Some HR professionals take a “rah-rah” approach to encouraging staff to do HR tasks, like signing up for health insurance during open enrollment. (Illustration by Jefferson Miller)

Dilemma of the Month: How Do I Get People to Do Their HR Tasks?

Back Article May 2, 2023 By Suzanne Lucas
How does HR hold people accountable for the HR part of their jobs? For example, reviewing resumes, filling out performance appraisals, taking required training, signing documents, etc. I’m an HR professional at a company where employees take a lackadaisical approach to these checklists. They might be great at their jobs, but I can’t do my own job if they don’t finish these tasks, and I have no authority over them. Help! 

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People don’t listen to your requests to do these essential tasks for two reasons. One, they don’t think they are important, and two, there are no consequences for skipping them. So why on earth would they take time out of their day to fill out a performance appraisal, for example? (Let’s face it, even people who think appraisals are extremely critical to employee success don’t like to do them.)

Your statement “I have no authority over them” is the key here. You don’t have authority, but someone does. Who is that person? Finding him or her is one of a few different approaches you can take to solve this problem.

Be a salesperson or a cheerleader

Lots of HR people take this route. They work on extolling the virtue and value of whatever task must happen. Of course, this is a lot easier for things like getting hiring managers to review resumes — after all, they’d like to have someone in the position. “Just think! If you can get through these resumes, we can schedule interviews, and then by this time next month, you can have a new employee!” you might ask, pom-poms waving. But it’s not easy to “rah-rah” your way through less cheerful tasks, like taking the annual online sexual harassment training.

This is a very high-energy approach, and it does have some effect. Constantly telling people how great and important a task is — and going away once they do it — will eventually get a good deal of people on board. You can see many HR departments do this: They decorate for open enrollment, provide treats for people who come to code of conduct training, and talk about performance appraisals like they were Nobel Prize committees.

This is not my cup of tea. Sure, I’m in favor of treats, and heaven knows I can be “rah-rah” about some things, but I have a different preferred method of getting people to do dreaded tasks.

Get leadership on board

You don’t have the authority to punish employees who don’t do these tasks, but the CEO (or president, owner or whoever sits at the top of the hierarchy) does. You will always fight a losing battle if your CEO doesn’t back up these processes.

Some things are not strictly necessary, and others are illegal to ignore. For instance, regular sexual harassment training is required by California law. As long as you have at least five employees, these employees must go through the training. It isn’t optional. The company leadership needs to ensure that this happens.

But things like performance appraisals are legally optional, so you don’t have the threat of a government agency breaking down your door if you don’t do them. To get the CEO to care about these, you need to speak dollars and cents. Show the CEO how these systems benefit the company, and you’ll gain an ally who can put real consequences in place.

Accurate performance reviews, for example, protect the company against complaints of discrimination. Say you fire someone for performance issues, and they make a discrimination claim. If you can demonstrate that you recorded the performance issues, made the person aware of the situation, and things didn’t get better, you can save yourself a fortune in legal bills.

Once the CEO is on board, ask for the ability to follow up and deliver consequences to non-compliant employees. Things like legally required training must have consequences that include termination. For things like performance appraisals, perhaps managers don’t get their annual increase until they complete them. 

Lighten the load

But if the CEO won’t back something, and it’s not legally required, just step back and don’t burn yourself out trying to get everything done. Not everything is a company priority, and that’s okay.

If the delays continue, it may be time to reevaluate what you ask people to do and limit it to critical items only. At least that will reduce your stress load, which is definitely worth a lot when you work in HR!

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