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HR best practice: what does it look like?

Published 7th February 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Best practice written on folder in filing cabinet

Best practice suggests there’s a way of doing something that consistently yields the best outcome. Experts and business thinkers sell us best practice on a daily basis.

And yet, it's a myth.


HR best practice: why it’s a myth

Unique organisations: every organisation has a different history, different leaders, different products, different workforces, so it’s impossible to say that one solution is the best across every industry and every business. There is simply too much variance.

Speed of change: the world changes so quickly that it’s not possible to establish, hone, codify, prove and then spread ‘best practice’ before it becomes out-of-date.

When we have a problem in HR, we can do one of two things: evolve the approach or change the approach.

The nature of context: Leadership development aims to offer best practice but often fails to take into account the dynamic variables of a situation, such as how a leader is feeling, their mindset and the system in which they operate. With so many variables, one way of doing things will never work every time.

But if there’s no best practice, how does HR improve?

In HR, there are various challenges and there are imperfect solutions. Imperfect solutions are the best we can ever hope to achieve. These are commonly known as heuristics.

Over time, we aim to make these solutions a bit better, with more positives, a greater net benefit, and fewer downsides, although there will always be unintended negative consequences.

When we have a problem in HR, we can do one of two things: evolve the approach or change the approach.

Put another way, we can tinker with the existing model or replace it. Some people call this evolution v transformation. A key skill is knowing which one is appropriate, because people that want to sell you things tend to suggest that transformation (the most expensive option) is going to be the best bet.

Understanding what type of content is out there and what it can tell you will help you decide whether you need to integrate it into your current approach or not.

Established practice

This refers to policies, ideas, themes or ways of doing things that have a history of achieving reasonable outcomes, are well-recognised among industry professionals, work on recognisable trajectories and have been written down.

There is, for example, an established way to run disciplinaries, as set out by Acas. Established practice can also be found in reference books, such as Armstrong's Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice.

Trend-based thinking

Often written by recognisable faces in the HR community, trend-based thinking is often opinion and hearsay but based on recent statistics, industry developments and ideas that are gaining traction. A lot of content marketing is also trend-based because it’s the easiest and cheapest to produce.

These trends are often future-focused, designed to help you prepare for what the future holds. No-one really knows how the world will change and, on a smaller scale, how organisations will change, but we trust these writers more than others because of their experience.

It’s useful advice but it’s important to be aware that predictions and trends may differ wildly. It’s not enough for you to read them: you must contextualise them within your own company and industry.

Sentiment insight and research

This includes everything from interviews with individual HR directors and industry commentators to large-scale research projects that survey thousands of professionals, such as Bersin by Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey or Investors in People’s Job Exodus research.

These give a sense of what people are thinking, their priorities for the year ahead and what they are fearful about. They are useful to you in comparing and contrasting with your own priorities, and digging deeper into why people may be thinking the way they are (such as external market conditions, economic concerns, industry developments).

Case studies

Case studies should enhance your thinking rather than give you ready-made solutions. They are solving problems that may appear on the surface to be identical to your own, but at the very best will be broadly similar.

Good case studies should always:

  1. Provide context: they don’t only tell you what the problem is, they place it in financial, social and cultural context. An attrition problem takes on new meaning, for example, if the company’s cash flow situation is critical. Context changes the stakes.
  2. Identify new problems and bumps in the road: when people solve a problem, not everything goes right. There are always unintended consequences or problems that spring up that may well be smaller than the original issue but are problems nonetheless. Case studies should give you a full account of the situation post-intervention. The overall situation may have improved, but what challenges remain? What challenges appeared that were unexpected?
  3. Break down the solution: good case studies don’t just say that they ‘implemented a series of workshops,’ but actually address the content of the workshops, who they targeted, how they were optimised and how progress was tracked. A solution is never just an idea or a product: it’s a series of decisions that should lead you further towards a goal.

Personal insight

There’s a reason blogs written by well-respected HR professionals have become so popular: they bring lots of experience and a personal style and the more confident bloggers offer profound insights into their own journey, including the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve made progress personally and in their organisations.

This type of content is useful for self-development, career development and enhancing your thinking in order to drive better decisions in the workplace.

Peer-reviewed research

This is useful in making broad generalisations about what direction to take your policies in. It’s not about best practice but becoming more aware of the consequences of adopting specific policies and what results you can realistically expect to achieve in the workplace.

For example, a respected study suggesting that offering commission-based reward negatively impacts collaborative working may encourage you to rationalise existing policies if you’re looking to improve collaboration at work.