7 Steps To Turn Around a Broken HR Department

I had a friend start a new HR leadership position recently. When I spoke to her the other day, she talked about how the department she has inherited is completely broken. Her first question to me was, “how do I turn this thing around?”

We all have asked ourselves this question, haven’t we?

So, often you get your first shot at leadership because something is broken and a change needs to be made. Rarely, as a first leadership position, do you walk into Disneyland! Oh, look, everything is perfect, all the processes are great, all the people are hard working and get along, the budget has more money than I know what to do with!

It’s just not reality. If the department had all that, they wouldn’t be hiring you!

I gave her my steps to turning around a broken department, from my experience of turning around broken departments!

Step 1Don’t start by thinking you’re going to change the culture immediately. The culture is bigger than you. The only way you could truly change the culture is to go in day one, fire every single person, and implant your own new team. Culture will always win.

Step 2 Look for low hanging fruit and pain points. Anytime you walk into a broken environment there are always simple little things you can do and change, that will be big wins. Do those first. This will buy you time to do some of the bigger things you need to do, and at least you’ll be starting with positive energy.

Step 3Fire bad people fast. I don’t care that they’re the only one who knows how to make changes in the system. If they’re bad, fire them. Again, the organization will thank you. And if you’re truly broken, being broken a little longer won’t matter, and now you’ll have an excuse.

Step 4Hire people who are loyal to you, first, the organization second. Broken departments eat up and spit out more HR leaders than you can imagine. It would be the first question I would ask when interviewing – so, how many leaders were here before me? Oh, five in five years, thanks, I’ll pass. If you’re going to put up a good fight, you need people who will die by your side.

Step 5Have a plan. Gain executive buy-in of that plan early. Continue to update executives on the plan. It won’t be fixed overnight, but managing up on the progress you’re making, will ensure success over the long run.

Step 6Build extensive relationships with your peer group in other functions as quickly as possible. To fix awful, you need friends. Friends in IT, Marketing, Finance, Operations, etc. You need those champions on your side, supporting your change. I don’t need everyone in my department to like me, I do need my other functional peer group to like and respect me if I’m going to turn this puppy around.

Step 7Stop saying HR is broken, or bad, or you’re fixing it. Start using language that we’re building best-in-case processes, world-class technology, market-leading functions, award-winning talent, etc. The organization needs to change the language of what HR is, to make it what it can be.

It’s the hardest, most challenging, thing you’ll ever do is turn around a broken department, but it will also be the most rewarding and best thing that ever happened to your career!


2 thoughts on “7 Steps To Turn Around a Broken HR Department

  1. Unfortunately I ran head first into #4 after I got up the courage to leave a job of 20 years. The job I took (in another state, no less) had 7 HR Directors in as many years. After I found that out everything made more sense. Needless to say, I only stayed for four months.

  2. Employees’ lack of engagement and job success starts with the CEO.
    – CEOs hire the managers.
    – Managers hire the employees.
    – Employees don’t hire themselves.

    When there are disengaged or problem employees we need not look beyond managers and executives.
    * Too many employees are in the wrong jobs, i.e., management errors.
    * Too many managers are in the wrong jobs, i.e., executive errors.
    * Too many executives are in the wrong jobs, i.e., CEO errors.
    * Too many managers and executives Reward A hoping for B.
    * Poorly behaving employees are tolerated, i.e., management errors.
    * Poorly behaving managers are tolerated, i.e., executive errors.
    * Poorly behaving executives are tolerated, i.e., CEO errors.

    Before we can change the culture may be we need to change the worst offending executives and managers?

    1. Culture is the summation of all employees behaviors but the CEOs and the top executive determine the accepted behaviors. If we can, then we should start at the top so that changes made won’t be undone by executives managers.

    2. Focus on replacing poor managers and work your way up the corporate ladder. Don’t expect to change the bottom and have it stick.

    3. If we promoted employees from a job based their job performance, then we should admit out mistake and return them to the job where they were successful. Who promoted them and why? Fix that problem before the next promotion.

    4. We don’t need to hire employees who are loyal to their managers, that will come as night follows day as long as the managers are effective, most are not.

    5. Yes indeed gain the executives’ buy in but the CEO must be prepared to step in and replace managers and others who try to sabotage the process.

    6. Since 80% of managers are ill-suited to manage people don’t be surprised that many if not most out will not join with you.

    7. Whatever you say make sure you are correct. Saying things does not make it happen.

    Fix your employee selection process first since it takes the least amount of time and work and it has a huge impact.

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