The CEO – HR Disconnect: Understandable? Yes. Defensible? No.

The furniture conversation (see my post on that subject here) that HR is so fond of having is, at its heart, a lament about HR not having strategic business credibility. I don’t buy that HR lacks strategic business credibility. I do buy that HR isn’t communicating mission critical data to the C-suite and that creates a credibility challenge.

New data will be published shortly by Achievers that highlights the disconnect between what HR and CEOs believe about key elements of employee engagement in their organizations:   feedback, managerial communication and recognition.  And it’s pretty eye-opening!

When we designed a survey to evaluate how employees rate the current state of these workplace dynamics in their organizations and whether CEOs and HR professionals are in touch with what employees want, we found an added dimension in comparing the differences between the perceptions of CEOs and HR professionals.

  • For example, when we asked CEOs and HR professionals whether they agreed that their employees believe that their organization inspires them to do their best work every day, 61% of CEOs strongly agreed or agreed, while only 31% of HR professionals strongly agreed or agreed.
  • When we asked CEOs and HR professionals whether they agreed that their employees rated their organization culture as positive, strong and motivating, 67% of CEOs strongly agreed or agreed and 37% of HR professionals strongly agreed or agreed.

Wait.  It gets worse.

  • When we asked employees if they agreed that the feedback they received from their managers was constructive and useful, 79% of CEOs believed that their employees would strongly agree or agree while only 33% of HR professionals believed that their employees would strongly agree or agree.
  • When we asked employees how frequently they received feedback from their manager, 56% of CEOs believed that employees would report receiving feedback immediately or on-the-spot.  HR professionals?  11% believed that employees would report receiving feedback immediately or on-the-spot.

These are just four examples in the survey that show the continental divide between how CEOs and HR professionals evaluate crucial aspects of their employees’ engagement.  With these results that underscore the CEO – HR disconnect, we could hypothesize that CEOs have a more optimistic view of their workforce because any time they interact with employees, employees are on their best behavior – trying to impress the boss.  HR, on the other hand, frequently interacts with employees when they are not at their best:  exit interviews, investigations, disciplinary situations, etc.  It’s understandable that HR might have a more pessimistic view of their employee population.

Absent data to the contrary, why shouldn’t CEOs be optimistic? If there were issues, surely, they might think,  HR would share the data.  But when the employee engagement data is consistently less positive than CEOs’ perceptions, it”s clear that CEOs aren’t getting data that informs them of the reality of their workforce. And who has this data?  Well, that would be HR.

So why isn’t this data – and their ramifications – being shared with the C-suite? For HR to understand the workforce and know what is working and what isn’t clearly isn’t enough.  Communicating mission critical data and serving up cost effective solutions are HR’s opportunity. Heck.  Most would say that’s HR’s job!  For certain, they are the ticket to strategic business credibility.

If we needed tangible proof of the CEO – HR disconnect, this survey’s results confirm it.  You’ll be able to download it on June 12 from the Achievers website.



Filed under Achievers, C-suite, CEOs, HR, HR Credibility

14 responses to “The CEO – HR Disconnect: Understandable? Yes. Defensible? No.

  1. Pingback: Transforming HR – How a CEO did it « Life, Leadership and Change

  2. Pingback: What Every CEO Needs to Know About HR – Businessweek « fuzzbytes

  3. Enough is enough. I am getting tired of this topic. It would seem to me that the only HR professionals who should be worrying about this issue in a public forum are those who are equal partners at the strategic table and those who are all completely caught up on their work. Everyone else should be figuring out how to improve their relationship with their CEO and getting their work done.

    Each situation is different, so trying to succinctly define the problem, and even more so, define a solution in broad workable terms makes little sense. Those HR professionals looking for a solution to their long standing problem in the social media have just provided a huge example of why their CEO doesn’t invite them to the adult’s table. As Pogo, the cartoon character, stated, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”.

    Getting some counsel and assistance is a good idea, but the end must justify the means. These relationship issues need to be addressed within our organizations and that means HR professionals need to work harder and do things differently to get the attention of the CEO. This is Change Management 101, an area at which HR should be good. You must find people within your organization that are willing to listen to you and then build a guiding coalition with these people with the intent of changing the CEO’s mind. It does not matter what people outside your organizations think as they cannot influence the CEO. Stop looking to qualify your situation by getting outsiders to take your side. The solution begins and ends with YOU, the HR professional, within your own particular context.

    • Can’t disagree that HR “should be figuring out how to improve their relationship with their CEO” — that’s been a long-standing theme here. I’m not sure what social media has to do with it, but I do agree that that “the solution begins and ends with…the HR professional.” Absolutely.

