Why Your HR Leader Doesn’t Need to Worry About the FMLA

fmlaI had a fascinating conversation last week with a colleague who told me about a recent meeting he attended. This was an in-house event, at a fairly large enterprise, and the CHRO took to the stage to speak to hundreds of HR team members. Based on his description I envisioned a mashup of a  gospel revival and town-hall summit complete with overview of strategy and vision, talk of HR initiatives, and a bit of rah-rah team building. They even, apparently, spent a bit of time down in the HR trenches when, at one point, the CHRO referenced the FMLA.

Apparently though, according to the source of this story, the CHRO got the details wrong.

I wasn’t quite clear on the specific inaccuracies; not sure if the CHRO flubbed basic details like eligibility or minutiae like how to track intermittent leave and the specific timeline for when an employer can request additional certification from the employee’s health care provider. Nor do I think the details are that pertinent during off-the-cuff remarks; I’ve processed hundreds (or so it seems) of FMLA leaves and every time one pops up I end up doing a quick Google or DOL search for one detail or another.

My friend, however, was a tad peeved.

“How can the head of HR not know something like that?” he asked. “How can he lead an HR function without that basic knowledge?”

“Look,” I said (while silently screaming OMG in my brain), “this is not Sally the HR Director down the street with 400 employees who, out of necessity, not only devises strategy but also files when stuff needs to get done. This is the HR executive for an organization with tens of thousands of employees. Do you seriously think the CEO and Board of Directors care if he understands the differences between the rolling 12-month period or the fixed 12-month period?”

My friend, who holds a PhD and has taught human resources curriculum for decades, remained adamant in his resolve not to forgive this lack of knowledge. It was his contention that anyone who works in HR should know all the basics; backwards-and-forwards. Taft-Hartley, Railway Labor Act, OSHA 300 logs…and on and on.


It got me to thinking if this was an HR thing or an academia thing. At what stage, in someone’s career or progression up the ladder of responsibility, is it acceptable to remove the trivial crap from the recesses of one’s brain? Do we expect that high-ranking CMO’s still know how to put together a sell sheet? Does the CFO of a Fortune 1000 company need to know how to run the software used to track depreciable assets?

Of course not.

While a background in human resources, and some time spent working in the battlefields of HR management is nice-to-have, it’s not really a requisite for HR leaders. Not anymore.

Today’s HR leader needs to be a driver of change. She needs to be adept at thinking and operating strategically in alignment with the current (and future) needs of the business. She has to be intellectually curious with the ability to build (and navigate) strategic relationships with employees, peers, colleagues and board members. She has to work on critical issues surrounding culture, workforce strategy, and leadership development. She has to implement HR initiatives that lead to increased revenue or grow customer satisfaction.

She’s a business leader first. Then she’s an HR leader.

And she can Google all that FMLA crap.


6 thoughts on “Why Your HR Leader Doesn’t Need to Worry About the FMLA

  1. Sooooooo agree with you on this. I’m curious if you colleague remembers everything he ever learned in school or used for a few years early in his career? If you don’t use knowledge or skills on a regular basis, it’s no longer in your working memory so you have to go look it up. As you get higher in an organization (particularly a large one), you start to use a different skill set on a daily basis, so the details of HR minutiae disappear.

    Now, in defense of your colleague’s stance on getting the basics right – it’s one hell of a way to lose credibility in front of a group of people who DO place value on having those details ready to go at any time. If you’re not sure of the details, don’t go into them. Call on someone else, or just flat out admit your mind went blank. Don’t try to be something you’re not.

    1. Agreed Mary. And I’m not sure if the HR leader said “I’m not sure” or blundered through…

  2. And just the other day, Robin, I was sharing with a colleague of mine about how my Performance Management skills were getting rusty; having not had the opportunity to consult in this aspect of HR for quit some time. I wish I could “do it all”! Then again, I’ve got Google, Yahoo, Bing, CIC-SHRM, ILSHRM, SHRM.org…the “TEAM”!

    Thanks for reminding us that we are great at some things, good at others and then there are those of us that always wanted to play 2nd Base for the Chicago Cubs, but there are some things we are lousy at.

  3. I honestly don’t think it’s an HR thing or academia thing… I think it’s a “lots of humans” thing. So many employees believe that if a person can’t do or has never done the WORK, he / she can’t possibly lead the FUNCTION. Not true of course. One must listen and earn respect and honor the skills of others, then lead. (and thanks for making me look up Taft-Hartley… PHR exam was a looooooong time ago!)

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