• December 2011

Barbara Mitchell Offers a Lighter Approach to Playing by the Rules

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

The world of human resources has become so rule-driven over the past few decades that some of us wonder if in the not too distant future, HR professionals will need to have law degrees.

I may be exaggerating a bit here, but some days I really do feel as if I should have followed my original plan as an undergraduate to go to law school. And then I catch myself, and remember that not all HR functions are compliance-driven—just most of them.

Here’s my question: Do we need more lawyers in corporate America?

I say no. Since we know where the pitfalls are, it is the responsibility of a good HR person to keep senior leadership informed of where an action might result in difficulty for the organization.

The truth is that HR has so many other positive roles to play in organizations, it is too bad so many people see us only as the police.

I was very fortunate in my early career in HR to have worked for a company that invested in its employees. I didn’t start out to work in HR—I worked in finance, marketing, and operations, before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You are so good at the human resources part of our business; you should be in HR.”

My HR education included being sent to leadership development programs that covered selling skills and presentation skills. This prepared me for when I had to “sell” other leaders on an idea or “market” my company to a prospective hire. This training also gave me an invaluable skill—the ability to know how to handle an employee who proposes what they think is a good idea—but one that I knew was potentially damaging to the organization.

Rather than say, “no, that won’t work,” I provide options based on my HR experience, and my knowledge of how business works. Coming up with a workable alternative has been the key to my success. You can do it, too!

Following are some simple rules of thumb on how to dance around the system, without getting anyone—including yourself—into trouble.

1. You have to know the rules to break the rules. In HR, we have lots of rules to follow—some are federal, state, or local laws—and some are policies created by our organizations. HR usually writes the employee handbook that lays out the rules the employees need to follow. We would all do better if we approached policies (rules) in a more positive way, and explained the reasoning behind the rules rather than just shove them down everyone’s throat. I know that when someone explains the logic behind a decision—even if I don’t agree with it—I am much more likely to accept it. Aren’t you?

2. It’s all in the delivery. Consider one of the most detested HR rules in the book: the dreaded dress-code issue. It’s hard to believe that many organizations are still struggling with this issue, because from my point of view, dressing well for work is important—for the employee, and the organization. So doesn’t it make more sense to stop telling people what they can and can’t wear to work, and start offering tangible advice on what they should wear to work in order to position themselves as professionals primed to climb the corporate ladder? It’s simple human nature. Show people how they will be helping themselves by following the rules, and they are much more likely to comply.

3. Lighten up. Yes, HR is a rules- and compliance-driven field, but I sincerely hope that as we grow as professionals, we also learn to lighten up a little. I don’t mean that we should break laws or policies; but we certainly can all do better in our approach to how we write policies and enforce them. I am confident that if we approach our role as the “corporate conscience” without taking ourselves too seriously, we will have greater success in letting our organizations see the value we bring each and every day.


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Mitchell is a graduate of North Park University in Chicago, with a degree in History and Political Science. Contact Mitchell by email.

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