Low Employee Performance May Actually Be HR’s Fault

It strikes me that HR has had a long history of low self-esteem. How else do you explain the plethora of articles and blog posts calling for the end of HR, or the Re-imagining of HR, or the Re-purposing of HR, or the Re-HR-ing of HR? Blogger reputations have been made, and lost, making fun of HR. (I was going to say something about throwing shade but that sounds so forced and dated now… #Iamnotan18yearolddebutante.)

But whatevs…

I also think that anyone who has had to deal with that kind of “professional psychological” abuse will find a way to survive. I don’t think it is too big a stretch to believe that after hearing how bad you were professionally, you would try to feel better about yourself by belittling and putting down others. It’s only natural. It’s a survival mechanism. I’m not pointing my finger at you, dear reader. I’m pointing my finger at all those “other” HR people who refer to employees as idiots, jerks, imbeciles, and jagoffs. You all know who I’m talking about. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Heck, elevating oneself by devaluing others is the American way. (And this election has done nothing to prove me wrong on that.)

But I wonder if the self-imposed low self-esteem of HR is the cause for employee disengagement and low employee performance in many companies. I wonder that because research shows the opinions we have of others affects how they perform. If we think someone is good – they end up being good. If we believe them to be bad – they end up being bad.

You didn’t know you had that kind of mind control power did you? You just might.

I Think Therefore You Are

The reason I think HR might have some impact on employee performance came from reading a study conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1964 were they tested whether teachers’ opinions of students affected student performance. The researchers gave IQ tests to students but told the teachers the test actually predicted high-IQ growth. Then they assigned those students to teachers who thought they were working with high-performing students (reality – totally random assignments.)

They followed the performance of those students over the next two years and found that when teachers had expected certain students to do well, they positively influenced those students’ development and the students did in fact perform better.

Why, you ask, would the teachers’ opinion of their students, impact performance?

Well… they really didn’t. What their opinion actually affected was their own behavior.

When the teachers thought they were working with high-potential students it affected their moment-to-moment interactions with the children. They found multiple, yet almost invisible, ways the teachers improved the students’ performance. The teachers gave the students they expected to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval. They consistently touched, nodded and smiled at those kids more. They treated them better.

Now ask yourself this. If teachers working with children are affected by their own opinion of their students, wouldn’t HR and managers in your own organization fall victim to these same problems? And in my mind – teachers who are trained to teach and are working with children –probably are less, how should I say this, hard on the kids versus some manager with a hangover who has to deal with Bob in accounting who always seems to say that one thing that gets on her nerves. I’m sure most managers exercise very little restraint when dealing with employees they “think” are losers.

If HR feels like they suck and in order to feel better treat employees and other managers poorly then I’m sure the performance of the entire company is going to be affected.

You get what you expect.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAZKAAAAJDU0ZWNjYTZjLTc3ZjItNGZmNS1hNTkyLWVjYTAwMDU1NDFmNgShameless Plug: Steve Browne and I started a group in LinkedIn called HRPositive dedicated to sharing positive news about HR and the how other HR pros are doing HR in a positive way. The goal was to counteract the river of negative HR news. Check it out and start feeling good about HR.

Feel good about HR = Feel good about yourself = Feel good about your employees = Increase Performance!

Performance up.

Engagement up.

Everybody wins.

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Ed Danielski says:

