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The voices of criticism that wont go away

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If HR systems are so crucial to corporate competitiveness why dont companies adopt more of them? Richard Donkin explains

Have you ever seen one of those cartoons where Elmer Fud or Daffy Duck is trying to make a moral decision? Whispering in their ear is a little white angel, emphasising the good points, while at their other ear a red devil is rubbishing everything theyre told.


I sometimes feel like this when discussing human resources management. Any criticism leads to emails from line managers who say that HR had it coming. Typically, the line sees HR as an impediment, standing in the way of its desire to run the business in the way it sees fit. If it wants to hire someone, an HR manager says it isnt possible.


If it wants to remove someone, the HR manager points out the cost. Its easy to take sides with line managers, particularly when you find other HR people nodding in agreement. I couldnt believe my eyes or ears at the strength of the self-flagellation emerging at the CIPDs annual conference last autumn.


Delegates have become accustomed to some ritual back-slapping, based on a conviction, supported by increasing evidence from various studies, that good people management makes a difference to corporate competitiveness. But when a group of academics at Kings College, London, decided to examine these findings in a series of interviews, they uncovered some deep-seated resentment of HR among other managers, even among HR managers themselves at the most senior levels.


The Kings College team led by David Guest, professor of organisational psychology and human resources management, was surprised to find clusters of no more than eight or nine HR processes adopted by the majority of organisations in a long-running study of public and private-sector HR.


If HR systems were so successful, they asked, why didnt companies adopt more of them? The reason seems to lie in a combination of two factors a lack of faith in HR teams and a lack of knowledge among line managers who, according to the interviewees, are the ones who tend to be trusted to execute HRM policies.


So what is wrong with HR professionals? The senior managers complained that HR people were not close enough to the business. Another grumble concerned the calibre of HR managers. If there is one part of the organisation that doesnt look as if it takes HR seriously, it is HR, said one executive, complaining about the lack of training and poor recruitment of HR people.


Apparently the greatest number of negative comments came from HR directors. This may be a significant development. It seems to suggest that HR is partitioning itself into two camps those at director level engaged in the strategic use of HR and those in the various administrative areas, whose responsibility is that of compliance and the smooth running of specialist functions such as payroll and pensions.


Significantly, most of the complaints seem to have been directed at functional specialists and this highlights the real divergence between HR responsibilities and those of line managers. The chief complaint of the latter, he says, is that their lives are made more bureaucratic because of the need for HR to comply with various pieces of workplace legislation.


Theres the rub the line hates the way HR gets in the way but knows, deep down, that HR keep the business honest. If managers are at the centre of a wrongful dismissal case, a racial discrimination complaint or dispute over health and safety, their first port of call tends to be the HR department.


But once there, they need to get results. They need to find experts in these fields who can dispense solid, accurate and timely advice. If a company has contracted-out these functions, the bought-in advisers need to know their subject and need to understand the culture of the business that is seeking their help.


As the findings suggest, if companies are not adopting all the HR management processes they can to increase their bottom line performance, there is a failure on more than one front. Line managers need to be managed in the use of these systems and if HR professionals dont manage them, who else will? Management in many organisations today relies less on lines of authority and more on lines of respect. Everyone respects expertise. The white angel tells me that HR is still the place to find it but that little red devil just wont go away.


richard.donkin@haynet.com


Richard Donkin is editor of FTCareerPoint.com