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The warnings of 'Why We Hate HR' are worth revisiting

In August 2005 Fast Company magazine published its infamous ‘Why We Hate HR’ article. It’s only with the perspective of time that it’s become clear that this was a tongue-in-cheek response to the opening lines of Dave Ulrich’s book, The HR Value Proposition.

The book had been published in June that year and begins as follows: “We like HR... We like the HR function because it allows functional experts to help sustain organisation results... We like HR professionals because, for the most part, they value people and they work to create both competitive and compassionate organisations...”

We like HR.” It doesn’t take a lot of journalistic head-scratching to come up with a contrary headline!

But the links between the magazine article and the book run even deeper, such as when each point out that HR at the time had a tendency to measure what it was doing – delivering programmes, implementing processes – rather than measuring the value it was, or wasn’t, creating. For Fast Company this was evidence of HR working for itself rather than for the business. For Ulrich, however, this was the key to “transform how HR work is done”.

For me these two viewpoints perfectly capture a profession that had reached a tipping point in 2005. Tip one way and HR would become marginalised, tactical and irrelevant. Go the other way and it would become more influential, strategic and valued.

Ten years later, I think it’s fairly clear that HR has chosen the positive path. For example, according to the Fast Company article: “HR doesn’t tend to hire a lot of independent thinkers or people who stand up as moral compasses.”

However, the recession of 2007 to 2009 and its aftermath proved them wrong with many organisations – guided by forward-looking HR leaders – finding creative, compassionate ways to support their workforces through the downturn, thereby ensuring they had retained the talent they needed to be competitive when recovery eventually came.

As a result HR came out of the recession stronger than it went in, with the transformation Ulrich had hoped for in 2005 well under way. But the warnings of ‘Why We Hate HR’ are still worth revisiting 10 years on, as they provide a salutary reminder of what our profession might so easily have become.

So what do the next 10 years hold in store for HR? Without doubt, the biggest single challenge employers face is the shrinking and ageing of the workforce. This is a global phenomenon that will impact every developed economy, resulting in fiercely competitive labour markets and rising costs.

HR will need to lead in creating innovative and sustainable organisational designs and managing people-centred changes in working practices. And it must support the creation of customer-centric businesses through enhanced training and engagement, simplified systems and processes, and focused leadership development.

And all of this will need to be done in a way that delivers value to the organisation and its people.

It’s a challenging prospect, but I’m certain a more collaborative, insight-led HR profession can deliver it. As the Fast Company article said: “HR is the corporate function with the greatest potential – the key driver, in theory, of business performance.” Our opportunity in the next 10 years is to turn that theory into practice.

David Fairhurst is senior vice president, people at McDonald's