Dear HR haters: A response to the Telegraph

In a recent article, Stan Siebert told the Telegraph that HR is "a parasite"

On 11 December, The Telegraph published an article which asked if HR’s transformation from ‘corporate backwater’ to ‘a powerful force’ was largely responsible for the UK’s stubbornly low productivity rates.

Titled 'How HR is strangling the economy', the article said the time spent on HR-mandated training and the annual cost of HR salaries were described as a rising cost burden. 

Stan Siebert, a business professor of the University of Birmingham, said: “The HR department is just a parasite. It’s an extra obstacle to the business owner trying to be entrepreneurial and earn a crust.”

Unsurprisingly, the HR professionals HR magazine spoke to disagreed.

Cheryl Samuels, people director at Guy's and St Thomas'​ NHS Foundation Trust, said: "HR is absolutely not a parasite.

“We are critical to the safe and effective running of an organisation. And without us, companies would most definitely end up bearing unnecessary risk, causing reputational damage, and also damage to the very people who are driving the organisation.”


Employment law

Several sources in the Telegraph article mention the "bewildering tapestry" of employment law.

Len Shackleton, professor of economics at the University of Buckingham, said this has led to overzealous HR practices which make it virtually impossible to fire under-performers.

He told the Telegraph: “The [HR] argument is that our business has to be protected against any interpretation of these rules, so we won’t just follow the letter of it, we’ll add extra stuff.

“Bureaucratic organisations don’t like risk, but entrepreneurial activity is founded on risk.”

Jonathan Krogdahl, HR consultant at Ewan Partners, acknowledged that there was a lack of clarity around certain areas of employment law such as IR35.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “I think the Conservative party have made an absolutely massive mess in creating clarity around what is employment and what isn't employment, particularly with the IR35 debate that continues to cause trouble on the interim market. And I can see why HR are struggling to get their head around stuff like that.”

However, Krogdal said criticism that HR cannot dismiss people is incorrect, pointing to the two years required before some employee rights apply.

“There’s no way employment law is too tough in that respect. If you need to fire an employee before two years [in the role], you can.”

Young employees unprotected by employment rights

Samuels added that terminating people without fair processes should not be something businesses strive for. 

She said: “If you’ve gone to the trouble of recruiting people, then at least give them a fair chance to perform. In fact, if you’re constantly feeling the need to fire people, perhaps there should be a focus on recruiting people with the right skills and expertise.”


Long-term sickness

The Telegraph’s article mentioned the fact sick leave is at a 10-year high after the pandemic, increasing by 350,000 compared to before the pandemic.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 1.9 million people are living with long Covid, which the article does not mention.

The article reads: “The criticism levelled at HR is that a sympathetic department can make life easier for an employee not pulling their weight.”

Read more: Record numbers fall out of workforce due to long-term sickness

Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, called this assessment "ridiculously unfair".

She told HR magazine: “Sickness isn't just an HR problem. HR has a role in ensuring that managers are trained properly, and sickness absence policies are clear. 

“But sickness is an organisational problem. It can come down to so many things, whether that's job design, a lack of communication or stress. You can’t blame the entirety of ill-health on HR.”


Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

There were also questions in the piece if HR has become too political, with reference to the Maya Forstater case, in which a woman was unfairly dismissed for tweeting about trans people.

This included posts in which she drew parallels between transgender women and Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who misrepresented herself as black, and another tweet in which she said: “A man’s internal feeling that he is a woman has no basis in material reality.”  

Shackleton told the newspaper that HR-mandated training and DEI initiatives were “a massive make-work scheme".

Health secretary orders NHS to stop hiring DEI roles

Krogdal said that HR’s responsibility is to align everyone with the company’s values. He said it is when HR try to enforce values the rest of the C-suite have not agreed on they can overstep.

He said: “This is not new, it’s just that debates around gender identity have become particularly topical. It’s always been a difficult line for HR to treat but they must remain aligned with the rest of the C-suite.”

Samuels said DEI is undervalued, despite the proven business benefits of diversity and psychological safety.

Corporations identified as more diverse and inclusive are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, according to research from McKinsey.

Samuels said: “If we understand our people, and we understand what the barriers are actually we've got an opportunity to be creative and think about what it is that we can do through engaging with those different people. 

“We know there's a whole body of evidence that speaks to the fact that with greater diversity comes more creative thinking, better decision-making, increased retention. I think it’s interesting that  people continue to want to maintain the status quo, knowing that it's not working.”

Bajorek also contested Shackleton’s statement that: “The HR profession is dominated by intelligent female graduates who have a particular way of looking at the world. Very few of them have run anything, they’ve come straight into this from fairly soft uni courses.”

She said: “HR has to have the tough conversations that other managers don't want to do. Senior managers don't want to lay off a member of staff and often aren't willing to talk about pay adjustments or union representation or sickness absence or talk about furlough or flexible working policies

“These are the things that get lumbered on to HR. Calling HR a soft and fluffy profession makes me wonder whether these commentators actually have any experience with HR.”