Why everyone should love HR

HR is often in the firing line. But we're standing up to say enough is enough – this is why everyone should love HR

'It’s time to blow up HR.' You might think you couldn’t write a magazine strapline more likely to anger an entire profession. And yet many HR professionals picking up the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) over the summer may not have even blinked. The reason? HR-bashing has become so commonplace – at dinner party and boardroom tables alike – as to have become almost on-trend.

Yet while HRDs may not have been particularly surprised to see this headline it’s likely many will have gone back to work quietly ruminating on how to improve HR’s reputation. Perhaps another rebrand – from HR to talent management or ‘people’, as some have already done? Perhaps HR just needs to make the positive things – benefits packages, health and wellbeing initiatives and the like – more visible to staff associating the function with bad news and bureaucracy?

Or perhaps not. For if HR folk had leafed eagerly to the articles inside HBR, which gave a much more balanced and constructive insight into how HR can ensure it’s adding value than the provocative cover suggested. For within these three HBR articles lay the real truth of the matter, and a quite different story to that suggested by the anxiety-inducing ‘blow up HR’ line, or even the magazine cover’s sub-heading suggestion that we ‘build something new’.

The advice conveyed by the pieces as a whole could be summed up thus: HR does have an incredibly valuable role to play, but what’s needed is less talking and worrying and more doing – a mantra many successful and well-respected HR functions already live by. For ironically, many of the complaints that perennially crop up about HR tend to stem from this very preoccupation with not being liked.

While challenging the profession to add more impact to organisations, HR magazine also wants to celebrate its achievements. So in an attempt to put this tedious debate on the value, or not, of HR to bed once and for all, we spoke to practitioners and academic experts to explore why the function is so obsessed with contemplating its own navel, why it’s such an easy target, and how to move on to bigger and better things – for the good of the profession as a whole and the organisations and communities it serves.

Less talking, more doing

“We need to stop having the same conversations about HR and get on with demonstrating our true value,” says Irene Stark, group HR director at ATS Euromaster, neatly summing up the issue in a way many HR professionals will be nodding along with in agreement. “There is great stuff happening and maybe we do need to demonstrate this more to the wider world but also maybe to colleagues in companies where this does not happen.”

“Does any other function spend half its waking hours debating its value?” asks Julia Ingall, group HR and talent director UK & EMEA at Ogilvy & Mather Group (who did spearhead a rebrand to talent management a couple of years back, but says she wouldn’t have done this if the aim was not to “make a real difference” to what the function actually delivered).

“I don’t see finance or marketing or tech doing this,” she continues. “So we need to have the confidence to just claim our seat at the so-called top table, rather than constantly justifying it. Even the ‘top table’ analogy is out of date. I don’t mind who I sit with and where I sit as long as the business I am in is competing, growing and developing, and engaging the very best talent.”

The problem, says Melanie Steel, ex-HR director of RSA’s group corporate centre, is that the HR profession is by its very nature populated by individuals who care what other people think. “HR worry because they’re ‘people people’,” she points out. “Whereas IT doesn’t care what the rest of the organisation thinks of it.” “I don’t think HR has any worse a reputation I just think we’re slightly more sensitive to it,” agrees Emma Blaney, HR director of Informa’s Business Intelligence division.

There are, however, further reasons that mean HR has a higher tendency to feel insecure about its value than other functions. As explored in professor of management at the Wharton School Peter Cappelli’s ‘It’s time to blow up HR’ article, ‘Why We Love to Hate HR… and What HR Can Do About It’, that most ubiquitous criticism of HR – the ‘what’s HR doing for us anyway?”’ complaint – has been caused to a large extent by a cyclical historical precedent of trimming the function down in times of ample availability of people desperate for employment – such as during the labour shortages of the 70s.

“HR has gotten a lot less sophisticated, frankly because [business leaders] cut out a lot of the HR function in downsizing and restructuring waves,” Cappelli reiterates to HR magazine. “Some of it’s really the dumbing down of a lot of HR stuff.”

Questioning of purpose

Exacerbating this, even in organisations where HR hasn’t been stripped back, is the slightly less tangible nature of some of the benefits HR brings, believes Barry Hoffman, group HR director at Computacenter. He points out that this can be something of a Catch-22 scenario where managers who aren’t particularly emotionally intelligent ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ – or rather can’t value what they don’t understand.

“I think people who work in marketing or IT are no more or less qualified than those who work in HR. Yet there doesn’t seem to be this kind of questioning of their purpose,” he says. “People don’t go: ‘I don’t understand IT so I can’t really judge whether this person is telling me something clever or not’. They just trust them and let them get on with it, as they would with an accountant or a lawyer.

“There’s a fair few managers who say ‘I don’t need HR I can do it myself’,” he adds. “And that puts the spotlight on HR folk who must deliver value extra to that.”

Steel adds that the opposite expectation is often just as problematic, with people assuming activities such as performance management and engagement are completely HR’s responsibility in a way they would never expect an IT professional to operate their computer for them, for example. “Managers consider things like recruitment HR’s responsibility and so think ‘I don’t think this is my job; why isn’t HR doing this for me?’”

She adds that HR often has less opportunity to interact positively with staff day-to-day than other functions. “HR is not an area that regularly has connection with people, or if it does it is in difficult scenarios,” she says.

