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The Fifth Biggest Lie in HR: We're Responsible for Work/Life Balance....

I’m here this week not to give you the normal PR spin about how strategic the HR function can be, but instead to call BS on the biggest lies in HR. It’s not that HR people want to lie. It’s just that we’ve created our own prison: the urban myths that have developed over the last 20 years as the HR function has matured.

And so we’re trapped. We’ve spawned narratives that make the HR function seem like a cross between Mother Teresa and Stuart Smalley, while the team members—aka employees—we serve actually need more tough love, a cross between Jack Welch and Dennis Miller. They need that little thing called the truth, effectively washed down with a bit of leadership, personality and, at times, humor.

Let's roll...

The fifth biggest lie in HR: We’re responsible for the work/life balance of team members. I believe it was a man named Jack Welch who infuriated a bunch of HR pros at SHRM 2009 in New Orleans by daring to say that “there’s no such thing as work/life balance. There are work/life choices.” I’ve never met a star who didn’t absolutely outwork the competition for promotions, yet in our HR universe there’s endless talk about the search for balance.

The truth: Employees are responsible for their own work/life balance, and if they want more money, promotions and fame, they’re going to have to work harder than those around them. That holds true even if they’re as smart as Al Gore, who had to work really hard to create the Internet and get invited to SHRM 2010 as one of the keynote speakers. If you happen to be a team member reading this, the reality is that the business world is chaotic, and everyone’s winging it, to a certain extent. Most companies try to staff at levels relative to the work at hand (more revenue always helps in that regard), but it’s always going to feel like a free-for-all at times. Or, as Neutron Jack might say, it’s your choice. Either you work hard and create the Internet, or you don’t.

If you’re a good HR pro and don’t feel like you actively pitch the lie above, do you actively preach the truth?

If the answer is no, you’ve got work to do before you’re part of the solution.

See the whole list of HR Lies at Workforce here, or wait - I'm previewing them all week long.  Lucky you..


Tim Sackett

KD -

As always you speak the truth, but I rarely run into HR folks that don't think this is a huge part of their job. The issue I see is not that these HR folks really think it's their job to find work/life balance for all of their employees - acting as Shepard - but in the fact that they themselves want work/life balance and have a politically correct platform to preach this Lie from.

At the end of the day "balance" has to work both ways. Your company needs you to perform the position you were hired for and meet organizational goals. Sometimes that means you won't be home at 5pm or even 6pm - or that you might actually miss your 9 year olds little league game, because of a work meeting. Balance is a two way street - if you aren't willing to give it to your employer, why should they give it to you?

Thanks for speaking the truth!


Ah, the work/life balance myth...

My funniest work/life balance moment was at a large national sales meeting. Several company execs were on stage and they opened the floor up for questions. When a young sales pro got the mic and asked them for advice on how best to achieve work/life balance this group of high paid execs all looked at each other with wide eyes not knowing how to answer the question. You see these execs are people who had worked around the clock and relocated countless times all for the chance of getting to their position. And someone thought they would be a good person to ask about work/life balance????

They eventually answered the question fairly well (work/life balance is something that people have to figure out for themselves, yada, yada, yada) and one exec even admitted that he was not someone who anyone who is looking for balance to model. But to me, the most telling answer was in the initial awkward silence.

Balance is out there people, but you have to give up a lot to get it... Just like that corporate super-star job is out there. You can't have both - the choice is up to you.

Chris Ferdinandi - Renegade HR

KR - Question for you: Does working harder necessarily equal working longer hours? Does it mean working the traditional hours of nine to five?

I've always preferred the term "Work/Life Blend," because work and life are becoming increasingly inseparable. For me, the best blend has nothing to do with how many hours I'm actually working. It's about the freedom to get the work done at times and in locations that best allow me to also get the other stuff I have to do in life done.

While still doing a knock-out job on the work, of course.

Sometimes that's in the office, because it's best for the work at hand. Sometimes location is irrelevant, and it's from home for me. Sometimes I have appointments or priorities, and as long as I have an internet connection, I'm working. Sometimes that's not an option, and I'm working after dinner.

The point is, I'm working. I'm grinding and doing rockstar things. The balance comes from freedom to choose when and where.

THAT'S something HR CAN influence.


I understand the point you’re trying to make regarding work/life balance but I think you’re taking it far too literally. It isn’t about people leaving at 5pm, it is about creating an environment that helps your employees manage their time more effectively.

HR can play an important role with work/life balance by designing relevant policies and programs that give employees more control over their time, and/or helping to foster an org culture that supports that line of thinking.

Some examples: Flexible hours (while still maintaining core hours), time off during the day for professional appointments (e.g. dentist appointment), working from home (e.g. when you’re expecting a delivery), liberal sick leave that allows a parent to take a day off to look after a sick child, partnering with an organization that provides backup daycare services, etc. None of this is altruism, there is a business payback for all of these examples (otherwise you wouldn’t offer them).

