Defending my (unchosen) profession – Human Resources

I fell into Human Resources (it was “Personnel” then) after taking aptitude tests in the military, and then continued in civilian HR once I left the military.  I was a member of ASPA (American Society for Personnel Administration) before it became SHRM, and watched the evolution of regulatory activity (ERISA, FMLA, ADA, COBRA etc), technology (HRIS, ATS, HCM, LMS, TMS, etc) and the quest for the “seat at the table“.

I say “unchosen” because I don’t think people really set out to go into Personnel back then.  I love the fact that college students today see HR as a highly attractive field, because it is.  The field has so much promise.

But recently I’m seeing a lot of HR bashing in the blogosphere and media and it saddens me.  I admit I have contributed to the bashing, and I’ve meant what I’ve said.  I mentioned on another blog that I am critical because I see so much missed opportunity and because I really do care about the profession in which I have invested my career.

So I have been musing on this for a while and I had a thought on which I would love some feedback.  I wonder if HR doesn’t perhaps abdicate responsibility.  Let me explain what I mean.

HR has borne a reputation as party planners, policy police and data keepers (you know, all that stuff about employees).  We know it, and we have worked very hard to get away from that, and have succeeded (at least in the party planning) for the most part.  In the days of manual data entry, HR made sure that “paperwork” was accurate and followed up on discrepancies.  Along came technology and it seemed a good opportunity for HR to get out of the business of data entry – an excellent thing indeed.  So we pushed the data entry out to the employees and managers and, fancy that, it got dirty really fast.  Add to it the downsizing of clerical positions (those who kept the data clean) and HR got caught in the web of defending their data to the end users….”well, if you would put it in accurately, it would give us better business intelligence.”

Then, along comes the alphabet soup of regulations, and we start churning out policies galore.  I must admit that, even with my background in HR, I got a little wary about what I said to employees, lest I say the wrong thing and get the organization in trouble.    There is no way to minimize the impact of the regulatory impact of “people legislation“….it’s big!

I think it was somewhere around the mid-1990s I remember HR beginning to decline responsibility for people issues, instead tasking “managers” for managing their employees effectively and efficiently.   We knew they were not well prepared, and tried to give them the basic skills needed to stay out of trouble.  As new laws popped up, we added them to manager orientation.  So long as there was enough money in the training budget.

It was about this time that I remember being in HR Leadership teams, discussing the coming years’ goals.  We started saying, “but we don’t want to be held accountable when we have no control over what the managers do.”

So here’s where I think we may have swung the pendulum too far and abdicated the role that HR can/should play in an organization – taking responsibility for all things “people“.  This is a courageous move, and one that shouldn’t be accepted lightly.  But think about it….

By pushing “people metrics” into the spotlight, HR builds a means of accountability.  True, HR cannot be held accountable for high turnover in a unit – at first.  But if that high turnover continues, what is HR’s role?  Do we have the right manager in place, and how do we know?  What is the climate in the unit, and has there been a change?  If so, why?  All of this points to a dialogue with HR leading the way.

How many operational leaders survive quarterly reviews with the CEO and continue to watch their numbers drop?  (If they do survive several drooping quarters, that’s another story altogether) Can we create a similar tension and accountability for those things HR?

I’m starting to think it might be a good idea for HR to step up, the next time the topic of turnover comes up, and take responsibility for finding the root cause, and working with the right leaders to develop and execute a plan.  My guess is that the leader probably isn’t too sure about how to do it, and would welcome the help, since it got pushed to the front burner!  So HR – here’s your chance.

Thoughts welcome….

6 thoughts on “Defending my (unchosen) profession – Human Resources

  1. HR needs to do more than step up. HR needs a serious makeover. A makeover that will be painful to some, embraced by others and looked at with a jaundiced eye as well.

