Worst Human Resources Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Human Resources professionals are just that—resources. Here’s how to make the most of them.

HR mistakes come in many different forms, and thankfully, they are not usually as obvious—or as offensive—as the daily blunders committed on The Office. But even if you have solid HR practices and procedures in place (and your managers are devoid of any Michael Scott-like tendencies), your company may still be prone to a whole host of HR pitfalls that can have far-reaching consequences for the business.

HR Is Not Just for Paper-Pushing
Far too many companies take the wrong approach to HR overall, clinging to the old-school view of HR as a department full of transactional paper-pushers rather than an essential resource that can add strategic value to an organization, says Grant Schneider, president and founder of Performance Development Strategies, an Armonk-based human resources consultancy. “Companies spend more money on human capital than anything else,” he notes. As such, HR departments should be tasked with ensuring that employees are contributing as much as they can to help fulfill the company’s mission. The HR group should not simply be filing forms and scheduling performance reviews, he says.
“Too often, HR people are siloed within a company,” says HR consultant Greg Chartier, treasurer of the Westchester Human Resource Management Association. “They are only involved in HR matters and are not brought into key business decisions.”
Businesses should instead tap their HR folks for insight into how major business decisions will play out with employees, Chartier advises. He points to a local manufacturing client that opened a division in China and never brought HR into the decision-making process. The result? U.S. managers clashed with the Chinese nationals in the manufacturing facility and the company had to shut down the location. “If the company had involved HR early on in the process, it would have saved a lot of time and money,” Chartier says.
Sometimes the problem starts with HR employees themselves, who may focus too narrowly on HR procedures and practices without properly learning the business, cautions Anne Papaelias, vice president of HR for Curtis Instruments, Inc., a Mount Kisco-based global technology company. “In order to understand the needs of an organization and its people, HR leaders first need to fully understand the organization’s products/services, customers, culture, and structure,” she says. To combat this issue at Curtis, Papaelias makes sure all new HR employees meet immediately with each of Curtis’s department heads before they focus on administration and benefits.
Strategic outsourcing can be crucial to maximizing the power of a company’s HR department, Schneider adds. “Companies need to take advantage of third-party companies that lift the burden off internal HR departments when it comes to routine tasks like administering employee benefits and 401K plans and keeping track of tax and performance review forms,” he says.
So, assuming, then, that you don’t treat your HR crew as an afterthought, what are some of the other HR blunders your company might be committing? Read on and cringe—or congratulate yourself for steering clear of these pitfalls…

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The “Warm Body” Approach
Here’s an all-too-common mistake scenario: an employee quits and you have to fill the position quickly. The company pressures a manager to find a replacement and someone is hastily hired. “The result is you get a warm body to perform a function, but haven’t taken the time to think about how this person will fit in with the culture of your organization,” says Joseph DiCarlo, HR director for WestMed, a 220-physician medical group serving Southern and Central Westchester.
Employee turnover, as everyone knows, is costly for businesses. “Also, the churn of people coming and going sends a bad message to employees and external business partners,” Chartier notes. “If they see a lot of churn, they wonder about the company’s stability.” Even companies not in a rush to fill a position can make the mistake of overlooking the importance of culture when hiring. “People too often hire for skills rather than for fit with the company,” Papaelias says.
To avoid this predicament, DiCarlo recommends that companies be more transparent with potential employees about the type of person that is successful in the company and in the role. “If your company has an outgoing culture and everyone else on the team works until eight pm, you need to set those expectations with potential hires so you don’t end up with someone who might be great at the job function but is shy and introverted and needs to be home by five,” he says.

The interview process is littered with potential traps that can cause companies headaches ranging from hiring ill-suited employees to being socked with a lawsuit.
“It may seem obvious, but there are certain questions that, if asked during an interview, get companies into legal trouble,” says Janna Neal, business operations manager and benefits administrator for Port Chester-based eyewear manufacturer Zyloware. On the “Big No” list are questions like: Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have children? Are you married? “These questions seem innocent on the surface, but companies are not allowed to go there,” she cautions. To prevent Zyloware mangers from making such mistakes, Neal prepares interview questions for all managers in advance.
When interviewing external candidates, companies may also fall into what Glenn Shuster, vice president of HR for Quorum Federal Credit Union (QFCU) in Purchase, calls the “like me” trap: placing too much emphasis on commonalities. “Maybe you and this candidate went to the same college or, at some point, worked at the same company or lived in the same town—you form a bond over these commonalities and that can blindside you into thinking, ‘This person is like me, so they must be good,’” Shuster says. “It creates the potential of not bringing in the person with the right skill-set or competencies needed to do the job appropriately and effectively.” So QFCU puts all its managers through a yearly competency-based interview-skills training program that addresses this problem and others.   
The best approach for avoiding all these common interview snafus is to embrace what’s known as behavioral interviewing, recommends Chartier. As the theory goes, if you’ve exhibited one behavior in the past, you’re likely to exhibit it again. “Asking behavioral questions like, ‘Give me an example of when you’ve had a problem with your supervisor and how you’ve handled it’ is the most effective way to get in someone’s head and see what is really going on in there, and how they would act at your company,” he says

“Bringing new employees on without a proper on-boarding system is a mistake that far too many companies make,” says Richard Greenwald, owner of The Concorde Staffing Group, a job-placement firm in White Plains. “Some people are okay jumping into a hectic environment and will find their way, while others fare better when expectations are scripted out: this is what you do on the first day, and here is where you need to be by the thirtieth day.”
Without clear direction about what is expected in their new role, employees often end up feeling frustrated—and are likely not performing as well as they could, he adds. What to do? “Companies should map out what is expected of a new employee during the first thirty, sixty, and ninety days,” Greenwald recommends. The plan should also be tailored to each specific job—expectations for a sales role, a clerical job, and a management position will clearly be different. “Taking the time to help new employees settle in goes a long way toward retaining them—and avoiding all the hassles that come with employee turnover,” he notes.

