Article: Beastly business customers


Beastly business customers

Business leaders are key internal customers for HR Business Partners. But what happens when these customers go rogue? Here is a bestiary of the main forms they can assume and the best ways to deal with each.
Beastly business customers

Given the huge amount of writing on Business Leadership and the more modest yet still significant literature on HR Business Partners (HRBPs), it is surprising that very little is available on the behaviour of the former towards the latter. This column rushes to fill the void left by wiser angels.

We shall specifically examine that fringe of Business Customer behaviour that can be called truly beastly. Fringe, of course, doesn’t mean undifferentiated. There are at least five distinct types of Beastly Business Customers (BBCs) for HR. My 'spells' for staying safe from each of the five members of this bestiary have limited potency. Each section, therefore, ends with a scenario where the incantation is ineffective.

Tough tyrants (TTs)

When tyrannosauruses roamed the earth and I started my career, most managers were robust Type Xers. The odds are very different today. TTs are in the minority. There are plenty of role models of successful nurturing leaders who are respectful of their Business Partners. But, for these very reasons, HRBPs have not had the opportunity to develop either the thickness of skin or the repertoire of tactics to counter a TT Rex in the corporassic park.

It is no use for an HRBP to attempt converting a TT’s style independently. This is an important example that proves the worth of having an independent chain of command for HR and of having the CHRO at the topmost table. The HRBP needs to go as far up the hierarchy as necessary, with evidence of the costs of the existing style and the worth of salvaging the individual concerned to get an unequivocal signal for change to be given to the TT. The next task, of providing coaching or other solutions to effect the style change, then becomes feasible. The HRBP can also provide feedback to the TT on progress and to the super-senior who gave the ultimatum. This provides positive reinforcement which the TT values while making the effort.

What if there is no one in the hierarchy, right up to the CEO’s level, who can give the TT the initial improvement impulse? I faced such a situation when a newly appointed CEO needed the TT to keep production rising (those were the good old product rationing days when everything made could be sold) and dared not give the "become-human-or-become-history" message. Despite SOS calls from HR, the CEO chose to coddle rather than confront the TT. The result was major liquidation of people assets and culture in the company and an exodus of the very people who could have provided alternative leader choices for the TT.

Political Patromaxes (PPs)

Different approaches to partnering PPs can hold hugely contrasting outcomes for HRBPs. If they provide enthusiastic support for the PP, becoming some of the most lethal (because their bites come from a quarter expected to be neutral) Dogs of Office War they can enjoy Most Favoured Nasty (MFN) status. [1] Those too scrupulous for such extreme conduct can even get by, at least for some time, by keeping their heads down, meeting normal expectations and pretending to see none of the games and career vrooms and vendettas surrounding them. The day does dawn, however, when those not enthusiastically with the PP are seen to be in the enemy camp. By then, as Niemöller puts it, it is too late to marshal defence by the decent. [2] The greatest cost, of course, is paid by the HRBP which feels professionally bound to put a spoke in the well-oiled political machine. With an established engine, the spoke and the hand holding it, are likely to be mangled beyond recognition.

This, again, is not a battle for David alone. Similarly, head-on confrontations are to be ruled out. For professional reasons, HR cannot play the game with the same political tools as a competing line peer to PP could. Given these constraints, only a low-lying strategy provides an effective counter to the low, lying methods of this kind of BBC. It consists of three Rs (six, actually, if one takes the adjectival riders into account) that must be well embedded before even looking for directions to the OK Corral:

Restrained Results: In hostile environments, any customer delivery shortcomings will be highlighted and, hence, should be avoided, whatever be the cost of personal or team stress and even corporate HR goals. This is, therefore not the time for high-risk, reputation-building, transformational programmes – especially not ones demanding sustained Business Partner support. The slower momentum can be used to acquire some useful skills that had been kept in abeyance in more busily heroic times.

Reportable Rules: The only thing stopping a PP from running a rampage in using HR to victimize opponents and reward supporters is the existence of pre-formulated and documented processes with regular reporting and established conventions for taking exceptions to discouragingly high levels. Admittedly, this is only a defensive measure and brings with it taunts of HR being a bunch of rigid bureaucrats but, for a target victim of PP, it can have life-saving consequences.