    What is that makeover? Well, in my mind it is getting out of the people business as it seems to be defined by many. HR IS NOT about taking care of people, wiping their noses, powdering their behinds or otherwise trying to make them feel good about themselves. In fact, HR isn’t about many of the things and fads jammed down a glazed eye group of novice followers of the newest fad, book, style or technique that promises to catapult the profession into the board room.

    HR is about business. Pure and simple business. HR is about finding ways to maximize workforce performance and productivity. If that means, for example, supporting an end to telecommuting as Yahoo’s HR just did…then that is what it means. It doesn’t matter what overworked dual income couples or single parents think. News flash here…companies do not exist to cater to the needs of parents (traditional or non-traditional), the disabled, the mentally ill, minorities (all 6,000 defined groups of minorities) or any other group other than its investors or financial supporters. Business is not where we conduct social experiments, social engineering, engagement studies or any of the other myriad of social welfare and relief programs that seem to be forced upon business by everyone from the government to special interest groups.

    Does that mean business should not do those things? No it does not. But what it means is that through a business focused and competent HR program the right processes, procedures, systems, etc are in place for the business to thrive. (For those not yet comprehending this does not mean ignoring workers, it simply means the business is not there to serve workers)

    Now some readers of this are going into apoplectic shock. “I went into HR to help people” “I love planning parties” “I must advocate for the worker” “I don’t want to do math”.

    Those people have sadly chosen the wrong profession. They really wanted event planning or social work, or labor organizing. They were just confused.

    HR isn’t about humans in the nurturing, caring, clothing and feeding sense. HR is about humans in maximizing their output in a manner that retains them.

    That’s what HR needs to remember and from that maybe it will stop being bashed.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Don. It’s funny that you mention why people go into HR – when my dad found out I was going to be an 0101 (Personnel Officer), he said “that’s good because you are a people person”. Heh. Of course this is the same guy who wondered why they gave a Senior VP title to a secretary because, after all, I was female so what else could I be.

    Anyhoo…what you say is a bit shocking and radical because it indicates that the profession is heading in the wrong direction with the wrong skills. I’ve been thinking about the “hate HR” stuff I’m seeing all over and I would suggest that perhaps HR has travelled too far down the road of HR Management, without incorporating the concepts and theories of HR Development. There will always be a need for HRM, but I think a heavy dose of HRD AND business would put the profession in a position of influence.


  3. Not sure I agree Don’s complete perspective of “social engineering, social experiments, social welfare” comment. In my over 25 years experience in the field I have yet to find a company that HR is just about this. Not sure this is his point, but if HR is not about assisting an organization attain its strategic objectives, through an effective Human Capital (aka HR) strategy-then what is it about? There is a reason that organizations have spent alot of $ on “social experiment” efforts like work-family balance, diversity, engagement, leadership and employee development, learning organization, talent management. And there is plenty of research backing up the bottom line implications of these efforts. After all, without the people, the organizations don’t exist and there are not enough robots yet to take over all of the people jobs. So while I understand the HR profession is not about hiring “people oriented folks only”, it is about enabling the organization to succeed by creating an effective environment that people like working in and feel they are contributing to. HR graduate programs can benefit from having more business type classes, like behavioral economics and others related to this. And I agree with both, HR does need a makeover, mainly because I have seen the HR Business partner evolve to a fire fighting mode while supposedly being strategic. This model has not worked as effective as it needs to. My 2 cents worth…

    • Edwin,

      I appreciate your comments. I will reinforce some of what you wrote. You are correct my point was not that HR is “just about this” but I also don’t believe HR should be about that either. HR is about performance, productivity and profitability…just like any other business function.

      When I see a company spend money the obvious question is always. “What is the ROI on the expense?” Sometimes the response is “not everything has an ROI.” To that I like to quote my Grandfather…”Balderdash.” If it doesn’t have an ROI to the company then why is it being done? The fact remains that unless it is some legal compliance imperative it better have an ROI or it should not be done. Therein lies the jist of my statement. Most HR people I have experienced in the 30+ years I have been doing this cannot calculate a real ROI. They do not understand the difference between hard and soft dollars and they do not understand the difference between a cost reduction/savings and a direct contribution to the bottom line. Ever heard an HR person talk about how they saved millions of dollars from lawsuits that were never filed because of what they had done? That is an example of a meaningless unqualified statement without factual substance. Yet I don’t have enough digits on my body, yours and a dozen other peoples to count the times I have heard that.

