More evidence of the general malaise in the HR function was published this week. Recruitment specialists hy-phen surveyed 168 HR Directors at their conference in Harrogate. Most felt that they were struggling to achieve adequate standards of delivery in core HR functions.
The American CEOs surveyed by Deloitte and the Economist earlier this year had a similar view. The study found that, while 60% of CEOs considered people issues to be a significant factor in their corporate strategy, and 85% believed that people would become more important to their business over the next five years, only 23% saw their HR functions as being critical to the business. In other words, while people issues were becoming more important, there was no corresponding rise in the status of the HR function.
It’s no wonder that HR professionals are feeling negative. The conventional wisdom was that, once senior managers realised the value of good people management and how it could give the company competitive advantage, they would ‘get’ what HR people had been saying all along and promote them onto the board. The trouble is, the first bit has started to happen but the second bit hasn’t.
For a few years now, the business books that I have seen executives reading on trains and aeroplanes have been increasingly about subjects like organisational culture, or leading effective teams, or managing performance or attracting and retaining talent – all subjects that HR people have been trying to get managers interested in for years. But these managers are not reading the books and then going to talk to their HR people about how to implement some of this stuff. They are either calling in the consultants or trying to do it themselves, making it up as they go along. The horrible truth is beginning to dawn on HR professionals that just because executives are getting interested in people management it doesn’t mean that they come knocking on the HR manager’s door. Often they just bypass HR altogether.
Last month, Louisa Peacock from Personnel Today reported on a discussion among HR professionals at an awards lunch, where someone suggested that HR should be taken out of HR. This comment was probably made late in the afternoon but the inebriated delegates might have hit on something. It occurred to me while I was flying back from Amsterdam about seven years ago, when I clearly had nothing better to think about, that HR might never become a strategic function at all. All the aspirations and gung-ho statements from the CIPD might come to nought. What if someone else ends up doing all the strategic people management work that HR people always assumed would be theirs once the senior executives ‘woke up’? It could be taken over by consultants, psychologists, life coaches, motivational gurus, witch doctors, astrologers or even a completely new business function. Anyone except the HR function.
If HR people don’t get their act together, the whole profession could end up missing a boat that it has been waiting to catch for the last twenty years. As I said in a previous post, HR professionals consistently fail to fight their own corners in the rough-and-tumble of office politics. They even collude with those who beat them up. Louisa Peacock is new to the world of HR and sometimes it takes an outsider to ask the obvious questions. Here she comments on a session at the CIPD’s Harrogate conference, where a curious double act of Gerry Robinson and Greg Dyke, aided and abetted by Jeremy Paxman, gave an audience of HR professionals a good kicking.
But the ironic thing (and somewhat amusing experience for me), was that while HR was slated by the two business icons (it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, it gets too bogged down in policy, it doesn’t understand business needs etc), the HR audience lapped it up, with clapping outbursts galore.
Robinson actually made the brash statement: “I am not a big fan of HR”, adding: “There is a tendency for HR to try to do more than what has to be done. There is no power in HR itself other than what it can do for line management: selecting talent. But then it starts getting into grading systems – balls-aching stuff!
“HR has a tendency to get involved in things that don’t contribute to the well being of people in the company – what actually makes a difference.”
Dyke agreed that HR “sticks too closely to the rules”, following policy for policy’s sake without thinking what is actually needed.
“If HR come in [to a meeting] and say ‘this is the process’ but you say ‘b*gger the process – this is how we’re going to do it’, HR are not good at that.”
Yet the audience loved it. I was baffled.
Apart from one question at the end from an HR bod asking for good examples of HR from the two business icons, no-one really contested the fact their profession had just been absolutely stamped on.
Why is it that HR people take a bashing without standing up for themselves properly?
Because they’re used to it, Louisa, that’s their default setting. This is something that happens every day in organisations throughout the UK. As I write this, there is an HR manager somewhere getting a kicking, being told that HR is useless and, in all probability, agreeing with his tormentor.
Could a business function with such a collective lack of self-esteem ever lead something as important as an organisation’s people strategy? HR people know the theories about personal and career development better than most. They would be the first to tell you that, if you don’t respect yourself, no-one else will respect you, that you have to think yourself into the place you want to be, that you have to act as if you are already in the role to which you aspire. All good advice but when you look at how HR professionals behave, few look like members of the board.
If you have already beaten yourself up, you just make it easier for others to beat you up too. If HR people don’t learn to stand up for themselves, someone else will come along and steal that strategic HR role that the profession has had its eye on for so long. If the SAS motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ holds true, the corollary must also hold true, that who doesn’t dare loses. That could so easily be the HR profession’s fate.