Robust Relationships: If the word of a lower pay-grade partner is to count with a PP, the HRBP should be known to have a mentor, godfather or solid corporate support when s/he takes a stand. It is hazardous in the extreme to fake such backing without having it because PPs are particularly adept at sniffing out real power from pretended versions. The advantage of a relationship reputation is that it can be asserted without actually having to invoke the invisible deity.

That seems like a whole lot of insurance against the games PPs play. In the fine print of the policy, however, there is a potentially fatal exclusionary clause. None of the insurance safeguards functions adequately if the HRBP is personally in the crosshairs of the PP’s gun. Without insurance cover, the harassed HRBP "is de-energized, depressed and demoralized to the point where normal tasks suffer and reputation deservedly starts getting eroded". [3]

Favourite Familias (FF)

'Familias', in our context, extends beyond the family to work friends, clients and PIE (Politically Important Employees). The FF stretches HR systems to breaking point (and beyond) in order to provide protégés with an unfair advantage. The HRBP is then faced with the cruel choice of displeasing the FF, and perhaps acquiring a powerful enemy for life, or capitulating, with predictable consequences for the credibility of the function and the clarity of the HRPB’s conscience.

Three people processes are the primary targets of the FF:

Recruitment and 'Plum' Assignments: It is important to remember that the FF’s prejudices extend, not just to individuals, but to entire categories of employees or aspirants. These can be simply misguided biases in favour of certain qualifications or personalities (which automatically put those who lack these outside the pale of consideration). They can also acquire far nastier colouration when race, religion, caste or gender become the labels of reckoning. At the individual level, there are the claims of patronage, calling in of favours, carrying one’s crew from job to job and neat (100 proof) nepotism.

Progression and Rewards: Once people are within the system, FFs can bestow beneficence in full force. Rare is the promotion or merit increase process that has no place for supervisory discretion and even rarer is the supervisor who can resist suasion from an FF on high. In situations of close competition, only a tiny nudge is needed to push one contender just ahead in the race for a coveted position or a higher reward slab.

Transgressions and Due Process: All of us have committed penalizable acts during our careers. If we got caught, most of us benefitted from a mentor who saved us from being punished to the furthest extent of the law of the corporation. Such forgiveness, for rare lapses, is desirable in an organization with a heart. [4] An FF, however, takes the process considerably further in either direction. For favourites, witnesses turn forgetful, complainants marshal the weakest of arguments and censures are milder than cooked cabbage leaf being gently placed on a wrist. The reverse happens for those out of favour or competing against a favourite.

The proximate positioning of the FF to the PP permits at least the second and third remedies suggested in the previous section to be deployed to reasonable effect. No less important are three process-specific measures that can prevent much heartache if implemented as soon as an HRBP enters a 'favourful' environment. For recruitment, the more filters that can be designed to operate without human intervention, the less likelihood and demand for out-of-turn favours. [5] When entire groups are likely to be discriminated against (or for), switching to identity-blind selection processes can make a huge difference without any quality sacrifice. [6] For promotions at key cross-over points and entries into fast-track schemes, in addition to relatively objective checks (like assessment centres), functional and unit rotations can be made mandatory. In addition to eliminating self-serving motives on the part of recommenders, they give the organization an opportunity to judge individuals without the protection and support of an FF. Lastly, it may be advisable to outsource or at least externalize the disciplinary investigation process.

Are we, at last, ready to face an FF onslaught? Pretty much – but not always. None of these checks proves efficacious when the FF is pushing thicker-than-water family (m)embers. Crushing these recommendations with too much enthusiasm can portend the vanishing fate of the snark-hunting baker for the HRBP. [7]  

Arrogant Ashwatthamas (AAs)

It is an open question whether Macbeth was made more ruthless and reckless because he was assured "none of woman born" could harm him. It is a shut case, however, that those who are relatively invulnerable to organizational threats are frequently inconsiderate, arrogant and wilful. Heaven helps the HRBP who shows them the rule book, the value code or even proffers advice.

There are three disparate sourcing streams that bestow relative invulnerability and the consequential temptation to throw 'whalean' weight around. The most common in corporate India are:

  • Promoter progeny who have not had to struggle their way to the top. They treat HR as a childish bauble to be played with and discarded on the way to the more adult pastime of managing a business.
  • Expats (whether employed by 'West is Best' Indian promoters or deputed by MNCs on 'punishment postings') who see Indians through neo-colonial glasses. They cannot imagine any suggestions about people management that do not emanate from the holy central see. Any process that could suggest improvement in their own styles and cultural (mal)adjustment is anathema.
  • Civil Servants on deputation to Public Sector enterprises are intellectually streets ahead of the former two categories. Even so, there are a few close-minded individuals among them who find it hard to view HR outside of some past-era framework picked up in their Mussoorie training days.

