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HR and the Myth of Best Practices

I spent three days of last week at the HRPA Annual Conference here in Toronto. As always, it was a great event to reconnect with tons of brilliant HR folks in my network, as well as make new connections, and absorb ideas and knowledge from the many session speakers and keynotes- and this year was especially fun. As in past years, a couple of those speakers brought up ‘the Z word’…no, not zombies: ‘Zappos’. If you work in HR, or have any interest in organizational culture or employee engagement, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ve read all about Zappos’ approach to corporate culture. They’ve been referenced as a benchmark in this area for many years now, and although I have nothing against Zappos, this year the Z word gave me pause. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organizational culture recently, or maybe it was this recent Tim Sacket post decrying the obsession with ‘best practices’, but I just couldn’t muster my usual enthusiasm for Zappos’ legendary approach.

Best Practices

“Best practice” has become a largely meaningless label an individual applies to one or more business practices that they hold in high regard; practices that they, or their industry or profession, consider to be ‘best’, presumably in comparison to other practices previously or currently in use. There might be theoretical underpinnings or research that illustrate the efficacy of these practices, but quite frequently there is not. It seems to me that in cases where such supporting data is lacking, the evidence used to justify the labeling of a practice as ‘best’ is the degree to which it is popular amongst similar organizations, especially if those organizations are successful (e.g. profitable, recognized and positively viewed). Often these practices are advanced as ‘best’ by the very organizations that employ them, or by consultants, thought leaders or professional bodies that champion the adoption of the practices in question. Given these questionable motives, it can be difficult, I think, to assess whether a ‘best practice’ is effective, or simply the latest craze.

A Best Practice is Born

Looked at from this (albeit cynical) viewpoint, it all seems a bit bizarre, doesn’t it? An organization implements a program because one of its senior leaders read an interview with XYZ Corp’s CEO touting the effectiveness of said program, and a trusted contact who is a high-priced consultant says that several Fortune 500 clients are doing the same. She thinks: “If influential organizations are doing it that way, then it must be the best way to do it.” The propagation of the practice continues, with industry experts speaking at conferences about it as ‘the new industry standard’; attendees returning back to their own organizations intent on not being left behind, eager to implement a similar program at their organizations. And to make a long story short- a ‘best practice’ is born. Except that one size almost never fits all- so that even if the ‘best practice’ actually contributed to the success of the exemplar organization, it may not work at all in another.

There is a fascinating theory that speaks to why this whole process occurs, and it’s one that I think holds lessons for HR, and the wider business world when it comes to our current level of discourse about ‘best practices’.

Institutional Legitimacy

New Institutional theory offers an explanation for why organizations make the decisions to behave in the ways that they do. It is grounded in the belief that organizations who operate in an ambiguous context are often driven to pursue ‘institutional legitimacy’. That is, an organization will be driven to act in ways that seek to legitimize its existence, status and power by conforming to prevailing notions of what such an organization ‘should’ look and act like. Davis and Powell describe this occurring through conformity with “rational myths” (which sound eerily similar to ‘best practices’), the efficacy of which is presumed on the basis of their wide adoption, rather than any concrete evidence.

The Z Word So, let’s take a closer look at Zappos- who by all accounts seem to offer a near-utopian work life, and certainly had the employee engagement and satisfaction data to back up the efficacy of their approach to corporate culture as a ‘best practice’, right? Well, maybe not…The thing is that most of the speakers I’ve heard reference Zappos over the years don’t bring up the company’s profitability or market share. And there could be a good reason for that, as some other people have suggested in the past. I’m not asserting that Zappos’ was not successful in many ways (such as creating a recognizable brand, or being acquired by Amazon), or that their HR practices did not contribute to that success- but I am saying that we might want to think a bit more critically before we send an organization to the ‘HR Best Practices Hall of Fame’ in perpetuity.

Few among us would argue that employee satisfaction and engagement are not worthwhile pursuits, but not in isolation. They are  ultimately meant to produce ROI in relation to an organization’s goals. Profit is not the only metric that matters, but when we talk about HR ‘best practices’, we should consider their role within the larger organizational context.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on Zappos? Do you have suggestions for other organizations that speakers should reference as an example of HR best practices (please…)?

Image Credit: Patricia Figueira via Flickr Creative Commons

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane – excellent post, and thanks for the info on Tim Sackett’s blog as well. I agree that trying to replicate something that works elsewhere is chancy at best, given the humongous number of variables that go along with implementing people programs. I do think there is value in looking at what successful (yes, with evidence) organizations have done, but analyzing it within the context of the organization who is searching for success.

    In my experience, best practice “research” is relied on to be the silver bullet to fix the problems that occur in an organization. Years ago, I watched a retail department store implement a specific commission on big ticket items because the model for department store retailing was paying that commission. Thousands of dollars with little to no return later, the organization stepped back to recognize that it was more than the commission that made the “Model” successful… was the hiring, training and accountability of the workforce, as well as the strong leadership development program that provided well-rounded exposure to all areas of the business.

    Using best practice wisely requires that the using organization have a pretty good handle on who they are, what their culture is, and what their processes are. Its like a healthcare system that buys a “best of brand” technology platform, only to spend tons of money making it do process the way it was never intended to do process.

    I think good best practice research can inform an organization, but what they do with it has to be organically grown.

    A chuckle – we actually used Zappos in my former organization to demonstrate that just using what is successful for one may not be appropriate for another. The words used in Zappos’ values were a tad bit “out there” for a very conservative organization.

    January 28, 2013
  2. Your posts are always such a treat to read, Jane. Brilliant stuff!

    You are 100% correct that critical thinking and data are essential (but all too often lacking) when it comes to identifying and celebrating what is considered best practice.

    I absolutely love your references to the “Z-word,” too!

    It’s interesting to consider just how long-standing the dominance of the “Z-word” has been…

    The great @neilmorrison made the following point in a great guest blog post for XpertHR nearly two years back: “HR practitioners are fed up of hearing the same old case studies from the same select few companies. Most of us don’t work in those companies and don’t want to. We have to deal with a whole range of different issues and see very few people talking about subjects that resonate with us. Just because you are a big brand name does not mean you are doing it well.”

    Here’s the link to Neil’s post:

    And here’s a post from Neil’s own Change-Effect blog (entitled ‘Enough With The Case Studies’) in which he expanded on these ideas in more detail:

    I sincerely hope your post helps inspire everyone in the HR community get back to the true meaning of the “Z-word” (“Zombies,” of course!).

    #WWMD (What Would Michonne Do?)

    January 29, 2013
  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Carol. I love the analogy of purchasing a ‘best of brand’ technology platform only to shoehorn an incompatible process into it- perfect explanation of how ‘best practices’ are not necessarily ‘best for us’. Likewise, your point about an org needeing to really know who they are to assess if and how a ‘best practice’ could work for them is great. I think this is probably all the more difficult for organizations given the pace of change that has become the norm in some industries.

    January 29, 2013
  4. Thank you Michael, you’re so kind! Thank you for sharing these links- as you know, I am a big fan of Neil Morrison’s blog, but I had not seen this guest post for XpertHR; it’s excellent, as are the other installments. I’m also delighted to discover that you are a fellow zombie enthusiast, (although I can’t say that I am up to date on Walking Dead – it’s so scary!!!)

    January 29, 2013
  5. That is a very good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise info?Many thanks for sharing this one.

    A must read post!

    March 24, 2014

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