Maybe it is just the cold medicine talking but that’s how I see it.

Kris Dunn

Tim - Balance is absolutely two way...

Michelle - I know those guys. I think we all do...

Chris - Nope, to me it doesn't mean you have to be in the office, you just have to do rockstar work. The quote, "Either you work hard and create the Internet, or you don’t" is the best one I can give you here. Lot's of paths to that, but if it takes Johnny 70 hours what it takes you to do 50, I guess my point is that's life. I'm not here to make the hours equal...

Jamie - how much cough syrup did you take? Just joking - I agree with your points but I didn't say anything about leaving at 5pm, or leaving at 9pm. What I'm saying is that is for you to figure out - I'm not here to legislate hours - for you or for the employer...

Thanks - KD

Susan Harten

Great topic! I had a couple of reactions to this myth and find that work/life balance is inherently intertwined with employee engagement:

1) Yes, employees need to step up and create their own happiness. It's a losing proposition if they and the company think HR holds the magic wand.

2) Managers typically struggle to engage their employees. Life is stressful and business brings many pressures, but that is the "white noise" of life. However, Managers could be doing a lot more in the "thank you" and "good job" recognition category. It's zero cost and little effort, but has great rewards. Employees tend to produce more, have better focus, and show greater loyalty when they feel appreciated and sense some flexibility in their work environment.

3) Companies should not promote work/life balance, then renege on the agreement or come through with half-hearted initiatives. You're either in or you're out on this, and companies should be prepared for the fallout when employees rightfully feel that this part of the promoted employment deal has been broken.

4) All work and no flexibility is a losing proposition as well. I believe that most people come to work each day wanting to do a good job and knowing that it will probably take more than 40 hours/week to accomplish, but dual career couples pose the need for companies to think more resourcefully about how to accommodate outside needs. For managers to overwork their employees, curtail their use of earned PTO time, suggest they seek help from their employee assistance program for stress, etc. is not a sustainable way to operate. Employers need to look at operational efficiencies, say "yes" to a reasonable number of goals, and, gasp!, perhaps hire more staff if the workload is increasing significantly.

I don't respect the strangely proud stance of "there's no such thing as work/life balance". It shows me that companies are out of touch with their operation, staff, or demographic trends, and they are slowly wearing down their greatest asset, people.


Most of the articles I read on 'generations in the workforce' indicate that Gen Y/Millenials are/will demand more work/life balance. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. Will the workplace find adjustments, or with the Millenials adjust their demands? or both?


I agree with Susan. Gone are the days when companies should be bragging about working their people to the bone ("where else can they go in a bad economy?"). But performance must reign as the primary goal of every employee and every company. No company owes a job to a poor performer.

Where performance goes, trust follows. Where trust goes, flexibility and respect for w/l issues, follows. And so on...

Leanne Chase - leanneclc

Sorry Kris - but as long as HR holds the employee handbook and benefits also play a role in people's work life. It is often HR policy that determines when starting time is, when quitting time is, how many hours you need to work in a week, how much time you can/can't take for lunch. And when people need to be in the office vs. attending to personal matters.

As I sat at ERE Expo and had conversations I heard the following:

"Corporations are allergic to work/life talk - if you ask that question in the interview process, your resume will simply be thrown away once you leave."

"Oh, they only want to work 30 hours a week, that will never work but if they could do 35 hours a problem"

"We can't hire people flexibly, I mean how do we know we can trust them to do the work. They need to start full-time and then they can negotiate a flexible schedule"

So perhaps you're not responsible for people's work/life entirely - but HR heavily influences the choices people have available to them to them in the workplace.

I'm just sayin'

Deborah Fike

One of the biggest problems tied into this issue is how an employee's work is evaluated. I've personally worked under bosses who believe that if I'm not at the office at 7 pm (even if I came into work at 8 am), then I'm not working hard enough. Never mind the fact that my co-workers who were at the office at 7 pm often spent literally hours at a time talking and goofing around on the Internet when my manager's back was turned, while I spent my solid 8 hours working.

It's human nature to believe that if you "see" a person working, they must be working. At the end of the day, though, employees should be evaluated on the amount of work they contribute, not if they "look busy."

There is a correlation behind a person who spends twice as much time working doing more great work, so I think it is only right that those employees are highly valued. But that doesn't mean that those people who work from home or work part-time aren't contributing either, by being more efficient or focusing on work during work time and family during evening hours.

So how can HR help? By promoting better evaluation methods that judge people's work, not if they're in the office, joking around their boss more than someone else. This is a fair and smart way to manage those who work remotely AND those employees who devote their lives to their careers. Everything will be rewarded by what they offer, rather than if they're physically present or not 12 hours a day.

Justin Bieber Shoes

Thanks for your good advice. I agree. The more people, the merrier. More weight makes for a faster ride. Thanks David, good advice. We're actually already starting to work.

baby forum

I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too.

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