HR Doctor: Dominance Pathology

Personnel Today’s HR doctor Nick Holley diagnoses some diseases common to HR and suggests the cures that might restore it to health.

Dominance Pathology


  • HR sees HR as its job and never involves the line
  • HR ignores views that are different to its own
  • HR feels it needs to control everything to do with managing people, rather than recognising its role is to support the business and the line in identifying and addressing the key people issues.
  • HR becomes the guardian of the “corporate no”, hiding behind a wall of employment law and HR policies and procedures. HR takes away all responsibility for managing people from line managers. Its response is always “you can’t do that because…”, rather than “the implications and risks of doing that are…”
  • HR never consults with anyone with the result that it implements a load of “HR stuff” that doesn’t actually make a difference to the business.
  • HR simply steamrollers resistance.


  • The problem is that this approach alienates everyone. They try and avoid involving HR because they know the only response they’ll get is “computer says no”.
  • This marginalises HR with the result that line managers take risks they don’t know are risks. At best HR has to clear up the consequences after the event; at worst they can have a serious impact. While not an HR example, Nick Leeson is an example of the potential impact where someone hides their mistakes.


1 The biggest problem I often encounter is this results in HR developing things that make HR’s life easier without thinking through whether, at best they help the line or, at worst they actually make the line’s role harder. In one instance I was asked to go to Spain to see what I was told was a best of breed performance management system.  This online system required line managers to complete 132 boxes on each of their direct reports. This generated 430,000 data points with 200 built in tools to analyse this data. When I stood back from what appeared to be a really whizzy system I began to ask some practical questions.
* How many of the tools have you actually used to analyse the data?
* What key things have you learnt from this analysis?
* What have you done differently as a result that has added value to the business?

The sad thing was that the answer was ‘nada’: nothing. What was even sadder was no one had thought to ask how long it would take a manager with 40 direct reports (as they had in their call centre) to complete the system. I heard stories of managers who had taken two days holiday to do it. I heard stories of how a group of managers in IT had actually created a bolt on programme that spoofed the system into thinking they had completed the process. 

This is dominance pathology at its worst, implementing a system that made line manager’s lives a misery without actually generating any value added for the business. The only value added appeared to be for the HR team who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time presenting their whizzy system at HR conferences to loud applause.


  • Create an operating model for HR that focuses on being simple, straightforward, helpful, commercial, aligned, respected and credible.
  • Spend time in the business understanding how stressful it is to manage a P&L or a large militant labour force. This means secondments, job rotation or even going as far as recruiting line managers into HR so they can share their experience and ensure HR fulfils its role in supporting the business.
  • Train HR people in risk management concepts so they understand how to avoid and mitigate risks in a rapidly changing world, rather than thinking a policy can foresee all eventualities and will be enough.
  • Train and reward HR people to operate in front of rather than behind the ‘wall’, engaging with the line, challenging where appropriate, but always doing it from a business outcome focused approach.

By Nick Holley, director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School. The centre works with members from the private, public and third sectors to change the debate around HR; carrying out applied research aimed at advancing current thinking, and delivering programmes to enhance the quality of business and partnering skills for senior and high-potential HR professionals.

Comments are closed.