So, HR manager, just who are you working for?

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.

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9 Responses to So, HR manager, just who are you working for?

  1. Pingback: So, HR manager, just who are you working for? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Hung Lee says:

    Hi Rick,

    This is a great post, but I read the article in the Guardian a little differently. Here’s my take.

    If I understand your position correctly, it is that ‘HR represents Management and that should be clear’. No one would seriously dispute this and there was no argument within the Guardian piece itself that suggested otherwise.

    However, after reading the readers comments in the Guardian piece, it was pretty obvious that this wasn’t at all clear to the employee base. There is this yawning gap between perception and reality when it came to seeing HR’s role in business. In your great riposte, a question you do not ask is, who’s responsibility this is? After all, it can’t be expected that the employees who should somehow ‘simply know better’

    It is, of course, HR’s own responsibility for managing it’s image within the business. It’s my guess is that most HR departments could be better at this and this is where the problem germinates. The thrust of the article in the Guardian wasn’t that HR was torn between representing the interests of employer vs employee – it was that HR had allowed an inaccurate image of it’s role to surface, and embraced that image when the tactics suited, rather than challenge it openly whenever the occasion arose. And until leadership within HR makes internal communications a priority for their department, and consistently states the case as clearly as you do in this blog post, then I am afraid the gap between perception and reality will continue and HR will continue to find itself, rated, perhaps alongside IT, as that most companies most despised department.

    Thanks for a great post – look forward to reading more.

    Best wishes


  3. Rick says:

    Thanks for your comment Hung.

    I agree that the Guardian piece concluded that HR represents management but the whole tone of the article, including the title, implied that this should not be so and that HR were somehow misrepresenting themselves. As you say, that was the impression may of those responding seemed to have.

    Your question about perception is a good one though.

    This confusion even extends to some HR managers who are not clear about their roles and, in an attempt to justify their existence, try to be all things to all people. Maybe that helped to fuel the myth. As you say, HR must take some of the blame for mis-managing its own image.

  4. HR departments do often shoot themselves in the foot by being too remote from the reso of their organisations. They have to be seen to be an integral part of the business and then we wouldn’t see this sort of debate. They need to take seriously the management of their internal reputation, talk business language and at the same time – do need to maintain a position as custodians of moral behaviour.

  5. Rick says:

    Yvonne – I was with you up until the last bit. I’m very wary of this ‘conscience of the organisation’ stuff. Why should an HR manager be someone else’s conscience?

    This sets HR people up as priests or teachers and lets everyone else off the hook to misbehave as they please.

  6. Pingback: HR Professionals as Mechanics not Production Line Workers « Human Resource Blueprints

  7. Pingback: Can HR Help Companies See “The Forest for the Trees” | HR Perspectives

  8. Cheryl says:

    I have been fortunate in that during my 15 years in Human Resources, especially my last 10 in HR Management I have been able to keep a balance with employees vs. company. I learned a long time ago if HR is able to do that it makes for a much more responsive workforce. I have been lucky in that the management teams I’ve worked with were on the employee’s side but we all understood that we had a business to run and there had to be a balance.

  9. ianclive says:

    Hi Rick: A year later and I will comment partly in the context of my current post. I believe HR work and are loyal to their boss, but are loyal to their mandate (from the boss), not to what the boss may personally prefer at different points in time (i.e. contrary to the mandate).

    Fulfilling some of the HR responsibilities (compliance and just treatment of employees) may be seen as exhibiting secondary loyalties and acting against the boss, even though HR are doing what the boss told them to do. The conflict is as much with management being confused about what they are empowering as confusion by HR knowing what they should be doing. If the empowering authority was a machine, it would be much simpler!

    Thanks, Rick, your articles are great!


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