HR: “A Hooligans’ Game Played by Gentlemen.” (and Women)


September 3, 2013

A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from Charlie Judy (@hrfishbowl) and he was looking for some non-blogging HR practitioners to guest post on his blog.  That tweet ultimately resulted in a guest post by Robin Schooling that really impressed me.  I’ve followed Robin on Twitter for quite a while and I knew immediately that I wanted to open my arms to her guest posting on HR Ringleader.  Today is our lucky day because Robin has agreed.

Robin Schooling, SPHR, is VP of Human Resources with a statewide organization in Louisiana and has over 20 years HR management experience in various industries including health care, banking and manufacturing. Robin is a Past President of the Greater Baton Rouge SHRM chapter and serves as Professional Development Coordinator on the Louisiana SHRM State Council and as VP Membership with ASTD Baton Rouge. She is a board member of the Louisiana Business Leadership Network (LBLN) a non-profit network of businesses which values persons with disabilities as customers and employees.


On many Saturdays throughout the year, I am either attending or watching a rugby match.  Rugby is a worldwide game, although nowhere near as popular in the US as it is in other parts of the world.  My husband, being from South Africa, grew up playing the game and even as an adult he continues by coaching a local team.  It has always been part of his life.

As an American, however, I have had to learn the game primarily by watching and asking a LOT of questions.  There are about 45 referee signals alone; the only one I always remember is the one for “bleeding wound” (don’t ask).

And while there are many awesome things I enjoy about the sport, there are some key attributes of rugby that have always struck me as being closely related to our world of HR:

Rugby has “laws,” not rules

The International Rugby Board establishes the laws that apply to rugby played all over the world; laws which serve to provide clarity and understanding among players, referees and spectators.  In addition, the rules assess punishment for violation in proportion to the infraction.  When a player continues to commit the same infraction incrementally, it may ultimately lead to the referee issuing a yellow card and sending the player to the “sin bin” where he is banished for 10 minutes to think about/contemplate his actions.   However, severe misconduct will lead to a “red card” – banishment from the rest of the match.

HR LESSON: HR policies are based on law; this is why we have Harassment Policies for example.   And we are certainly well-served by having HR policies that provide clarity and understanding of consequences.   I would much rather communicate practices based on reasoning than enforce “rules” which implies governing the actions of many due to the behavior of a few (Hello?  Dress Code policy?). 

Rugby has a fundamental value of being “gentlemanly”

There’s a saying that “football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen”.  While the game, if watched casually, appears to be violent, the behavior and demeanor by the players is truly “polite.”  No one argues with the referee; in fact, even in the most heated moments, teammates will quickly restrain a teammate who even appears to be thinking of questioning a decision.  And they all call the referee “sir.”  A field full of hulking, sweating, hard-breathing players referring to the referee deferentially and politely as “sir” is a sight to behold.

HR LESSON: If we embrace a culture and manner of treating others respectfully, that attitude and behavior can infiltrate throughout our organizations.

Anyone can play rugby

This is truly an equal-opportunity sport.  If you watch a rugby match, you will note that players are short, tall, stout, thin, fast and slow.   While there are 15 players on the pitch (field) at any one time, each position requires characteristics and skills specific to that position.   That being said however, each player MUST possess the same core competencies because everyone has to be able to tackle, catch, carry and pass the ball at any time. And every single player participates fully throughout the duration of the match.

HR LESSON: Recognizing that individuals bring something unique and special to the organization is what workplace diversity is all about.  If we can get all employees on board and “solid” in the core skills and organizational competencies, we can allow them to be free to use their INDIVIDUAL and unique talents for the betterment of themselves AND the organization.

Rugby players regard their injuries as badges of honor

At every match or gathering of rugby players, one is bound to see cauliflower ears, black-eyes, well-worn scars, and even a dislocated limb or two….and hear the history behind it.   Rugby players “play hard” but they are also well-trained and conditioned to be physically and mentally prepared.  A good rugby player is constantly accessing the risks and planning play on what he assesses.  Playing smart is what’s important.  This includes being physically in good condition since endurance and stamina are important as the play in rugby is “straight through” the two 40-minute halves – no time outs!

HR LESSON: Taking well thought out risks can lead to a positive outcome, and it’s a given that we may endure some bumps and bruises along the way. But if we encourage people to endure and “play on” and make it OK for them to occasionally fail, they can look back at the lessons learned as THEIR badges of honor.

Rugby players are bound together by their “passion” for the game

There is truly a community within rugby, and at any gathering of current or former players, NO ONE is a stranger.  This comes from the history, values and traditions of the sport.   There are shared songs and stories, and rugby players emit a very strong passion for their game.   This camaraderie among players builds strong social networks, and while two teams may engage in a hard-fought match, once the referee signals the end of the game with his whistle, ALL the players unite in celebration; I think it’s really a mandatory element of the game!  And yes, there will be ‘several’ glasses of ale, beer or some other libation hoisted.

HR LESSON: Building, living and sharing your organizational culture can lead to a sense of community, excitement and passion for your employees.  Move beyond the “mission statement” and do some cultural story-telling to build a true workplace community.

So while I may not have grown up as a fan of rugby, I have found it to be an exciting sport to watch and a vibrant and fun community in which to be involved.  Plus, rugby is just sort of cool……………… and isn’t that what we want HR to be?


Thank you to Robin for sharing her ideas.  Be sure to leave her a comment and then follow her on Twitter at @RobinSchooling.


  • Fantastic post – I’m a huge Rugby Fan, and have long championed the ethics of the game as a way to live your everyday life. Certainly playing it from an early age, it is embedded in you to respect the referee, your team mates, and after the final whistle, your opponents. (ergo, your boss, work colleagues and your competitors).

    I love that you have compared it to HR, but I feel very strongly that the ethos of the game can and should be carried out in all walks of life.

  • Love the post! I played Rugby back in the day and have to agree with your point of view on the game for sure. I remember really well so many times where the two teams absolutely killed each other for the entire game, with both teams sustaining many injuries, only to then retreat to the pub all together to have a toast and enjoy the camaraderie. It is really a great game and I love how you made some apt comparisons to HR and the workplace.

  • Love it when a woman posts about HR as it relates to sports! My hook line, “Recognizing that individuals bring something unique and special to the organization is what workplace diversity is all about.” So true. Great job. Thanks Trish for bringing Robin into the blog-o-sphere.

  • Thanks for the metaphors! Can you send this to all the school board members who don’t value what can often be best taught to youngsters AND some adults out on the field! Plato said something like “You can learn more about a person in 5 minutes of play than in 8 hours of work”. Your metaphors expanded it magnificantly!

  • Thanks for the post, Robin! I forwarded it to my soccer coach husband since he always enjoys parallels between sports and the rest of life.

  • Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting; I enjoyed writing it. And a huge thanks to Trish for the opportunity to contribute to her blog.

  • Great post Robin! I too am a rugby fan, having lived in New Zealand from 1996 to 2002 (go All Blacks).

    Here’s another parallel between rugby and HR/leadership. In professional rugby, the coach does not call any plays. He isn’t even on the sidelines. Usually he’s up in the box, watching the match and making notes for half time. Even if he were on the sidelines, the game moves to fast to run instructions in from the sideline.

    Instead, the players are in tight communication with each other, making team decisions on the fly. Yeah, the on-field captain is hollering out instructions, but anyone else is free – and expected – to take the initiative.

    HR Lesson: In the fast moving game of business, you can’t run the company from the corner office, with everyone dependent on the CEO for direction. Instead, you make sure everyone understands the laws of the game, train them well, teach them how to communicate on the field, and then let them loose to make the plays.


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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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