Hey—You’re Good at Your Job,
Wanna Be a Manager?
A great salesperson doesn’t always make a great sales manager, and a brilliant IT programmer might not be so brilliant as a supervisor, but frequently that is the rationale companies use when promoting from within. The result is a frustrating experience for both the manager and his or her direct reports.
WestMed’s DiCarlo’s prescription for avoiding this pitfall? “Preventing management mistakes with management training and making sure you employ the right people in these roles is so valuable.” At WestMed, that means a formal, in-house, management-training curriculum that covers both “soft” skills, like how to assess different personalities and how to develop and be aware of your management style, as well as “hard” skills, like understanding the legal implications of management, based on state and federal laws.

Harassment Still Happens
We’ve made great strides since the Mad Men days when sexual harassment was as much part of office life as the three-martini lunch. But harassment issues are still a major concern for organizations—with major consequences. (Herman Cain, anyone?)
“A lot of companies forget that harassment is not just a boss making an unwanted advance on an employee. It also includes things like having a magazine on your desk that offends someone, or sending a derogatory email about a co-worker, or even listening to music that someone else might think is inappropriate,” says Neal of Zyloware. To ensure that its employees are aware of all possible harassment scenarios—and to protect the company from lawsuits—Zyloware conducts annual harassment training that is mandatory for all employees. “We constantly remind people to be aware of harassment concerns, so it has become part of our company culture.”

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While social networks like Facebook have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for companies, they have also opened a veritable Pandora’s box of possible HR and legal headaches. “Social media exponentially increases the opportunities for employees to do silly things and get into legal trouble,” blogs V. John Ella, an attorney with Jackson Lewis LLP, a national workplace law firm that has offices in White Plains. He points to examples like fast-food franchises that landed in heaps of trouble when teenage employees posted digital photos of themselves bathing in the restaurant sink.
To protect themselves, companies must craft a comprehensive social media policy that, according to Ella, “address[es] expectations of privacy, anti-harassment, overtime, trade secret protection, Federal Trade Commission restrictions, and exceptions for concerted activity and protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act.”
Companies must also be cognizant of the impact social media can have on their reputation, says Kris Ruby, president of Ruby Media Group, a Mount Kisco-based social media and public relations agency. “Businesses need to be aware that interns, employees, and business partners may be using social media to say negative things about the company, or to disclose confidential information. It is crucial for businesses to protect themselves by outlining very specific measures as to how employees, vendors, and strategic partners can use social media in relation to the business.”

Remember the Little People
In the quest to profitably run and grow a business, it is easy for top management to lose touch with rank-and-file employees. But doing so is a blunder that can resonate all the way down the corporate ladder, leading employees to feel undervalued and out of touch with company goals.
QFCU knows the value of a little face time with the CEO—and it’s one of the reasons the company was selected by the New York State Society for Human Resource Management as one of the Best Companies to Work for in New York in 2010, 2011, and 2012. CEO Bruno Sementilli meets regularly with employees to discuss strategic direction, and hosts monthly lunch meetings to get to know staff on a more personal level.
“It opens up a great amount of communication,” Shuster says. “Our employees feel empowered that they know what is going on.” The approach is also good for business—that close connection with the CEO helps employees align around the strategic objectives of the organization, he notes. When Quorum launched a subsidiary vacation-ownership-financing company two years ago, Sementilli made sure each employee understood the new business model and why QFCU was investing in it, as well as what each employee’s roles and responsibilities would be in regard to the new division. The result?
“We are ahead of where we thought we were going to be and it has added to our bottom line,” Shuster says.
Even little, seemingly unimportant communication from top management can go a long way, says Zyloware’s Neal. “We do a Secret Santa where the receptionist could be buying the gift for the CEO. It helps spark relationships you wouldn’t ordinarily have.”

Feedback Can’t Be a Once-a-Year Tradition
Ah, the annual performance review: nail-biting employees lined up outside their manager’s office, anxiously hoping for positive feedback and a decent raise. This office tradition, however, is one that should be given a major makeover, says WestMed’s Di Carlo. “Far too many companies relegate performance feedback to once a year. They get the annual review form out of the file cabinet and blow the cobwebs off it,” he says, explaining that feedback should instead be given on a continual basis so employees are performing to their highest potential and boosting business success year-round.
“We’ve created a culture of feedback, so that if an employee is doing something wrong in February that needs to be corrected, we tell them in February so they have the rest of the year to do it right,” he says.
WestMed conducts formal performance reviews each year in December; holds a semi-formalized “touch-base” in July; and fosters constant feedback in-between. “We want employees to continually receive constructive feedback on how they can do their job better so they can take their careers to the next level and feel satisfied in their jobs,” DiCarlo says.

“High-performing employees are the future of your company—and you need to make sure they know that,” says QFCU’s   Shuster. “Companies that fail to nurture their future leaders and let them know they are highly regarded risk losing them.”
Just getting a good review may not be enough for highly motivated ladder-climbers. Instead, Shuster suggests devising a game plan for helping them advance. Shuster helped create a succession planning process at QFCU that takes a systematic approach to cultivating emerging talent. “We’ve developed a system for our high-performing employees that includes job rotations, mentoring, increased job responsibility, more exposure to senior managers, and letting them know that we want to invest in them so they can grow within the organization,” he says. “It is a real morale booster to know that the company recognizes and values what you are doing.”

Illustration by Robert Pizzo

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