HR as black sheep of dysfunctional corporate family
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.