HR as black sheep of dysfunctional corporate family

Monday, Michael posted on Fast Company magazine’s article “Why We Hate HR.”

Some talented HR visionaries in the blogosphere are so ticked off and weary of the subject they don’t even want to talk about this article. See Regina Miller’s comment to Michael’s post, her brief blog post, and Diane Pfadenhauer’s comment thereto.

As an employment lawyer, I have a somewhat different perspective on this issue, and do not feel personally attacked. (I can only imagine next month’s “Why I Hate Lawyers,” which will blame us for not having yet brought peace, justice, and democracy to every corner of the Earth.)

I do not feel that HR should just ignore this article or take it lying down. So, though I’m much less expert in the latest HR thinking than Regina, Diane, or Michael, here goes my response. . .

This article actually has some very good things to say about the more prominent role HR could be — and should be — playing in the business world. It includes some positive examples of companies giving HR an enhanced and more appropriate role.

Unfortunately, its likely effect will be to turn off HR professionals who might otherwise learn from it, while feeding an unhealthy smugness and anti-HR sentiment on the part of executives and upper management.

This result is virtually guaranteed because the story is tainted by an unnecessary harshness of rhetoric that begins with the title and continues into the body of the article, particularly the early portions. Author and Fast Company deputy editor Keith H. Hammonds, a veteran business journalist with no apparent HR background, exhibits a blame-HR-first mentality, and is prone to unsupported generalizations. The relatively few positive remarks about HR typically take the form of back-handed compliments.

Mr. Hammonds leads with a low blow that makes entertaining reading but appears specifically designed to raise the hackles of every self-respecting HR professional.

Hammonds attended a conference in Las Vegas on “Strategic HR Leadership.” He calls the title of this conference “a conceit that sounds, to the lay observer, at once frightening and self-contradictory. If not plain laughable.”

Frightening? Isn’t “threatening” a better word? As in: “many in management find it extremely threatening that HR functions, historically viewed as minor administratve duties (‘administrivia’), are now being seen as critical business functions that can make or break even the largest companies.” [My words, not Hamonds’.]

Self-contradictory? Why? Because historically HRÂ?s role has involved neither strategy nor leadership? Author Hammonds is the one who is self-contradictory. He seems to understand that HR must be involved in strategy and leadership, yet opens his article by mocking the very concept and denigrating the very people trying to make it happen.

Laughable? Stereotypically, MBAs are the masters of laughably fluffy, trendy, and English-butchering jargon. Take a look at MBA Jargon Watch and see how laughable “strategic HR leadership” is compared to such gems as “componentize,” “deliverables,” and “productize.”

Next Hammonds takes on the the famous “seat at the table” analogy:

After close to 20 years of hopeful rhetoric about becoming “strategic partners” with a “seat at the table” . . . , most human-resources professionals aren’t nearly there. They have no seat, and the table is locked inside a conference room to which they have no key. HR people are, for most practical purposes, neither strategic nor leaders.

Hmm . . . Let’s see . . . who is it that has the key and can bring in the extra seats for HR? If one must point fingers, this metaphor makes clear the error of pointing at HR instead of asking top management to look in the mirror — and then go out and make a copy of that key for HR.

Hammonds leaves the reader wondering why “we hate HR.” To find the befuddling answer to the question posed by the title, one must skip ahead to the last paragraph of the story.

HR is “a unique organization in the company,” Hammond says, that provides “an opportunity for competitive advantage” because it “discovers things about the business through the lens of people and talent.” (So far, a reason to love HR.) But, gripes Hammonds, “[i]n most companies, that opportunity is utterly wasted.”

That last clause uses the passive voice to conceal ambiguity about the actor’s identity. Just who is it that is wasting that opportunity? Who is it that “we” should really hate? (For that matter, who is the “we”?) Ultimately the responsibility for grasping the strategic role of HR lies with the Board and top management. If they are the “we,” they should hate themselves for keeping HR marginalized.

According to Hammonds, HR is “at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change.”

Isn’t much of that — particularly the “nonsensical rules” — better laid at the feet of legislators, judges, and employment lawyers, who have ensured that HR, if duly diligent, must comply with an ever-growing web of state and federal law?

If HR and labor counsel were not impeding management due to pesky employment law concerns, how much more often would management’s “creativity,” applied toward “constructive change” that affects employees, result in litigation-related costs vastly exceeding the benefits of the change?

Considerably later in the article, Hammonds does acknowledge that the “immense thicket of labor regulations . . . [involves] complex, serious issues requiring technical expertise, and HR has to apply reasonable caution.” But he quotes a consultant:

There’s a tension created by HR’s role as protector of corporate assets — making sure it doesn’t run afoul of the rules. That puts you in the position of saying no a lot, of playing the bad cop. You have to step out of that, see the broad possibilities, and take a more open-minded approach. You need to understand where the exceptions to broad policies can be made.

