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In the weeks before the end of 2012, I had been mulling over the phrase “do better” as a way of capturing a different approach to doing business for human resources staff. The purpose of the phrase was clear to me but I felt I would have a difficult time getting my meaning across.

Then, the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred and that led to President Barack Obama’s comments when spoke at a vigil. He said, “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom? We will be told that the causes of such violence will be complex and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

Upon reading those words, what I wanted to say became apparent. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way, and just because there will be obstacles in the path of doing them differently, is no reason not to make changes for the better.

The first thing that I think human resources staff could do better in 2013 is to gain a greater understanding of how the law impacts the employment relationship and, particularly, its termination. In my experience, the vast majority of legal actions arising out of employment occur at or after termination of the relationship.

In most, if not all, cases the employer was in a position to have taken steps which would have avoided the need for any form of litigation. I would be hard pressed to name any employer I’ve ever dealt with which believes the costs of litigation (and lawyers) contribute in any positive way to their business, so why not avoid these problems altogether?

That is perhaps easier said than done. But, without a doubt, the first step in that direction is having an understanding of the legal framework within which the employment relationship fits.

Second, I wonder if businesses would consider whether to stop wasting time and resources trying to turn poor employees into good ones. It may, after all, be true that you cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Is it possible that, in your particular industry, it makes better sense to invest your time and effort into weeding out and replacing poor performers? The costs of replacing an employee are well known but it may be that it’s even more expensive to retain underachievers.

“Fit” is an elusive quality in an employee and, ultimately, my own sense is that it isn’t something that can be taught. Skills and knowledge can be taught but “fit” is, in my experience, something that either is there or isn’t there from the outset.

Third, work on changing the perception that your department is just another typical bureaucracy. This label, obviously, isn’t applicable to all human resources departments but there is a persistent view out there that human resources people are slaves to administrative processes.

So, learn (and take to heart) that your role is to advance your employer’s primary business objective. In everything you do, ask yourselves, “How are we assisting this business to achieve its primary objective?”

Donald Keough is a former President of the Coca-Cola Company. In his book, The Ten Commandments for Business Failure, he commented, “There must be rules and routines in every business to maintain the proper rhythm in everything. Over time, however, it seems that inevitably the rules and routines become more important than the ends they were designed to serve.” Don’t let this become the way your h.r. department is perceived – following rules and routines is, surely, not your company’s primary business objective.

Fourth, and this is closely related to the previous point, apply some “what if?” thinking. One frequent criticism of human resources departments is that they demonstrate a closed mind to fresh ideas and that things are done a certain way solely because that’s the way they’ve always been done in the past.

A “what if?” approach means contemplating the possible, approaching familiar problems from an unfamiliar direction. It’s sort of a first step, or a halfway point, between “can’t” and “can” and requires a mind that is open to new concepts.

Finally, do the easy things that advance your employer’s business interests, like implementing employment contracts. Properly implemented employment contracts are a critical mechanism for controlling and eliminating employee-related liabilities.

It is inconceivable to me that there is a trained, experienced human resources person out there who doesn’t recognize the value of properly documenting the employer-employee relationship. Yet, many employers forego this simple, valuable tool.

If the only things the employment contract contains are a properly structured probation clause and an enforceable severance clause, you will have greatly contributed to your employer’s business.

These are five steps any human resources person would be well-advised to consider as he or she embarks on 2013. Doing better is the objective and it may be more easily achieved than you think.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.