And yet none of this has to be the case. On the issue that HR risks becoming removed from what’s happening ‘on the floor’ in its perennial quest to be strategic, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies Wendy Hirsh points out that she knows of an organisation where “on a site with a thousand people the office of a small HR team is next to the canteen”. “The door is open and everyone knows where HR are if they need them,” she adds.

Don’t wait to be invited

The wider, much more profound debate of whether HRDs can ever persuade a CEO resistant to this of HR’s immense strategic potential, is a much more contentious one. But while HBR’s ‘People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO’ article (co-authored by Ram Charan, Dominic Barton and Dennis Carey), stated “it is up to the CEO to elevate HR and to bridge any gaps that prevent the CHRO from becoming a strategic partner”, many would argue that it often works the other way around.

“When people talk about asking business leaders what they want from HR they should be demonstrating what we can bring – you don’t get finance directors asking a business what it wants from them,” argues Stark.

“HR directors pine for a position on the board or a voice at the table and constantly question why they’re not part of the C-suite. But only through proving your worth as a business leader can you bring something to the table,” agrees Eugenio Pirri, VP of people and organisational development at Dorchester Collection. “It’s time to stop this ongoing tirade. Through metrics and measures, successes, collaboration and smashing silos HRDs can prove their worth and be invited to the board table to make a genuine difference. Don’t wait to be invited – take the seat.”

Though other functions don’t seem to do this as much, all could spend time bemoaning factors contributing to limited respect and boardroom sway rather than getting on with mitigating against them, points out Hoffman. “Other functions like marketing are quite intangible sometimes,” he says. “There’s that great quote: 50% of all advertising is a waste of money, I just don’t know which 50%.”

“Marketing has started to complain about not having a seat at the table. It’s a complete repeat of the HR story,” adds Cappelli. “But I don’t think everyone does this navel gazing.”

What HR really has to wake up and realise then, is that such navel gazing is in many instances creating the negativity we need to shake. Take the common criticism ‘HR often gets in the way of business progress and success’, which Ingall says is a fair account of HR’s tendency on occasion to turn insecurity into a semblance of power through being needlessly legally risk-averse and controlling. “I think at times some HR colleagues have hidden behind legislation, using it to evaluate their position and hold power,” she says.

“Managers often see HR as the function that proceduralises people management in a way that does not make it easier to manage people well,” agrees Hirsh. “Often recruitment and employment processes are too slow and inappropriate.”

Recognition of the basics

Another fall-out of a function obsessed with proving its worth is the converse, such as when HR can be prone to neglecting the more procedural, transactional side of its remit thanks to its quest to be viewed as a strategic partner, says Steel.

“We’ve got into this place where people make such a big thing about HR business partners, but if you’re not careful you become a jack of all trades master of none,” she says, explaining that HR departments must ensure those working on the operational side of HR aren’t stigmatised, or even dispensed with, but are valued as incredibly important and skilled in getting the basics right. “If operational things don’t work you’re undermined as a business partner because you’re spending all your time sorting that.”

“Transformational HR hinges on having someone leading a people department who strongly believes in and recognises the value of both transactional HR and transformational HR,” agrees Pirri. “As a profession we shouldn’t brand the transactional side as the orange cream chocolate nobody wants. Without people delivering these operational roles incredibly well then the business as a whole will suffer.”

Such obsession with proving and being recognised for strategic worth, rather than stopping to consider what this might actually consist of, leads not only to an HR business partner obsession but also a preoccupation with showy, fad-driven initiatives rather than ones that might actually work, says Cappelli.

“I think there are some things that HR does that it has to start saying: ‘Is it really useful?’” he says. “For example, doing succession plans that their organisation doesn’t really use. If that’s the case why do you still do them? It takes a lot of time so just stop it.”

What HR needs to concentrate on instead of those initiatives that initially look most impressive and perhaps chime with HR’s desire to be liked, are evidence-based strategies that speak to the specific needs of their particular business. As HR magazine covered earlier this year, embracing some of the more evidence-based methods can only help to increase the impact and value of what the profession can deliver. “What does a good HR function look like?

I believe that the structure is dependent on the business need, the lifecycle, and the business priorities,” confirms Ingall. “For one company talent acquisition may be more critical, or perhaps learning and development during times of change.”

“As HBR suggests, recognising the fundamental business context of companies is important and provides the backdrop for analysing the potential role HR can play in an organisation at any point in time,” agrees Helen Pitcher, chairman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence.

Success stories

And in fact there are plenty out there putting into practice exactly this bespoke, business-focused HR model.

“Compared with when I started in business, I sense there are now many more senior HR professionals who ‘get’ the financial and commercial imperatives and who can talk in a way that resonates with the entire leadership team,” says head of consulting at change consultancy The Storytellers and former global HR director Piers Robinson. “It’s certainly easier to dispel outdated myths for HRDs who have executed successful programmes that have caused genuine change.”

“The perception of HR has evolved dramatically, especially over the past five years, and we as people professionals should be proud of this. It feels like there has been a seismic shift in how HR is viewed in a business and how it can truely add value to the bottom line,” agrees Pirri.

But just as paranoia and navel gazing should never be allowed to take hold, neither should complacency. “We must expand our horizons, learn from others outside our industry, stop patting ourselves on the back saying we are evolving – just do it and own it,” adds Pirri.

“We need less worrying about job titles and responsibilities; how we brand ourselves and whether we should be ‘people’ or ‘HR’ leaders, and more focus on creating clear strategies that truly make us a business partner and therefore deliver tangible results for the organisation as a whole.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.