      As to the commentary regarding “social engineering, social experiments, social welfare” . Why is that a corporate responsibility? Understand I am not saying it should not be, and certainly unless that is the mission of an organization should never be a priority for the company. But why should the company do that? Is ensuring a local community has better goods and services the real reason a company does something…or is that an added effect of what the company does? Does Anheuser develop into a nation to improve its culture or is it to sell beverages? What is the difference?

      Until HR, not the clerical administrative HR but the HR that has a legitimate business impact on the organization, understands how to describe its actions in business terms; meaning finance, it will never be able to express its real value. Work-life balance, engagement, etc…those are words that mean almost nothing in reality today. With technology and constant connectivity it is more about managing time and improving performance and productivity than it is about balancing your work and your life. Modern culture shows those two blurred at best and becoming one. Engagement? What does that really mean and express it it terms of real dollars to the organization. Is it fewer mistakes? A happy workforce (I chuckle when I hear some claim it is the employers job to make workers happy), workers that believe what they do matters? All of those? None of those? And if I as a business owner am going to do those things how do I justify the activity and related costs to my investors? HR needs to be able to answer that with something other than…well, we know it will but we can’t prove it.

      Sadly, and to its detriment, too many in HR see this profession, and more importantly this business function, as a cause to better mankind. That may well be a minor side effect but its primary purpose is to improve the organizations performance, productivity and profitability through its workforce. The sooner the function and those who practice it embrace it, the sooner its greater impact can be realized…and oh by the way…perhaps some of those nice things regarding bettering people can be realized too.

      We may well be seeking the same goal.

  4. Thank you, Edwin, for stopping by. And Don, I do think the end is the same for all of us, but we approach that end from different perspectives. HR does need to do a better job of ensuring that the work they do contributes to the bottom line, but I don’t think everything can be reduced to hard data.

    One very effective method I have seen with successful HR teams is engaging the Finance and Operation partners to help diagnose needs, explore solutions and in doing so, articulate the anticipated payback. There is always a lesson there, as the dialogue that evolves is educational for everyone concerned.

  5. Thanks for your replies. I tend to agree, that while we may be approaching this from different angles, we may be saying the same thing. Bottom line, at least from my perspective, is that the “touchy-feely” stuff that we’ve mentioned has bottom line implications and we need our HR members to understand and communicate this better today. Here we are many years later when we’ve heard “HR needs a seat at the table” and I recently reviewed a LinkedIn article that was from 1997 and we’re still discussing this same issue and seem to have not cracked the nut.

    So HR as an entity has to ask themselves (especially the HR executives that get a very big check to lead this effort) why are we still asking this question, over 10 years later. One observation I’ve made is that while we’re focused on our organizational clients, HR does not do a good job at modeling the behaviors and practices we want our organizational clients to model. The old saying “the cobbler’s kids has no shoes” unfortunately is still very relevant for HR.

    I like Carol and all or most other HR professionals did not while growing up think, I can hardly wait to be an HR professional when I grow up. I actually wanted to be a medical doctor. I did not realize I’d have so many clients in the corporate world. I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad about this fact. So our work is not over and I’ve always said as a Leadership Development fan “that I’ll always have a job” because there will always be leadership development, learning & development need, and change management issues as organizations continue to change, grow, open up, etc.

    Last point, Carol mentioned the finance organization. Its interesting that one of my major client interventions was with the finance organization. Ironically, I had to help them on “soft skill-customer service” initiative. It was a major initiative and it had organizational bottom line implications. I guess this was one way for HR to make a difference. May the force be with us:).

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