THE BLOG
02/26/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

Why Your HR Strategy is Failing

Imagine you're a manufacturing company and you have a product on the market. You don't really know what it's for, can't really say what it does, and have no idea if it serves a need. You don't even know whether anybody's buying it or even if it's making any money. But you keep putting it out there year after year because . . . well because that's the way you've always done it, and it seems like a good idea.

What self-respecting company would support such a thing, right? And yet, that's exactly how some HR initiatives get installed.

Hit-or-miss approaches may have worked during the nascent days of HR when functional leadership was all that mattered. But these days, people departments have a pretty competitive job. They're vying for the attention of their elusive human assets in the same way their companies vie for customers with products. And that means competing for them in the same way.

For 2014, it's time to start thinking about the business of people: one that markets and invests for significant return; one that's set up to succeed. That means making decisions like a business. How do you do that? By asking and answering strategic questions:

What's my business goal? Do you offer subsidized gym memberships? Why? I'm betting 90 percent of employers who said "yes" to the first question can't answer the second one ― at least not in any meaningful way. Because the time-honored answers are usually a) because it fits with our wellness strategy; b) because it's easy and doesn't cost much; or c) because that's my program and my job is to keep implementing it. Let's ditch that approach, shall we? To create effective programs (programs that are actually worth the money you invest in them) you need to know they're going to have an impact -- and that means knowing what problem you're trying to solve before you pick the program. Because giving gym memberships to people who don't use the gym is not delivering any real value.

Who is my target market? Who makes up your workforce? They're not just parents. They're not just Millennials either. Today's employees are simply not homogenous in any way. So trying to appease one group not only fails you, but it actually creates problems ― and worse, resentment ― that pops up somewhere else. Then you're playing the people equivalent of whack-a-mole. The Pew Research Center study that came out in 2013, saying that 40 percent of families are headed by a female breadwinner, is a huge and important statistic. But the temptation to address it by retargeting all resources toward helping just that one demographic should be resisted. As this piece from The Atlantic wisely states, work/life balance is not just a women's problem. How we support women and men and single people and those without kids and everyone else affects every single person in our workforce. Look at your challenges as people challenges and create solutions that don't sacrifice one group for another. The benefits will be in people who actually support each other.

Who's making strategic decisions? Great business decisions are made by people who know the market. That means understanding your workforce. And that means no longer operating in a vacuum. Go out and get some fresh takes from those in the trenches. Bring in people who can give you the lowdown on what would really help out in cubicle land. Just as valuable . . . get your people experienced in the general ranks to give a sense of whether your programs are having any impact. People work isn't a standalone effort; it belongs to the organization.

How do I advertise? One word: COMMUNICATE! Seriously, folks, if you've got benefits, let employees know you have them. This might not have mattered back in 1960 when benefits menus could probably have fit inside a fortune cookie. But at some companies today, benefits could fill a small novella. A one-time employee-orientation memo is not enough. The new-hire deluge of information undoubtedly gets lost in all of the company policy information, and it's probably a challenge for most people to retain past the first day. And this study confirms that people are more confused than ever about their benefits in general. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs creates more stress rather than less. Instead, leave a very specific roadmap. A company-wide e-newsletter, written in simple, clear language, costs nothing to send, and is so much cheaper than an expensive program that sits around collecting dust.

What's my ROI? Ask yourself . . . how are your policies affecting your people? Are they tackling the right problems? Are they in sync with what's going on in the trenches? Don't know? Maybe it's because you haven't asked. You need a survey that asks the right questions (hint: it has to focus on how your employees are doing, not how the company is doing), and you need to revisit that survey at regular intervals to re-measure the data and see if you've moved the dial. Without that information, you're just throwing darts, which isn't much of an investment strategy.

Bottom line: like selling products and services, successful HR initiatives require a game plan. Done right, it's a strategic part of your business with measurable returns. Done wrong and it's just another line item written off on an expense report.

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Dan Henry is Chief Human Resources Officer at Bright Horizons Family Solutions.