The Guardian’s work section carried an article ‘HR: your friend or your foe?‘ on its front page this weekend. It has already provoked a reaction from HR professionals, which is being tracked by XpertHR’s Michael Carty here. The author of the piece, Mark King, quoted some examples of shoddy HR behaviour and questioned whether HR is on the side of management or the employees. This, from HR consultant Ruth Cornish, summed up the general tone of the piece:
As a department, it is purely there to support senior management. I have seen cases where HR staff, deemed to be too employee-focused, are actually got rid of. I’ve been in HR for most of my career and while we were very much there to help initially, that has evolved to the other extreme.
HR professionals, it seems, are ‘smiling assassins’ who do the company’s bidding while failing to represent the employees, or, at least, that seems to be the conclusion of Mark King and many of those he interviewed.
To invoke an old bloggers’ cliché, there’s so much wrong with all this it’s hard to know where to start.
Let’s start, anyway, with the basic fact that HR people are employees just like everyone else. Organisations employ people to carry out certain tasks. The nature of the employment relationship is that, in return for a salary, people perform certain roles as laid down by those charged with running the organisation. In this sense, everyone is a servant of power; they have some professional discretion but, subject to the law, they must follow the overall direction of those in authority. Sales people sell stuff, finance people look after the money, IT people develop and maintain the systems and production managers run the line but they all do so in a way laid down by the organisation’s directors. HR people are no different; they do their jobs in accordance with the objectives set by their bosses – just like everyone else.
It is extremely rare for an organisation to employ people to represent workers against the managers it has appointed to run the place. The notion is faintly absurd. Sure, a few organisations put full-time union officials on the payroll, and they have their own reasons for doing this. But, as a general principle, why would any company pay people to work in opposition to its managers?
HR is and always has been, an arm of management. It is true that companies employed welfare officers in the past but only because those in charge believed that healthy happy workers produced more. Yet somehow the myth persists that HR people should be there to stand up for employees against the organisation’s management. If there ever was a golden age when HR people were tribunes of the workers it was certainly history by the time I joined the profession in the 1980s.
The picture is further complicated by the blurring of lines between management and workers. When Marx wrote about class conflict, many capitalists managed their own factories. The lines between the boss class and the proletariat were much clearer. These days, who counts as management and worker is less obvious and can change depending on the context. Even the most senior managers are also employees. A person might be a ‘boss’ in the morning as he does the performance reviews for his staff, then a ‘worker’ in the afternoon as he has his own appraisal with his line manager. For HR to be double-agents, as Ruth Cornish suggests, there would have to be two sides in the war. However, the dichotomy between ‘management’ and ‘employees’ was an oversimplification even when pit-heads and smoke stacks disfigured the skyline. These days, in many organisations, defining which ‘side’ you are on is almost impossible. If proof were needed that traditional class relationships have become a bit topsy-turvy, look no further than investment banking, where the proletariat (highly paid bank employees) are cheerfully grabbing an ever-expanding slice of the capitalists’ (shareholders) profits. And socialists are complaining about it, saying that the capitalists should be given more power to stop them!
The modern organisation is a jumble of interests, sometimes co-operating, sometimes competing. This is what makes the role of HR so difficult. Individuals and groups rub against each other and sometimes it can be hard for HR people to work out whose interests they are serving.
Of course, the stock answer is that HR people should work in the interests of the business as a whole, and that’s what HR professionals like to say publicly. But what the hell does that mean? What is ‘the business’? The management team? Well they often have competing interests too. Sometimes they are at each other’s throats. The board? Likewise. The chief executive? Perhaps, but even then, an HR director might side with others who want to get rid of the CEO if he is deemed to be endangering the company. Should HR serve the interests of shareholders then? But even shareholders have competing interests; some are in for the long-haul, others want to cash in quickly. And, among all this confusion, we should remember that HR is an interest group too. It doesn’t sit above organisational politics, no matter what some HRDs like to pretend.
Defining ‘the interests of the organisation’ then, is just as difficult as defining ’management’ or ‘employees’. It’s easier when there is a cohesive executive team but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. In my experience, the most effective HR directors are those who recognise this messy reality. Being able to navigate a way through the complexities of organisational politics is an important skill. Seeing the world in binary ‘employees’ versus ‘management’ terms does not help. Most good HR people use their judgement and align themselves with those they think are doing the right thing. When commercial pressures and ethics collide, they have to make a call. Sometimes they side with the wrong people and make the wrong calls.
What no-one should expect, though, is an HR function that will always stand up for employees against their managers. The HR manager might do so but only if he or she thinks that the manager is out of line for some reason. The idea of the HR function as the employee’s friend is a persistent myth but one that has no philosophical or historical basis.
If you have messed up at work, don’t expect HR to fight your corner for you. That’s not what they are there for. If you want representation against your boss, join a union. If you’re really in a fix, get a lawyer. HR is, at once, a management function and a management faction. In that, it is no different from finance, marketing or any other management specialism. It represents and advances its own interpretation of ‘the good of the company’ just like all other management groups do. Whose ‘side’ it is on at any given moment depends, like everything else, on the power plays at the top of the organisation.