In all of these cases, their relative corporate immortality proves no less a curse on their ability to break out of their capability limitations than the curse put by Krishna on Ashwatthama. As long as the HRBP has direct access to the same fount from which the AAs derive power these entitled executives can cause little real damage (though they put paid to any claims to a professional image for the organisation for the time being). The real trouble for the HRBP starts when the HRBP’s power access is disrupted, as it can be for myriad reasons. The exemplary deterrent for having taken HQ support to check the AA is Hanging Drawing and Quartering.

Corrupt Capos (CCs)

There are three reasons an HRBP is better placed (and, therefore, expected) than most others to deal with this type of BBC:

Early warning signals of fraudulent behaviour, are likely to be available from multiple sources (including exit interviews, grievance handling sessions and ongoing employee contact programmes) and triangulate towards specific causes and culprits for an observant HRBP. The faint footsteps of fraud can be perceived by HRBPs having ears close to the ground long before the sound reaches checking agencies.

In several business units, especially those in independent locations, HR is one of the few functions having independent functional reporting. This reduces both the danger and the disloyalty of reporting the problem to quarters that can take action.

  • HR is expected to be the guardian of the organization’s values, where integrity doubtless has pride of place. Preaching the gospel is less than meaningless if actual transgressions are not called out. Mi-zaru, who sees no evil, Kika-zaru, who hears no evil, and, Iwa-zaru, who speaks no evil, are excellent models. [8] They should not, however, be used to 'zaru' (sweep) under the carpet transgressions against a fundamental value.

Strong as are the reasons for an HRBP not to remain a mute spectator of wrongdoing, the options for action are not too plentiful. The HRBP can prompt Internal Audit or Finance to launch a discreet, preliminary investigation and let them take the matter further. Secondly, s/he can report the matter as far up the HR hierarchy as possible, prompting them, in turn, to up the line structure if the seriousness of the infraction demands. Lastly, s/he can suggest systemic changes in reporting relationships, the delegation of authorities and counter-approvals, that would reduce such misuse.

There is only one fly that can spoil our ointment – and it is Mydas sized! Raising a matter of corruption to the highest level can hugely backfire on the HRPB if the CEO is either complicit in the fraud or (as in the TT case) is so dependent on the 'perp' that s/he cannot take a tough call. In such cases, Boards that owe their appointment and continuance to CEO largesse, are also unable to exercise their governance roles adequately.

Counterchecks, Combos and CEOs

HRBPs under the delusion that they are in a partnership of equals with their Business Customers should have some salutary sense stuffed into them after a stint with a BCC. Such exposure should also teach them a valuable set of organizational survival skills and the advisability of building connections, collaborations and credibility in good times so that they can be drawn upon when faced with BCCs.

All these gains, however, become very faint silver linings when any of three misfortunes accompany a BCC. One of these is when the HRBP responses suggested in each of the foregoing sections is met with the countercheck mentioned at the section’s end. Almost as fatal is the combination of more than one BCC character combined in the same beast. The worst-case scenario is when the BCC is the CEO of the organization.

In all of these situations, options are limited. The least disruptive is when the HRBP can rotate to a Centre of Excellence or Line Management role, both of which should anyway be on the career choice menu for an HR leader. Failing these, resorting to an external headhunter might prove less hazardous than awaiting a Lois XVI conclusion internally.


[1] Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 371-377, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
[2] Here’s a familiar version of Martin Niemöller’s remarks:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me –  and there was no one left to speak for me.
[3] Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 371-377, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
[4] Visty Banaji, A Company is Known by the Way it Punishes, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 87-94, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
[5] Elaine D. Pulakos, Selection Assessment Methods – A guide to implementing formal assessments to build a high-quality workforce, SHRM Foundation, 2005.
[6] Visty Banaji, There is an Elephant in the Room, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 163-169, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
[7] Lewis Carroll, The Hunting Of The Snark, Book Jungle, 2009. The relevant lines from the conclusion are:
They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see. 
[8] A W Smith. On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys, Folklore, 104:1-2, 144-150, 1993.


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Topics: Watercooler, Life @ Work

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