Who is the second “you,” who steps out of the compliance role? Should it be HR? At some level, there must be a guardian of legal compliance — the bad cop. Upper management doesn’t always like the advice from HR and/or labor counsel, and may choose “a more open-minded approach,” but receive the advice it must, and there’s something to be said for keeping the bad cop the bad cop all the time.

Hammonds asks: “Why are annual performance appraisals so time-consuming — and so routinely useless?”

Are they? Would he consider them useless if they were properly done and played a key role in whipping a multi-million-dollar class action promotion discrimination lawsuit? (These are all the rage these days, Mr. Hammonds, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

Hammonds asks: “Why is HR so often a henchman for the chief financial officer, finding ever-more ingenious ways to cut benefits and hack at payroll?”

Let’s me guess. . . is it because the CFO gives orders and HR takes them? It seems like HR is playing a strategic role, when the strategic goal is cost-cutting. The reference to “ingenious” seems a back-handed compliment.

I love this piece of writing:

HR should be joined to business strategy at the hip. Instead, most HR organizations have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence. They are competent at the administrivia of pay, benefits, and retirement, but companies increasingly are farming those functions out to contractors who can handle such routine tasks at lower expense. What’s left is the more important strategic role of raising the reputational and intellectual capital of the company — but HR is, it turns out, uniquely unsuited for that.

So who is uniquely suited to do this, if not HR?

Yes, there are mechanical administrative details associated with the “administrivia of pay, benefits, and retirement.”

But pay is scarcely “administrivia” to a company that’s a defendant in a pay discrimination class action. And benefits and retirement are hardly “administrivia” to a company like GM that’s drowning in its benefit commitments or to the many companies choking on the weight of their defined benefit plan contributions.

And how about this: “HR people aren’t the sharpest tacks in the box.”

If you look at graduate school GPA admission standards, you can sure say the same about business school people, compared to, say, law and medicine (I know, perhaps GPA doesn’t correlate very much with business success, but it is a measure of the sharpness of the tacks).

Hammonds says many enter the HR field “with the best of intentions, but for the wrong reasons. They like working with people, and they want to be helpful. . . HR isn’t about being a do-gooder. It’s about how do you get the best and brightest people and raise the value of the firm.”

Really? You don’t get “the best and brightest,” and you certainly don’t keep them, if you are a hard-nosed bean counter who doesn’t have a good sense for the people side of the business.

A survey Hammond quoted found a low level of employee belief that “their companies took a genuine interest in their well-being.” So is it important to convey such an interest or not? If it is, doesn’t it help to hire HR people who “want to work with people,” and even the occasional “do-gooder”?

So why does Hammonds hate HR? Ultimately, not for what it does, but for what it doesn’t do. He complains: “HR has to step up and assume responsibility, not wait for management to knock on our door. But most HR people do [wait, that is].”

Is there a good reason top management’s not knocking on HR’s door? Does it perhaps indicate that the unilateral assumption of responsibility by HR that Hammonds advocates would not be welcome?

Much is going on in HR in the direction Hammonds seems to advocate, so his pervasive negativity is a bit of a mystery. The last half of the article has some good examples.

Hammonds apparently missed some of the good stuff on the agenda of that Vegas “Strategic HR Leadership” conference (maybe he was busy with other Vegas activities), since he only reported on one presenter.

Here’s some of what he missed (quoting the conference website):

· How HR professionals can powerfully fast-forward their careers by making HR a crucial strategic partner in their organization;

· How to make management — and employees — much happier with benefits plans;

· How to create a warm, positive, productivity-boosting workplace in today’s tough business climate;

· How to keep the peace in one’s company by using a highly effective conflict-resolution strategy;

· How to retain the Baby Boomers’ knowledge and expertise-even as they retire and leave the company.

If these are not all important strategic roles for HR that contribute value to the bottom line, then I guess I don’t understand the meaning of “strategic” and “value.” (I’m not that sharp of a tack . . . just top 5% of the class at a very well-respected Big Ten law school.)

Finally, a far superior perspective on the same issues from the Human Capital Institute:

HR is fragmenting into strategic and administrative spheres. Strategic HR must be able to bring in top producers, measure their contribution, tie the data back and continually improve the process. They must be, by definition, curious, creative, confident, entrepreneurial and decisive leaders. These are the attributes necessary to produce new ideas, take risks and achieve break-away success. Administrative HR will remain an important function that keeps commodity staffing within budget, develops policies and procedures, minimizes risk of lawsuit, counsels underperformers, and handles the myriad of administrative and clerical duties around payroll, benefits and pension planning.

