A Tale of HR Failure


Sit down, kids, and let me tell you a tale.  Maybe not a tale.  Maybe a parable. Or a fable.  Whatever.  The point is, it’s a story that’s a mashup of a whole of true stuff.  Some of it may have happened in your world.

This is the story of Betty.  Betty was a hard working, team oriented, friendly gal.  Betty was always willing to pick up an extra task to help out her team.  Or someone else’s team, for that matter.  A team player, to be sure.

One day, a department manager resigned.  This wasn’t Betty’s department.  In fact, Betty worked with that team from time to time, but it wasn’t her area of expertise by any means.  But she knew the players and their tasks.  So when there was a need for interim leadership, Betty stepped up and helped out.  Then a funny thing happened.  Betty found out that she liked the work.  And she was good at it.  The team performed well under Betty.  And while it was a new functional area, she helped the team achieve their goals and improve their metrics.  She liked it so much, in fact, she decided he wanted to stay.  So she let her HR business partner know that she would appreciate being considered for the opening.

The HR business partner responded quickly, letting Betty that know, unfortunate, she wasn’t qualified for the job.

That’s right, kids.  The HR pro assigned to help this team succeed had stumbled onto a leader who performed well, worked well with the team, and was ready to leave the job they knew to do something they just might love.  And they could provide the organization a quick hire in an important position at virtually no cost.  And, despite proving she could handle the job successfully, at least in the immediate term, Betty was told she not only couldn’t have the job, she wasn’t even going to be allowed to interview.  Or even apply.  But if she could go ahead and continue running the shop in the interim, that would be swell, thanks.

Now, I’d love to tell you there is a happy ending to this story.  I’d love to tell you that the organization came around, that Betty’s new team stood up for her, that Betty’s manager or the HR director stepped in and brought some common sense to the situation.  But those things too often don’t happen.  And they didn’t happen for Betty.  She was sent back to her old role once a “qualified” applicant was found.  And she knew at that point exactly her value to the company.

The moral of the story is a simple one.  Often in life, HR is called to be the voice of reason.  When we fail in that role, it is the employee who too often suffers for it.  There isn’t always a safety net for us, so that means it is up to us to show courage, judgement and faith in others.  When we fail, we fail as an organization.  But the lion’s share of that failure belongs to HR.


  1. A cautionary tale. Thanks for caring enough about these more nuanced moments to write about it. I guess where I go with it is to think about what HR can do strategically so that it is more likely to have influence. What behaviors and what actions would help move HR from a consultative support role to catalyst with a seat at the table? If HR’s focus remains too much on administrative duties — if HR fails to open the eyes, minds, and hearts of the senior leadership team on the direct connection between people and profitability, then it will not be heard in moments such as these. Clearly, there are some organizations more inclined listening, but there are strategies HR can set and actions to take that make all the difference.

  2. That is horrible, we can suck sometimes. I wonder if Betty stayed on long after that or resigned. Stop the madness people!

  3. Completely agree with the message. I did a comic on this a while ago (see the website link). If you’re not acting with more insight than a search engine, it’s only a matter of time before Google takes your job.

    And it wouldn’t be the first time someone got the ‘essential skills’ part of the JD complete wrong, now would it? 🙂

  4. This is such a good example of how we fail the companies we work for. We’re so busy with our checklists that we forget to look at reality.

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