Three Steps to Help Managers Give a Damn about HR Metrics

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"Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Hocus Pocus, 1990)

This may seem an unkind quote, but the sentiment for those of us in the human resources profession is clear - we need to get over ourselves.

For years HR thought leaders have been touting the use of metrics to elevate the profession, prove the value of the function or "earn a seat at the table" - a phrase that makes Jay Jamrog, i4cp SVP of Research, twitch at the mere utterance.

So in response to the call for more measurement, organizations have half-heartedly created roles with titles such as HR analytics/metrics manager, HR business analyst or (a personal favorite) employee insights specialist. If "half-heartedly" sounds harsh or judgmental as a descriptor for these efforts, let's look at some facts derived from multiple i4cp studies:

  • Most organizations don't measure human capital impact metrics to a high extent (HR Metrics Survey, March 2009).
    • The ROI of training - only 29%
    • Employee to productivity output ratios - only 28%
    • Quality of attrition - only 27%
  • Fewer than a quarter of companies (24%) make human capital decisions based on data (Predictive Human Capital Analytics Survey, April 2010).
  • Only 20% of organizations say they have a workforce measurement strategy to a high degree (Talent Management Measurement Survey, April 2010).
But I don't want to rehash a previous TrendWatcher, "The Crummy State of Talent Management Metrics (and What to Do About It)." What I want to share are insights on what we've learned about management, not necessarily leaders, and how they perceive human capital metrics.

Don't bring a sword to a gun fight.

Remember the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the intimidating bad guy shows up, skillfully wielding a very large scimitar? And what does Indiana Jones do? With a don't-bring-a-sword-to-a-gun-fight sigh, he shoots the bad guy and goes back to the work at hand. In this analogy, you, my human resources compatriot - whether a strategic business partner, HR analytics director or even the head of HR - play the role of the dead guy. Why? Indys' face says it as clearly as any manager in your organization could: "I just don't have time for this."

Many HR practitioners hold the mistaken belief that wielding a slew of reports and pointing out minute distinctions between employee populations will garner respect and credibility. But, like the ill-fated baddy mentioned above, this faith in the efficacy of the tools of your trade is often misplaced.

Here is the base rationale for not bringing every metric in your arsenal when meeting with managers - it frustrates them. Either they believe you have valuable information that's hidden in reams of data or they believe you're all bang and no bullet, having no insights that actually impact them. Under either scenario there's a sense you are wasting their valuable time.

It's okay to give them a vacuum (or toaster or blender).

If you want to avoid a major pitfall when dealing with managers, keep this advice in mind: It's okay to present them with something simple and practical.

You see, unlike in sitcoms where the husband gets in trouble for giving practical household items in lieu of spectacular and romantic gifts, managers appreciate HR metrics that are useful and, more importantly, that they can act upon.

In a recent i4cp webinar, Quality of Attrition: Management's "Favorite" People Measurement, we revealed an important lesson about how managers interact with human capital metrics. Generally, managers don't understand (or believe) the majority of metrics HR provides to demonstrate the function's impact on achieving business goals. When asked directly what managers care about, the top two answers were "important positions" and "valuable people." In HR speak that translates to "critical roles" and "regrettable terminations." If prompted, managers agreed that high performers and/or high potentials were also "probably important."

What was most fascinating (but a little crushing) was that managers did not connect their input into the performance management process with the retention and engagement of important positions and valuable employees. In their minds, the performance management process was unrelated and primarily a mechanism for annual compensation awards.

Based on interviews and input from a working group of i4cp members, the Talent Management Accelerator, i4cp developed the Quality of Attrition Scorecard, an interactive tool that focuses on a few measures that managers feel are aligned to their operations, that are within their sphere of influence and that they can define parameters for to influence how the measures are calculated.

This tool taps into one of the real secrets of effective human capital metrics communication: What management values will not be defined and found in your HRIS system. To them, real value is unique to the function, influenced by the corporate culture and highly personalized by management. When HR shows up with data generated solely by the HRIS system, a system designed for HR processes, it is immediately considered suspect.

Say it in a language they can understand.

Here's another reason that managers disregard so many of the people measures HR produces: We don't deliver the information in their language. What most HR organizations do is the equivalent of proudly producing an equipment manual for a broken machine in Chinese, simply because the machine was manufactured in China.

A fatal mistake in many workforce scorecards and reports is taking labels directly from the HRIS system that are meaningless to management and are even confusing to the majority of the HR function.

In i4cp's Quality of Attrition Scorecard tool, the labels and the definitions are completely customizable. The tool is intended as a mechanism for partnering with management to create meaningful metrics - with the process being as important as the results. After all, there's nothing like creating a common language for a practical application tool to open the lines of communication and build acceptance.

This approach also helps in providing people data that references a manager's specific workforce segment, which is almost always more effective than utilizing third party benchmarks. To tell a manager that 20% of their workforce is in "important roles" but that only 12% of the attrition in their unit was from these roles (which is very good) - or, conversely, that 35% of attrition was from "important roles" - has more meaning than arbitrary targets or benchmarks that are defined by outsiders.

While often an overused adage, "less is more" is definitely a truism for effectively communicating workforce metrics with managers. This doesn't mean you can stop measuring the plethora of other human capital measurements - quite the contrary. These measures are still important to the HR function to gain insight into the workforce and to have appropriate data for key decisions. The mistake HR often makes is bringing everything to the table to demonstrate how smart or competent they are when, in reality, it undermines their credibility. Having the right data at the right time is the stuff of HR heroes.

Mary Ann Downey is i4cp's Human Capital Management Practice Leader. She has a practitioner background working in multiple functions for large global organizations such as Caterpillar, General Motors and ING. At i4cp she works closely with our member-driven working groups and has published and collaborated on a number of reports, articles and practical application tools. Mary Ann has presented to many professional organizations and conferences and is a licensed attorney.


Since when is the use of a 4-letter word appropriate?
As a new Talent Mgt Practitioner in my organization, I greatly appreciate Maryann's point of view. I definitely want to give busienss leaders data and measures they can use to retain and grow their important people in critical roles. At the moment, I'm researching Talent Management metrics and based on this article I just realized I was exploring measures related to what I thought was important and not what business lines needed. Next, I think I'll match my Human Capital metrics research (not just talent management) with a discussion with key business lines and get their input on the kind of Human Capital (Tal Mgt) data that would choose from the research to help suppport their business. Does anyone have similar or different insights on my or Maryann's posts.
Great post Mary Ann! You bring up a very important point that HR is still learning: just because the data is there, doesn't mean that it is worth reporting to senior leadership. I too think the next phase in HR's revolution to gain respect and influence in the organizations it serves will be to properly identify which metrics have the biggest impact on the firm's performance and help these leaders to leverage this information effectively. I have included your post in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: to share your tips with my readers. Be well!
I agree that you need to be selective, practical and coherent when presenting HR metrics to managers. However, HR does not need to always be so deferential and defensive with managers. After all, by definition, their role is to manage the resources, including human resources, under their command to drive business results. Once in a while, managers need to lead as well (see Leaders v. Managers at and included within the role of leader is to produce change, which can only come about when you can measure the current state and drive the delta from it. There will always be occasions when managers need to exert the effort to learn something new in human resource management, spend time and energy drilling down into details on HR metrics and familiarize themselves with the subtleties of human capital analytic models. The business demands it, if HR does not. On the flip side, HR is not doing itself any favors by producing reports, boiling things down into a dashboard or getting carried away with analytics. The trick is to find the "burning platform" opportunity, apply the appropriate evidence-based analysis to the issue at hand, and engage managers as partners in addressing the business problem and arriving at a workable solution.
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