I have definitely found, as I’ve got older, that one of my new favourite pass times is yelling at my TV. For me, nothing provides better opportunity for this than reality or documentary ‘True Crime’ programs. These normally detail a catalogue of bad decisions, ill-advised actions and outrageous outcomes all bound tantalisingly together with a large pinch of anger-rousing incompetence (cue me, leaping from the sofa, frothing Chocolate Brownie Sundae at the mouth to scream, red faced into the pixelated eye of the unsuspecting dim-wit currently incurring my wrath. Fun, right?).

The most recent target of my – some might say unreasonable? – rage, was a docu-series running on Netflix called The Innocent Man. Now, for those of you who have not yet seen this masterpiece of ineptitude I will try not to include too many spoilers. At least not more than the title perhaps already gives away.

Somewhere in small town America, a heinous murder has been committed. Since this is not an article about culture (this time), the exact location is irrelevant. The local police force is not exactly accustomed to the investigating of these types of high-profile crimes but never-the-less their best men are on the job. In the blink of an eye, two suspects are in custody and, seemingly willingly, spilling their guts in confession. With the kind of confidence only ever exhibited by the dull of wit, the local constabularies finest parade their success on television. They pat themselves vigorously on the back and ask the public to bask in their magnificence – another crime solved swiftly, certainly and the streets are safe once more. Except – spoiler alert – they have arrested the wrong men. Innocent men. 

The evidence of the innocence of these two men then starts to pile up in an inconveniently large amount. The larger the pile though, the harder the Force dig their heels in, defending their conviction and disparaging the claims of anyone who dares to question them. Inevitably, media attention starts to pique and before long many curious journalists are digging up details of the investigation which are, to say the least, problematic for the investigators. The final detail which appears to be the ultimate nail in the coffin of the verdict is an apparently coerced confession.

For everyone involved, this is obviously a complete travesty of misjustice. The two innocent men who have wrongly been denied their freedom, the relatives of the deceased who have not yet received justice, the people of the county who the police have sworn to serve and protect from such threats as murder and of course the police force themselves who have been embarrassed thoroughly. So how did it all go so wrong? And – perhaps more importantly – what on earth does this have to do with HR?

Well, this whole fiasco serves as the perfect example of what happens when you don’t formulate employees’ objectives or KPIs properly. In the case above, the police are targeted, and their performance measured on quickly solving the crime and securing a conviction. On the face of it, these seem like eminently sensible measures for a police force. However, if we look a little closer, we can see what behaviours are really being incentivized by these objectives:

  • Make the arrest fast – go out and grab the first delinquents you can find. You probably already have an idea who to target as they’re ‘well known’ for some kind of antisocial behaviour or another.
  • Get a confession – this is the best way to get your investigation to stand up in court if the suspect says that he did, in fact, do it.

And there we go. Objectives met. Everyone down the pub for a celebratory pint and a bag of crisps. Right?

The trail of destruction left behind poorly formulated goals can be devastating. Quite aside from this tongue-in-cheek look at American law enforcement, let’s consider the impact on your organisation for example of incentivizing your sales people to just sell. Mis-selling is a HUGE deal in many industries such as financial services and pharmaceuticals and can incur ruinous fines and regulatory sanctions. Remember the whole PPI scandal?

Good objectives and KPIs must consider not just the ‘what’ of the goal but also the ‘how’. HR frequently receive the KPI to reduce budgetary spend. Easily done by making 30% of a workforce redundant, simple. But what would the impact be on the organisation as a whole? The final golden rule is that team and individual objectives must be aligned with the organisational goals.

With every action there are a set of behaviours attached. For the sake of innocent men, make sure you incentivise the right ones.