  4. I’m not sure that this is any more alarming than a similar headline that might read, “Shocking number of British drivers use wrong side of the road.” It seems to me that there is an important structural distinction between the perspective of HR (which is inherently bottom up) and the rest of the C suite (which is usually top down). To echo Jason’s insightful note, perhaps a healthy organization requires someone to work the ‘glass half empty’ role while someone else handles the ‘glass half full stuff’.

    Just like sales and production have relationships built on complementary opposition, the CEO and HR ought to have differing perspectives on issues like engagement. Good management requires the perception that comes from conversation. The only way you can get there is by keeping room for conflicting perspectives.

    When CEOs talk about ‘talent’, they really mean a narrower thing than HR usually addresses. They are usually talking about the kinds of people who make significant impacts on company performance. These are the people who actually create the core value that the operation delivers. HR tends to represent everyone as if all employees were equally valuable to the company.

    The disconnect between the two functions is that the CEO always finds leverage and uses it to get things done. HR is more concerned with process optimization.

    To wit, what does it matter if engagement is high for the majority of folks in the company who are easily replaced if the morale is low in the much smaller group who generate the real value.

    It will be interesting to see the report.

    • Hey, John.

      1. Conflicting perceptions based on “intuition” don’t work in any other part of the organization, why should it work in HR? And I think CEOs are learning about “talent” and are going to start asking harder and harder questions. If HR can’t answer those questions with fact and data CEOs will look elsewhere for the answers.
      2. I agree with you that paying attention to engagement across the board, while a good thing to do, may well overlook the retention issues of the highest performers. Jason Lauritsen is doing some interesting work in this regard. But some engagement levers like feedback and recognition seem to be effective for everyone.

  5. Cool data. Thanks for sharing. This story is disheartening, to be sure. Another possible wake up call for HR, but will we listen and do something about it.

    While I think it’s probably the case in some situations that HR isn’t communicating the engagement issues up the chain, I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that–at least it has been in my experience.

    I’ve found that there are a lot of executives who don’t want to hear the truth. The ivory tower can be isolating in comforting ways when the village is burning below you. I think there are a lot of executives who would rather not know how bad it is because if they were to look and see the issues, then they would have to take some action. And, if the business is at all successful, there’s a powerful pull towards protecting that status quo at all costs.

    I also agree with Tom that I think HR is probably a bit bent towards the pessimistic, but that’s partly due to our nature and partly due to the points you illustrated regarding the work we do on a day to day basis.

    So, while I absolutely support that HR needs to do our part to bring forward actionable business intelligence, part of this divide can also be attributed to a lack of real leadership in the C-suite in too many places. One way that poor leaders convince themselves they are good leaders is to ignore any evidence to the contrary.

    • Agreed, Jason. But I think data can be persuasive — especially in the C-suite — even its inhabitants don’t want to hear the truth. The growing focus on talent shortages at the CEO level means they’re learning and they’ll want more more data. HR has got to be prepared to give it to them — hopefully before they ask!

  6. Hmmm. The system seems to want to eat my very interesting and perceptive comments.

  7. The distance between the two are alarming, but I wonder if both perspectives are not skewed. Is the top box on the org chart optimistic because of their job of being a “forward thinker” for the company or because HR and others are not giving them a realistic picture? In order for communication to happen there has to be a willing receiver as well as an effective transmitter of the message. Is the HR perspective more pessimistic because they are in the trenches dealing with the muck and mire of daily tedium? Where is communication and objectivity in the order of priorities?

    Both are failing, but HR has a special responsibility to be a catalyst to make things happen. If they are ineffective because of their own actions there must be added focus to their mission. If there is no value added by HR it doesn’t need to exist. If there is a perceived image of HR not having value, they need to communicate better. Unfortunately, one role of HR is also to be a missionary for their own cause.

    Can’t wait to see the data from the Achievers website.

    • I’m attending a Mercer conference today for analysts. One of the concepts we’re discussing is moving organizations from making HR decisions based on “I think” to “I know” — having good, relevant data and being able to speak about that data to the C-suite will change the landscape for HR. But first you have to have the data and know that it is good. Data speaks for itself, right?

      • Not collecting relevant data is an unpardonable sin! Analyzing it incorrectly or intentionally altering it as justification for a hidden agenda is worse. Data DOES speak for itself. Keep leading the charge for HR to be better data analysts and communicators!

  8. Annette

    Looking forward to reading the article!

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