    Very good article Mr. Hebert. I agree that Human Resources (yes, human resources!, NOT HR, more later) has to accept some responsibility for many organizational problems. Not only accept some responsibility, they may have been the creators of these problems There are lots of reasons one can postulate. Some key issues with Human Resources practitioners may be the level of competence, fitness for the job, understanding of management, and other deficiencies. While there are lots of great Human Resources people, there are more bad ones than most other professions. I have had the dubious pleasure of meeting many in the occupation who are clueless about some of the common sense solutions to the more prevalent problems. I feel the Human Resources function has regularly recognized they might have some culpability, but the most frequent response has been to run away from the problem. A clear sign of this aspect is the ever changing function names and job titles. We have gone from Personnel, to Employee Relations, to Human Resources, to People Management, to Human Capital Management, etc., etc. Now we have titles like Talent Acquisition, Knowledge Officer, People Guru, etc. Rather than fixing the deficiencies and building the credibility of Human Resources, we have chosen to run away from the chaos and choose to believe a new title will give us new credibility. Running away just shows cowardice, not innovation. Human Resources needs to focus on how to fix the present first, before postulating about the future. You have indicated that perhaps performance issues have been the fault of Human Resources. I would suggest that salary problems, labor issues, recruiting deficiencies, training concerns….all bear the mark of Human Resources. It appears that Human Resources is adept at one thing, running away from issues by attempting to focus the workforce on something “new” and “mystical”.
    “HR”???? How did this buzzword contraction become the preferred title of the “Human Resources” function? Do finance people refer to themselves as FINCs? Marketing as MKs? Programmers as progs? We need to be proud of Human Resources, build the function, fix the issues, not run away from it.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks Ed for the comment! Always appreciate the dialogue. I do think there is a certain amount of “if we can’t fix it, let’s change the focus.” I also think that we keep trying to apply transactional thinking to human issues. Finance doesn’t have this problem IMO because Finance has rules, governed by math. 2+2 always equals 4 (except on Wall Street) but humans aren’t that simple and straight forward. And that makes it hard to quantify impact and process. But yet we continually try to fit that oval peg into that square hole. Can’t we just accept a certain percentage of what HR does is going to be variable and weird because people are variable and weird?

  2. Ed Danielski says:

    Sorry, forgot the title that makes me chuckle the most :”human resources business partner”. Isn’t every single employee a “business partner”? Do we have to put it in the title to convince someone that we really care about the business? Who? Why? Who have seen a Marketing Business Partner, or a Quality Assurance Business Partner, or an Accounting Business Partner? Are human resources people without business partner in the title feeling that the business needs are not relevant or important? Say the title slowly and see if it doesn’t make you at least grin.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Great point. Remember – we have over 10,000,000 businesses in the US. Of which only about 12,000 have more than a few hundred employees. The number of HR pros who have big businesses to support is relatively small. Therefore, it is no surprise that many HR folks (vast majority) are not really supporting big strategic initiatives… they’re just trying to get that lazy hourly plumber assistant to show up on time. We have very vocal HR gurus talking about what happens at Apple and zappos (everybody drink!) which applies to about .01% of companies.

  3. “I think, therefore you are” Absolutely true, Paul! The assumptions we make about others – their motivations, feelings, etc. – are the lens and the filter for how we relate to them. I’ve heard of that school study before, it’s a very powerful analogy in your article. I can’t help but to think that even a little more respect, compassion, empathy and kindness in the workplace – from everyone – would help float any sinking HR ship… and put the HUMAN back into human resources. Thanks for doing the work you do in the world.

    • Marlene Newton says:

      I agree Laurie. Respect, compassion, and kindness in the workplace go a long way in helping foster the work environment we want.

  4. I love your perspective. I am just scholar and it is extremely of great help for me. Possibly it is going to be good for other classmates in addition. Remember to promote other tips make use of as well. I would personally treasure that.

  5. Juan Bautista says:

    I agree with the fact that perception does affect the performance of the employees, but how so? is it always negative? or could it also be positive? It could also be a misinterpretation of a situation.

    Human Resource practices have different effects on employee engagement and citizenship behaviors depending on the motives that employees attribute to those practices. While it may be true that the perception of HR can have a negative effect on the performance of the employees, this may also act as a motivational factor. For example, if the employee feels that HR does not value the work of the employee, then they may more include to improving their performance. This is assuming that the employee is willing to change.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for the comment Juan. I agree that there can be a variety of responses to HR’s opinion of employees. I would suggest that that if HR thinks negatively about employees there will only be a small number would would see that as a reason to increase their efforts. No data to back that up but the only time I cared if someone thought poorly of me they had to earn a level of respect from me in order for me to care enough to work harder to change their opinion. I think if you want to get the most out of the most – think positively.

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