So with that wisdom, we end a long blogging session with the realization that we were fooled again by a false dichotomy.

Those with vision know better than to grab the latest fashion — strategic HR — and then throw out our entire classic wardrobe — administrative HR. That quote from Human Capital Institute is worth more than the entire Hammonds article, though, as I said, the article does contain a few good anecdotes about successful strategic HR.

Related posts:

“Is HR dominated by a bunch of pinkos who don’t care about the green stuff?”

“‘HR Socialism’ rebuttal”

(photo by photogirl172 via flickr)


  1. Jim Durbin

    Brilliant response, George.

    It is far easier to blame HR, and a piece pointing out the real problems would have been more useful, but would have received less attention.

    The real argument for why we hate HR would universally have to do with the attitude that Human Resources professionals take in response to their duties.

    As a recruiter, I see it a lot, and I agree that the attitude is a response to a lack of respect in the organization’s higher management, but it doesn’t solve the problem that for most people, meeting with HR or talking to them on any level ends poorly.

    The places where HR is respected always have an Executive who makes it a point to include their HR folks in their discussions. The solution does start in the boardroom. Well-said.

  2. Nick Saban


    First, thanks for your blog. I regularly read it, and your insights and links are a great resource. My work is in HR/Change Management, and many of your posts are relevant and helpful to myself and others on my team.

    Second, that was an outstanding response to the FC article. If I may, I would like to suggest linking to one of your posts.
    I think it complements your comments, and begs the question, “Does Mr. Hammonds’s HR person know what is expected of him or her?”

    Thanks and keep up the great work.


  3. Joe

    Very well reasoned response to a downright nasty article. Thx!

  4. Dan Curtin


    As one who has spent 30 years of his life in the HR profession and is certified in the field, I was glad to see such a reasoned, thorough and researched rebuttal to a sensationalistic, over generalized and very negative viewpoint on the industry as expressed in that article. I wish they would print your blog response as prominently in the magazine as the original article instead of just a blog which mostly HR folks will read. You echoed my feelings and thoughts almost exactly. I felt it was a much better rebuttal than the response from the President of SHRM, our “national mouthpiece”.

    While the original article made some good points that have hounded the profession as long as I can remember, it was full of old stereotypes and negativity and the author did blame the professional solely for his perception of the state of affairs in HR. Your great response, I hope, was read by the author and the other CEOs who reveled in his opinions.

    Thanks for your significant contribution to this important discussion.

    Best Regards,

    Dan Curtin, SPHR
    Curtin & Associates
    HR Consulting
    Los Angeles

  5. Anonymous

    I don’t even want to get into this argument. True, the FC article didn’t include fully developed arguments. It was a short editorial piece intended to create debate, which it has.

    I do understand why the HR staffers are a bit ruffled over it. That being said, a lot of the rebuttles here actually server to support Hammond’s arguments. Yes, it’s important to have procedures, reviews, and training processes in place to avert issues like harassment (or provide legal ammo when cases arise.) By making arguments like this, you are once again pigeon-holing yourselves and reinforcing that HR often doesn’t bring a lot to the table. This is called “CYA”, again, it is a commodity and can also be outsourced. These functions are vital bureaucracy but they don’t drive the business. By emphasizing that poing, you clearly don’t understand the business either. I work for a manufacturer. We manufacturer things. We sell them. We are very production and sales oriented. An HR employee that tells me that lawsuit prevention is a key business driver doesn’t understand my business. That is a risk that is mitigated. It is FAR LESS of a risk than improper pricing, bad supply chain management, bad product design, or poor sales technique.

    As to the argument that this will further alienate HR departments, give executives license to ignore them, and that that the tone of this article will cause employers to ignore the positive aspects of Hammond’s arguments – I don’t buy that either. The problem isn’t the article, it is HR. And I don’t think execs will ignore it, I think they’ll give the lawn a good weeding. You see, I don’t believe that career HR bureaucrats can simply evolve or change. They are in the wrong field and need to be removed. There will alway be room for administrators (though we need less and less of them), but they shouldn’t lead or manage. Someone who has been a career bureaucrat is never going to understand how to lift morale, engage the business, or keep high level strategy in perspective. My company has realized this and we’re weeding out bureaucracy. How have the employees responded? Are they despondent or detached? Actually, morale and productivity is improving because we LISTENED to them. They told us we had too much bureaucracy and now we’re bringing in new HR blood.

    I know this is an HR board, but you all need to ask yourselves what you bring and truly decide if your’e in the right field.

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