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Are We Disrupted Yet?

On Thursday evening, I had a great time (after pushing through a moderate amount of terror) speaking at DisruptHR Toronto. My talk was titled  ‘Scandals and Sociopaths’ (yes, that does sound like the name of Jennifer Lopez’s next Coty fragrance, at CVS pharmacies nation-wide). It was based on this blog post.

Side note: I was kind of delighted by this photo shared by an audience member on Twitter…I’m expecting any future employers to bring this one up in interviews. I promise I can explain.


The Disrupt format is really popular, with HR-related events popping up across the world in the last few years. Talks are bite-sized (20 slides, advancing automatically every 15 seconds), irreverent, and varied. After all, thinking of ways that traditional HR could be better is a bit like shooting fish in barrel. Given all the talk about disrupting HR, in this and other forums, it seems like we should be one well-disrupted profession by now. In fact, I wrote a post not too long ago arguing that most people need to stop worrying about disruption and focus on getting ‘business as usual’ HR right (after all, cutting edge, ‘disrupted’ HR done badly sucks too).

But this week conspired to remind me that I live in a happy little HR bubble. I have had some challenging work experiences in the past, but they helped me develop a nose for bad cultures and I went on to work for some great organizations, including my current role at Actionable where I’m incredibly fortunate to collaborate with our awesome team. I don’t feel frustrated by the HR status quo, because I have the space to try things that work for our company, whether they’re ‘traditional HR’ or not. I’m lucky (and believe me, I think about it all the time).

Last week I was at WorkHuman, a fantastic conference based on the revolutionary idea that employees are also humans (I know, take a few deep breaths to help that one sink in). This week, someone smart and disruptive confided that they rarely talk to other HR people, because they don’t find it worthwhile. And someone I’d just met assumed I was in operations, because I “seemed too smart to be in HR”. I have complicated feelings about these incidents. Should I be flattered? If I am does that mean that I agree that most HR people suck? Does that mean that my professional worth is (at least in part) defined on the basis of other HR people’s perceived incompetence? That’s uncomfortable.

I know plenty of superb HR people that have deliberately distanced themselves from the profession to avoid the baggage it comes with; they went into OD, rebranded as ‘People & Culture’ consultants, or simply describe themselves as being different from the “typical HR people”. What does it mean for a profession if the best and brightest among us define themselves as being ‘un-HR’?

If HR is so generally maligned and desperate for disruption, why are we still talking about this, rather than doing it? Surely evolving can’t be an impossible task. While many professions struggle to adapt to changing conditions and demands, are any of them locked into an existential death spiral like ours?

At WorkHuman, Josh Bersin said of performance management:

“The reason so many organizations are redesigning performance management is because management is broken”

HR is inextricably connected to the philosophy with which we approach people management in our organizations. Many organizations continue (mostly unconsciously) to retrace well-worn Taylorist grooves in their management approach, even if they occasionally slap a new coat of paint on things (and then survey people about it – thanks HR!).  As much of the workforce finds their work becoming more complex it’s hard to imagine that we’ve hit bottom yet with the mismatch between the industrial age management shadow, and whatever label you want to apply to the new reality of work that is emerging (influenced by a range of societal, technological, and economic trends).

Which is to say that we likely need to disrupt a lot more than HR.

Read This Week:

The Omissions That Make So Many Sexual Harassment Policies Ineffective – HBR, Debbie S. Dougherty: This is a fascinating and extremely troubling review of the author’s research on why, even with widespread awareness training and policies, sexual harassment is still incredibly common in workplaces. A valuable reminder of how dangerous it can be to assume that humans are purely rational. “…employees shifted the meaning of the policy such that female targets of sexual harassment were framed as the perpetrators and male perpetrators were framed as innocent victims.”

How Slack Supports Junior Engineers – Carly Robinson: I loved this employee POV about Slack’s learning culture. This first person account of what it’s like to get hired, mentored, and contribute to the Slack team is a great reminder that L&D policies or programs aren’t enough if you don’t have a culture of mentorship and growth. “Since I started at Slack, access to top engineers has continued to expand with weekly and biweekly office hours…What better way to supplement your computer science education than to go and have your questions answered in person by some of the most experienced engineers in the industry.”

The Power of Openess: aka do you need more elephant time? – Isabel Naidoo Great post from Isabel on the idea of  ‘elephant time’  for your team to bring forward the elephants in the room so that they can be discussed. As she says “…if you are running a team and getting hit with surprises it may be time for some introspection about the kind of environment you are creating.”

What do you think? Is talk of HR disruption a rallying cry, or distraction from the real challenges our organizations face? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Image Credit: Jon Tyson via




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