assume the bonus earmarked for that position. The role was a stretch, and there was much riding on the transition, but she remained close to the young upstart, coaching him through tougher times. The result? It’s now the third largest banking institution in the country, and the transition was one of the most successful in the company’s history, allowing it to go on to exceed its corporate goals.

I should mention my colleague was also awarded a promotion and compensation for her choices, including a higher seat at the corporate table.

There are many lessons like this in corporate history, and you may have some in your own organization, large or small. While death and tragedy are extreme examples, this story demonstrates capacity in action: the decision was made to promote an individual up and allow him to create a chain of promotions that brought a whole new leadership team to light, creating opportunities throughout his organization. That one risk reaped immeasurable reward, and all because they played that move off-book.

We are artists more than policemen, fellow HR professionals: we can create anything we want in regards to capacity with the tools are our disposal. Think of yourself as a creator rather than a steward and the sky is the limit. That seat at the table is yours, and thinking outside the confines of the rulebook is sometimes the way to get it. Rules were made to be broken, and sometimes promotions are where that rule breaking starts.

Rita Trehan is a business transformation specialist and chief capacity officer at Rita Trehan LLC. As a global HR leader at Honeywell and The AES Corporation, Rita helped rethink how business was done. >From profitable ways to launch business units around the world to inspired means of measuring performance, she consistently improved strategic operations, saving time and money in the process. Rita has led change management initiatives in more than 30 countries across five continents. She has enacted communication and engagement strategies, safety, and performance improvement initiatives in 27 countries, delivering savings of more than $100 million.

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