Traditionally, Human Resources primarily performs support activities (supporting departments through staff development, hiring, compliance, etc.), so organizations manage accountability for HR activities differently. Some organizations, about one in five, do not hold HR accountable in any way, according to Brandon Hall Group research.
How is HR Held Accountable to Drive Improvement?
This leads to many complications; internally within organizations and externally when trying to benchmark HR effectiveness. Ultimately, what organizations seek is a set of best practices to benchmark how HR should be held accountable and in what ways.
One challenge that many organizations face is that accountability is not one of their core values. This can be intentional, as a company may find that “everyone is accountable” (although that slippery slope can lead to “nobody is accountable”) or it may be unintentional and merely a byproduct of its culture. Either way, the first step is defining what accountability means at your organization before deciding how to reward or recognize efforts.
The second major obstacle is lack of support for accountability: Without enforcement or rewards in place for activities (or lack thereof), it is unlikely that simply assigning select department heads to be accountable will have much effect. Creating or reworking existing processes must be the necessary second step to ensure accountability means something once it is defined.
The consequences of failed accountability are the same as they are for any part of business that holds nobody accountable: a lack of trust.
Without knowing which person (or group) is responsible for getting something done, it is hard to trust that such a thing will happen. That is not to say that it will not get finished, but only that no one is certain when or will. Business can survive without accountability, but when decisive action is required, a lack of trust will cause delays and potential failure.
A lack of trust creates a vicious cycle where leaders are not trusted to get things done, so their employees do not perform to the best of their abilities and things do not get done. Setting accountability in HR ultimately stops that by providing definite expectations of information, liability and trust. An accountable HR department continues to support various departments and activities and will be seen as a change agent themselves that responds to its internal clients and other stakeholders.
Determining how accountability should be distributed in HR first requires the business understands its current state and what it is trying to accomplish.
Questions every organization should ask are:
• What does accountability mean at our workplace?
• Who is ultimately accountable for ensuring HR is accountable (i.e., who will make this happen)?
• What constraints in terms of time, budget or other resources does your HR department work within that must be taken into account?
• What business processes in terms of support, rewards, recognition or visibility exist or need to be created to ensure accountability?
• What metrics will determine the success or failure of HR activities and rewards or punishment for failing to meet targets?
Though the discussion here centered on the reason to establish accountability, how it is implemented is equally important. The ultimate goal of accountability is to ensure procedures are followed and goals are met.
It is important to focus on positive incentives, rather than negative ones, to establish long-term behaviors. Much research has been done on human behavior — in I/O terms and in general — and it is generally agreed that while negative repercussions will establish a quick cessation of behaviors, only positive reinforcement (which can be rewards or recognition) creates established, permanent change.
Another key consideration is determining responsibility. While some organizations put accountability in the hands of junior managers, often to establish trust in their leadership, it is usually better to have senior leaders responsible, as that is part of their core skill set. Senior leaders in all of the HR functions will have a better understanding of their roles in the overall business and that will make them more aware of the consequences of success or failure.
Finally, regardless of where accountability for HR ultimately lands, it will only be as effective as the processes to support it, just as laws are ineffective without enforcement. Consistency and transparency are key for establishing the rewards and recognition necessary to create true accountability, and this means making the data and metrics used to determine success well-known and available to all stakeholders. Once everyone has that trust in their leaders and the system, they will gain their own form of accountability, which will lead to more meaningful work and a more agile organization.
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