There’s an interesting confluence of factors occurring in the National Football League (NFL) right now.  The NFL has locked out its referees over a pay and benefits dispute.  Why they did so is a whole other blog post.  The league is now employing referees from the lower college and semi-professional ranks (replacement refs).  What I find interesting about it is the effect on the performance the NFL and its players.

Using typical performance measures (scoring, number of penalties, number of overturned calls from instant replay, etc.) the replacement refs have not affected the game too much.  Anecdotally (as a football watcher and reading commentaries from others), they seemed to do pretty well in week 1 but not so well in week 2 (though this may have been biased by a particularly difficult Monday night game which was broadcasted nationally).  Since attendance and television ratings have not gone down, one could say that the performance of the league has not been affected.

As the owners are locking out the referees, they’ve been pretty quiet on the subject.  The players are not impressed by the replacement refs and feel that they don’t do enough to protect player safety (never mind that it’s the players who make the work environment unsafe for each other).  The players are not so concerned that they have talked about staging a sympathy strike.  They have, and will continue to, adjust and scoring hasn’t changed.  So, their performance has been unaffected.

The league office wants to have it both ways.  For years they talked about the integrity of the game and how the referees are part of it.  Now they are saying that they can hire and train anyone in the field to do the job of a select few that they used to say were the best of the best.  All of this will change if a player gets seriously injured on a play that is somehow linked to the performance of a replacement ref.

We can look at the referees as a support function in a more typical organization.  For instance, no one thinks too much about IT until something goes wrong.  And management thinks their current support functions are doing great until they find a cheaper way to have those services delivered.  What the NFL is saying is that their key support function can falter and the product is relatively unaffected in the eyes of the customer.  They are gambling that they can fix the problem before the business (TV ratings and attendance) is affected.  I’m not sure that the rest of us would want to function under this business model.

The lesson for HR is that external customers are far less concerned about support processes than we are—which is a good thing.  However, even when our management creates a difficult situation, it’s HR that often has to create the people fixes (creating bench strength, making quick hires, implementing training, etc.) so that a break down in process does not eventually lead to a breakdown that affects external customers.  We can hope for the best and do these things on the fly, like the NFL.  Or, we can plan and have processes in place to ensure that the performance of employees and our organizations are maintained when a difficult situation occurs.

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