Trampling on a few toes (in HR) for the greater good

Don Spetner on learning when to bend the rules and go over HR's head.

Over the years, as I moved into senior management, I began to get assignments for which I was wholly unprepared. Some of these projects were exhilarating, some were terrifying. But they almost always helped me gain a new perspective on rules, people, and resources.

One company I worked for made a major acquisition in Europe, and I was asked to relocate temporarily to oversee the integration of the firm. I was essentially alone. Our president of European operations had left, and his replacement could not start for another 90 days. So the buck stopped with me.

To make matters worse, we had only 60 days to achieve the desired "synergies" of the deal. This is corporate speak for cost savings and layoffs. Because there were overlaps in staffing between the two companies, significant layoffs needed to happen quickly.

On my first day of work, I set a meeting with the two young guys who had been running our European business on an interim basis. I looked forward to hearing their insights and collaborating with them on the integration. There were difficult decisions looming: Whose facilities should be jettisoned? Whose leadership team should stay in power in each local market? How do we reconcile the different compensation systems? And so on.

I was looking for help and, truthfully, a couple of friends. Instead, these two guys proceeded to beat the crap out of me.

They were angry about being left out of the acquisition process. They were angry they hadn’t been considered for leadership roles in the new organization. They were upset we had not even sought their opinions on the soundness of the deal. Most of all, they felt they’d been stiffed on their bonuses, and were feeling deeply unappreciated.

They weren’t inclined to help with the integration, were opposed to the whole deal, and were considering resigning their leadership roles. I left the meeting in a panic. What was supposed to have been the easiest meeting on my calendar had blown up in my face.

I went for a walk, got a cup of coffee, and tried to think straight. The one hard fact I knew was that I needed these two guys to make the integration successful. So I decided to apologize, invite them in, and, most importantly, to get them paid.

I was told by HR we couldn’t retroactively increase bonuses, that they had been fairly compensated, and that the best we could do was increase their targets for the coming year. The old part of me, the rules-abiding good soldier, didn’t want to fight the system. But it was starkly clear to me that three months from now, nobody would laud me for following the guidelines that human resources had laid out. I was going to be judged on the success or failure of the integration, and understood that if a few toes had to be trampled upon, so be it.

I didn’t relent on the bonuses. I called our CEO and told him we were jeopardizing the many millions of dollars spent on the acquisition over an issue of tens of thousands of dollars. I told him we had to get these two guys on board.

I got my way, they got their money, and I gained two new critical partners in the process. With their help, and the help of many others, we proceeded to hit every target for the integration, and, more importantly, to transform the business in Europe.

And the HR guys were right there celebrating with the rest of us.

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