HR – too wimpish to drive organisations

The Chartered institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is gearing up for its annual conference. In this suitably gung-ho statement it says:

It’s no longer enough for HR to facilitate what organisations do. Great HR should drive what organisations can achieve and be at the heart of how, and what, an organisation delivers.

At the same time, Personnel Today reports that 87% of HR executives are unhappy about the strategic impact their functions made on the company. There is, it seems, a gap between aspiration and reality here.

This is nothing new. For as long as I can remember, and we’re talking about a long time here, HR professionals have moaned about how the function needs to be more strategic and how few of them are represented at board level.

Two years ago, Personnel Today reported that HR managers were the most unhappy workers in the UK and came up with a seven point self-help strategy. Commenting on the survey, HR consultant Paul Kearns said:

I’ve been in HR for 27 years and the profession has always been unhappy. There is too much navel gazing and most of the problems are of HR’s own making.

At last, an HR professional prepared to tell it like it is.

Paul Kearns is right on the button. HR is its own worst enemy. Kearns’s brutal honesty is rare among people in his profession. It is this lack of straight-talking confidence that hamstrings HR people.

Even the language they use betrays this angst. For years, HR people have been trying to show that they are business focussed. You often hear senior HR executives saying that HR strategy must be aligned with the business strategy, or words to that effect. While they think it makes them sound business focussed, even statements like this betray the profession’s view of itself as a facilitating rather than a driving function. The implication is that you wait for the business strategy to be created, then you come up with the HR strategy that will help to make it happen.

Think about it for a minute. When did you last hear a CFO saying that the Finance strategy should be aligned with the business strategy? They just take it as read. Yet Finance is just as much a support function as HR.

Finance directors assume that it is their right to be part of the team that creates the business strategy. If people really are an organisations’ greatest asset shouldn’t the HR director be involved in these discussions too? When considering moves into new markets, for example, shouldn’t companies be thinking about the talent they have in these areas and who in the firm has relationships that could be exploited? Shouldn’t the strategy be based on these considerations just as much as on the financial implications? A company’s core skills and relationships should be a building block of your business strategy rather than something you look at once you have decided what your strategy is going to be.

The CIPD is right to say that great HR should drive what organisations can achieve but this means that the HR director needs to be part of the executive decision making team, rather than a facilitator waiting to align his strategy with whatever the rest of the board bring down the mountain on tablets of stone.

Yet the mindset of the profession is still that of people waiting at the bottom of the mountain to align their strategies with whatever is handed down. And they think that this makes them strategic, poor dears. 

This collective lack of confidence perhaps stems from the work backgrounds of many in the HR profession. In general, HR people come up through a milieu where support and non-confrontation is encouraged. Consequently, if they make it to board level, they often get eaten alive by their more aggressive colleagues and the whole function suffers as a result.

 HR often has a low status and is politically weak within the company. It is a convenient target for any director seeking to deflect attention away from his (or, increasingly her) own shortcomings. As one of my friends, the HR director of an IT company, put it:

Psychotic SVPs will always attack any competing power base and HR is easy to attack.

While HR people usually understand the politics in the company they often lack skills or the temperament to deal with the infighting. Like military history dons, they are excellent at analysing the causes of the conflicts and the tactics people use to win, but they have no idea how to fight the wars themselves.

HR people need to be more bullish. They know, at least intellectually, that much of what they advocate works. There is plenty of evidence that good people management improves the performance of companies.

Deep down, most other executives understand this too. That is why, despite rumours of its imminent demise, the HR profession is still here. If it really was as useless as some managers like to claim, it would have ceased to exist years ago.

HR needs to stop apologising for its existence and fight its corner. In addition to those recommendations in Personnel Today, here are some of Rick’s tips for dealing with those boardroom battles:

  1. Understand what makes you defensive – then you’ll be ready when someone has a go at you.
  2. Develop your ability to sit with your discomfort. For example, if you ask a question and someone retaliates with a criticism of HR (I’ve seen it happen loads of times), you need to persist with your line and not let them hijack the agenda. This will be uncomfortable.
  3. Be prepared to confront people with the truth. It will be difficult in the short term but you and your colleagues will get more respect in the long run.
  4. Don’t collude with the HR jokes. Self-deprecating humour is all very well but if you make a joke about HR, you are deprecating your colleagues as well. Next time someone has a go at HR, and tries to disguise it as humour, call him out on it.

So when the bell goes, HR people should come out of that corner fighting. Come on, you wimps. Get up off that doormat.

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10 Responses to HR – too wimpish to drive organisations

  1. jameshigham says:

    HR is a total wank.

  2. Rick says:

    Come on James, is that the best you can do?

  3. Matt Munro says:

    I think it’s a bit simpler than that.

    Firstly – Most people hate HR (and WTF is it called that nowadays – what was wrong with “personnel” ?) because they have at some point in their career been stiffed by them, not got the job they wanted, been given a duff member of staff, told they don’t qualify for voulantary redundancy or whatever. It stands to reason that at alll levels in an organisation, including board level, some people will harbour a grudge against HR. HR generally know this, which is why most people who leave seem embarrased to admit they have ever worked there.

    Secondly – HR is very girlie. It has a higher than average proportion of women in it and acts accordingly (non-linear ways of working, not task orientated, more concerned with effective relationships than effective systems), it is therefore seen as disconnected from the real business and lacks influence, credibility and gravitas.

    Our HR department was replaced with a call centre about 2 years and, apart from the reduction in pretty girls around the place, I can’t say I’ve really noticed any difference.

  4. jonathan says:

    (Great site btw)

    Most HR people I have come across are either
    1.useless with attitude and/or
    2. Have no idea what is required to run a frontline service

    Matt – someone once said that when it was “personnel” – you were a person. When it changed to HR – you became a “resource”

    PS Every checked a CIPD document using word fog index/readability ? They are off the scale

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  7. Breyan says:

    I interned in HR during college and I’ve been working in HR full-time for almost 5 years now – I’ve seen for some time that the profesesion itself has low self-esteem….now, how the hell do we get up from this…(don’t ask how i ended up in this field…i found this site googling to find ways to get out)?

    When I look at the HR strategy for my employer, I see that if we really got the buy-in of leaders and all the initiatives were adopted well and people stopped behaving like idiots, we’d work ourselves out of a job…. not sure what to say about that…. but i’m all for the profession actually getting some confidence! Maybe people wouldn’t look at us like we’re crazy if we actually knew and acted like we knew what was going on.

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