human resources’ top goal?

From time to time I see HR folks insisting that the primary purpose of Human Resources is to keep the company from being sued. This philosophy is at the very core of everything I find wrong with HR.

Yes, HR can play a huge role in preventing or mitigating employment lawsuits. This is an important result of HR, but the top goal? Prevent lawsuits vs. select and train really great people? Prevent lawsuits vs. creating an environment where people actually want to be there? Prevent lawsuits vs. helping managers be the best leaders they can be? It really seems to be putting the cart before the horse. After all, a company can get sued if it mismanages its money but no one ever says that the number one goal of the finance department is to prevent lawsuits. You can get sued for being abusive to customers or false advertising, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the primary purpose of customer service and marketing are to prevent lawsuits.

Want to know the #1 way to ensure that HR is never involved in any strategic level conversations? Want to guarantee that your company culture is rife with fear and managers don’t manage? Want to be stuck in the glorious tar pit of HR as bureaucracy? Spend all your time focused on not getting sued.

In the perfect little world in my head, HR’s #1 goal is to help the company perform at its best. Minimizing lawsuits is a by product of doing things right; it’s a means to an end but not the end itself. The best processes and practices will help the company perform in a way that comply with all the laws and regulations. However, “not getting sued” as an end goal will never, ever create high performance. It’s like a runner training for a marathon with the #1 goal of not getting injured. Sure, they don’t want to get injured, but the best way to not get injured is to not train. After all, you can’t pull a muscle sitting on the couch. But that doesn’t work because their #1 goal is to perform at their best on race day. Not getting hurt is a part of that, but it’s obviously not the focus. Instead, the runner knows that with good planning, preparation, and execution of a training program they will minimize their chances of getting injured while maximizing the chances of high performance.

It’s an idea worth repeating: HR’s #1 goal is to help the company perform at its best.  And if you do it well, you automatically reduce the chance of getting sued. But that’s an outcome of doing things right not the other way around. For example, adhering to all the anti-discrimination laws does not ensure that you hire great people. But when you are focused on hiring the best people you will naturally seek diverse talent pools because you don’t want to exclude the best talent because of arbitrary bias.

Can we move HR out of the dark ages now? Instead of operating out of continual fear of lawsuit, let’s create high performing companies by helping people be at their best.

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