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CEO’s Letter: Just Getting it Wrong

For more than a decade, I’ve began my day reading HR news for at least an hour before I go to my office. Maybe in the dim early morning hours clarity is more easily achieved than it is during the hectic day at full tilt. In those clear headed moments, some things just make more sense and some things make absolutely none.

For the past two years, most of the HR news has surrounded COVID-19 and its related effects. Workplace safety, furloughs, recalls, remote work, and company culture have dominated my news feeds. Then, in the midst of those issues, the murder of George Floyd forced a national, international, and painfully immediate conversation of all society about the meaning of equality, the definition of inclusion, and an evaluation of the success of the journey towards equality. It was a sober appraisal of how much remained to be done. In a very real sense, the past two years have been about physical and emotional security. And on both scores, most people still feel a bit shaky. Most things seem better economically, COVID-19 has receded, but deep down in our bones, none of us are sure how long this will last. Uncertainty has a grip on all of us.

Coming out of the fires of the past two years, HR is now engaged in dealing with significant wage inflation, a shrinking workforce, and talent shortages. Everyday issues are back in vogue and this is where this column sounds some alarms. We are back to dealing with grievances, labor negotiations, benefits reviews, and all of the other day-to-day HR issues. But within my daily diet of HR headlines are some examples of just getting things wrong.

For one example, on page 10, our Associate Editor Zee Johnson discusses the topic of “hair discrimination.” Really? Hair? Yes, it exists and it is one of the most nonsensical issues you can find in HR. We all know when a white person’s hair is unprofessional, dirty or unkempt but can anyone name a specific white hairstyle that is forbidden? I cannot. But some HR leaders in the hospitality and retail industries, with the support of their executive teams, have decided that dreadlocks bring dread to the workplace. Go figure.

I came across this article as well as another example of a problem. I don’t have all of the facts, but here is what the article purports. A physical education teacher restrained a high school student who brought a gun to school with intent to injure others. Rather than being lauded as a hero for preventing another tragic school shooting, the teacher was…terminated. The teacher hired a lawyer and intended to introduce witnesses at a termination hearing that would testify to the fact the student was the aggressor. According to the attorney for this teacher, when the school district became aware of the witnesses, it backed off the termination and changed the procedure to a suspension to prevent witness testimony. If the man should have been fired, why change his penalty to a suspension? And if his action saved lives, why terminate him for “violating professional conduct” by not “de-escalating” the confrontation?

I don’t know how many people feel comfortable de-escalating an encounter with someone who is acting violent and carrying a gun. Things that seem nonsense to me in the early morning hours often seem like nonsense later too.

If that story makes no sense, then why did the executives of this Georgia school district agree to the personnel action? Why did HR not convince them otherwise? Because they got it wrong. Just like the food service restaurants or retail stores than ban hairstyles (far less dangerous but no less incomprehensible). Even if HR advised the leadership groups to not pursue these actions or policies, they still failed to make their argument heard. Part of the blame still rests with HR for getting it wrong.

Now that we are back to issues less all-encompassing than a pandemic, we need to get the little issues right because there are actually not little issues. They all become big issues unless HR gets it right.

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