People who “do nothing” at work actually tend to get a lot done. They could be honing their solitaire skills, solving crossword puzzles in record time, or mastering their 3-point trash can basketball shots. Perhaps they’re spending hours on YouTube learning new languages, becoming film critics, developing cooking expertise, or discovering which As Seen On TV products are really worth buying. Or maybe they’re engaging in the challenging task of sitting in one place and practicing mindfulness all day.
However they’re spending their time, the amateur athletes, chefs, and meditators at your organization are certainly doing something. Most of the time, that “something” translates to “wasting money.” In some contexts, however, it means courting serious risk.
Consider HR, for instance. A slow, unmotivated, ineffective, or underperforming HR department could drag down your organization’s bottom line by failing to engage your workers or fill and train for positions in a timely manner. But a do-nothing HR department also doesn’t handle reported incidents of discrimination or harassment, conduct investigations, or ensure workforce compliance. As a result, your organization not only wastes the money you have, but faces the incalculable costs of future litigation, employee turnover, negative publicity, and damaged consumer trust.
The worst part? Many HR departments actively do nothing. In contrast to the kind of YouTube- or phone game-enabled procrastinating we just mentioned, some HR professionals spend their days focused on their work. They think, meet, and strategize about taking action. And then they decide against it—because doing something would be too expensive, complicated, or uncomfortable for everyone else.
HR thought leader Dr. John Sullivan calls this brand of “slow and deliberate” decision-making “a huge strategic problem.” In HR departments, he writes, too many decisions and actions get “delayed to the point where they cause large negative business impacts”:
“For example, when Uber delayed fully investigating its employee’s sexual harassment complaints, the company suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to its shareholder value, product brand, and its recruiting image. Other prominent costs of doing nothing areas in HR include delayed retention efforts, slow hiring, delayed training and not fixing bad managers. And although deliberate decision-making has its merits, it’s important for HR leaders to realize up front that their unnecessary delays often severely damage business results. So, in my view, HR is negligent when it doesn’t calculate the cost of doing nothing.”
Dr. Sullivan goes on to explain how to calculate CDN—that is, the Cost of Doing Nothing—using factors such as legal damages, product delays, and loss of market opportunities. He also discusses investigations, training, retention, manager development, and 6 more areas in HR in which inaction carries the highest costs.
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