HR - an acronym for 'hardly relevant'?
Last week’s article on workplace sociopaths generated a peculiar theme in some of the comments. Here’s a selection of them:
- “HR is about as helpful as a hole in the head.”
- “HR are generally just there to tick the boxes.”
- “HR runs a mile.”
- “HR didn't lift a finger to help me, even though I was clearly distressed.”
- “HR did nothing.”
Of 120 comments, none were in defence of HR. There was just a lot of spite that a department dedicated to employee engagement was inherently disengaging.
In one sense, such a judgement is unfair on HR professionals, many of whom are undervalued and underappreciated by employees and managers alike. Employees often think their HR representatives don’t do enough while managers think they do too much. The latter are especially resentful that HR policies restrict their ability to hire, fire and discipline staff with ease.
Some of those working in HR are fully aware of their own limitations. In a British survey released a couple of months ago, one quarter of HR respondents admitted their departments were ineffective. One of the major reasons cited for this ineffectiveness was that it’s difficult to accurately measure the ways in which HR makes a difference. It’s therefore seen as an expense department, an unnecessary cost to be minimised as soon as financial challenges arrive.
At its core, HR has a PR problem. Critics don’t see the behind-the-scenes work that makes sure pays get paid, conditions remain fair, people receive training, communications are sent, staff stay happy and conflicts reach resolution. What they focus on is the gap between what they expect and what HR delivers. And sometimes that gap is significant.
In a study conducted a few years ago by McKinsey & Co, the global consulting firm, researchers found HR departments were having a “declining impact” with a noticeable “dearth of talented people wanting to work there”. Their solution, though, wasn’t for less HR; it was for more. The authors concluded that HR needs greater access to the CEO and more involvement in strategy.
One of the issues is that some HR operatives are similar to political operatives. There are few politicians as out-of-touch as those who’ve only known a career in politics. Likewise, there are few HR professionals as out-of-touch as those who’ve only known a career in HR. Without understanding the business intimately (via prior experience in sales, finance, call centres, wherever), it’s difficult to understand those you’re meant to serve.
Last year HR god Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan, co-wrote HR from the Outside In, in which he and his colleagues detail the findings of a 25-year study into what makes HR successful. Their research culminated in six core competencies. HR professionals should:
- Identify external trends and use these to develop strategic solutions.
- Deliver on promises, build relationships, communicate articulately, and be a trusted adviser.
- Audit the organisation’s capabilities and bridge any shortfalls by investing in people and systems.
- Initiate change – don’t just follow it – and influence others to be advocates of change, too.
- Study the latest research on HR practices and use this knowledge to create fresh ideas.
- Embrace technology to increase efficiency, enhance administration, and keep people connected.
None of that is groundbreaking, and all of it is already on the agenda of every decent HR leader. So why does cynicism prevail? Sometimes HR initiatives are blocked by senior executives. At other times, stakeholders aren’t aware of HR’s accomplishments. And occasionally it's just that HR, quite simply, fails.
Whatever the reason, it’s a department with a vital role to play but, if nothing changes, its acronym may someday stand for Hardly Relevant.
What are your thoughts on HR?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis