Recently while picking my children up from school I was asked: “What do you do?”. Under pressure I responded: “I sell cars”.
While companies such as mine have spent years building a better image of motor dealerships it remains one of the most untrusted industries. And yet in that moment I decided being a car dealer was better than admitting to being a “human resources professional”.
Prince Philip once told me that “pencils are resources and people are not” and therefore our profession should “go get a better title”. Perhaps this exchange was in my mind? Or perhaps it’s the way people look at you after you say ‘HR’; expecting that you will launch a disciplinary process and remove them from whichever spot they are standing in.
I could have used the professional description. However, describing myself as a ‘chartered fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’ would have sent them to sleep. Even the dreaded dinner party phrase ‘you’re sitting next to the chartered accountant’ sounds exciting compared with ‘you’re sitting next to someone in HR’.
Even those who stayed awake through the full title would have mainly heard ‘personnel’. Any credibility to be had from the ‘chartered’ element is immediately undermined by thoughts of an admin-processing role from the late 1970s, dishing out salaries in brown envelopes.
I do believe we as a profession have a problem with our name. And names are incredibly important. Dale Carnegie was talking up the importance of a name in the 1930s, and I have no doubt that a collective sense of identity comes from a great workplace name.
In my first job as an electrical salesperson everybody in the branch was called Del. While this probably had links to the tactics employed by a certain Derek Trotter, by the time I arrived it was simply an internal brand done brilliantly. Even company directors knew that everyone in Hanley was called Del. They had no idea why but saw we had a great identity, brilliant values and were smashing our targets.
The guys I play football with have a similar system. Every player is called Dave. This makes new introductions to the team incredibly simple – “he’s Dave, he’s Dave, and he’s Dave”. People immediately feel included because instead of the pressure of learning names they simply shout ‘Dave’ and get a response. While it isn’t practical that everyone is given the same first name, we do need to collectively decide what we should be called.
Corporate functions should stick to what they do well, not interfere in the specialisms of others. This means we must talk to the marketeers.
This linkage rarely works well in organisations with policy-obsessed personnel types completely baffled by the creativity in marketing. Yet when these functions collaborate the impacts can be breathtaking.
At a retailer that I was involved with for many years, marketing and HR jointly worked on a programme to increase trust in the brand. With HR bringing a CSR story to the table and marketing telling that story better than we ever could, we created a programme that generated millions of pounds for charity and boosted brand consideration beyond any traditional advertising programme.
By working more closely with marketing we could improve our organisations immeasurably and they could help us with rebranding our profession. This could propel us forward in the 21st century and unlock the potential we have long had tucked away.
However, as rebranding exercises generally take a huge amount of money and time, I think we need to take decisive action now. I have therefore decided to rebrand my department as ‘Dave’. This works for the TV channel, it works for guys I play football with, and when I get asked what I do for a living I can comfortably say “I work for Dave”.
Andrew Stephenson is group people director at Lookers