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Toby in ‘The Office’ is funny but wrong

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True confession: Toby was my favorite character on The Office.

Toby Flenderson, Dunder Mifflin HR specialist in the comedy series The Office—bumbling, bureaucratic, legalistic, obstructionist and obfuscating—was, I always felt, a riot. The more of I saw of him in the halls of my favorite paper company, trying in his worried hangdog way to futilely to keep his manager, Michael Scott, on the straight and narrow, the more I enjoyed the show.

Hollywood, of course, has a unique way of shaping public perceptions. And the image of the Toby-like HR apparatchik, well-intentioned but constantly getting in the way of effectively doing business, has become an ingrained one. It’s awfully funny. There’s only one problem with it.

It’s dead wrong.

High value for “people management”

As a longtime Fortune 500 manager and executive, I found one part of our operation by far the most helpful when it came to assistance with the actual nuts and bolts of management.

Human Resources. For my money no one else was close. It’s just one person’s opinion, it’s true, but after nearly a quarter century in business, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

In terms of people management, which is after all the core of what management is, HR was most valuable. They were helpful when it came to recruiting. They were useful when it came to employee development.

But when it came to dealing with delicate or difficult employee problems (of which there were many), they were downright indispensable.

At any given point in my career, I had usually developed a close working relationship with at least one person in HR at my company—not just anyone but usually an individual of calm demeanor whom I respected and, most of all, whose judgment I trusted. When faced with a problematic, perhaps combustible, employee situation, I never hesitated to call on my HR confidante. As a sounding board. For perspective. To help me rationally (not emotionally) think through my options.

For what kind of situations? Just a few examples.

  • Did I have enough documented history to quickly (and safely from a legal standpoint) fire an insubordinate employee?
  • In a serious dispute between two members of my team, who (if anyone) should I believe? When it was by no means clear. 
  • If I was facing what I felt were unrealistic (nutty?) pressures from my own senior management, how should I deal with them?

There were more of course, but you get the drift. In such situations (predicaments?), I never hesitated to consult with my HR colleagues and I never once regretted it.

I invariably received not Toby-like roadblocks, but thoughtful discussions of the pros and cons of various courses of action, plus consideration of certain angles I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

I’m not the only one who finds HR, let’s say, a tad more valuable than Toby Flenderson. An article from Harvard Business Review, Why HR Really Does Add Value, by Brian Hults, then of Newell Rubbermaid, eloquently makes the business case for Human Resources.

“In order to add significant value to a business,” Hults writes, “HR must be able to support and enable the execution of strategy through building organizational capability. This is a role that cannot be automated, shared as a service, offshored or outsourced. It comes from an intimate knowledge of a business’s strategy and the existing capabilities of the organization. The great advantage that HR has in this area is that, ultimately, all strategy is executed by people – people who need to be supported, trained and equipped to fulfill the strategic vision. This is the real role of HR, and even though some people remain skeptical of its bottom-line importance, in fact its relevance cannot be underestimated.”

So to Cathy, Jackie, Marc, Angela, Andrea, and all my other trusted HR friends over the years… you’re probably not reading this, but just in case you are, thanks again.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Predictive Index. 


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Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author.

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