Is HR Dead?

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Mar 24

In the span of my career, so far, I’ve always had this ambivalent attitude towards the people that work in HR departments. Not their professionalism, though some didn’t have much of it (and neither do some people in every department in a company…). Not their work ethic as many worked long hours. Not their ability to mediate some very tough situations.

HR just wasn’t very helpful. Here’s what HR does for me as a manager:

HR focuses on standard, annual projects

Makes sure people get their goals done on time. Makes sure the performance review process is proceeding as it should. This is a lot of work, but it’s not a lot of executing, especially with a decent management team.

Or, perhaps, the department is a vendor manager to all of those functions outsourced to other companies over the years — benefits, 401(k) administration, etc.

HR mediates disputes

I haven’t had any since I’ve been a manager, thinking that prevention is worth fifty pounds of cure. But there have been some very tough situations that HR has handled — all with the mission of protecting the company and, perhaps, the manager, over the person working in the cubicle. I get that it is their inherent duty to protect the company; it’s not a complaint (but this is why people don’t trust HR).

Support one-off events

The most obvious of these these types of one-off events is ensuring the layoff process follows the law (there is that protecting the company thing again). This, again, is a good service but one that most managers hope to not have to go through.

Another is restructuring the job titles within the company to standardize the differences in work efforts. This is especially good for merged companies. This has also been an excuse to look very hard at salaries and titles to see if the market pay matches up. I haven’t heard of anyones pay going UP after one of those studies, have you?

Where is the HR strategy in action?

But, that’s about it. Maybe that is enough. But what about matching the talent to the needs of the organization? What about employees engaging in the work? What about improving management? What about helping managers structure their departments by matching current talent to jobs? How about tools so that a manager can better understand the strengths of their employees — and the employee understanding their own strengths? Not so much.

Please don’t note anything about administering benefits; much of the benefit work is outsourced from the company. Recruiting could qualify as an HR function, but I look at recruiting as a funnel that gets the right people in front of the hiring manager, not as an HR responsibility (I might be wrong on that).

Now, this is my experience and I’m not into condemning the people in a department just because the department name happens to be Human Resources. But my experience has been more like, “Hi, I’m from Human Resources and I’m here to help you.” instead of really helping me. With all the talk of Human Resources getting to the decision making table, are there any success stories out there? Or, differently, what has to happen for a company in the future to have Human Resources be a vital part of the organization?

I’m curious and looking forward to some good comments.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.

  • My view of HR is it exists to overcome some problems large companies face because of their sheer size. The function simply isn't necessary in an organisation where the boss knows everyone by name – and I've worked in very large businesses where the formal; HR role is tiny because the overall management structure effectively does its job.

    So, in a nutshell, HR isn't needed in a well-run business, but there are many of them.

  • Interesting comment as most of my experience is in Fortune 100 companies. At what point does HR justify the overhead to a growing business?

    Any HR comments out there?

  • Cary says:

    I have to say after a recent pay review at my company my salary did go up.

  • Pros says:

    I have seen cases where the employee was led into believing HR was on her side. She went to HR to dispute an issue with a team or manager. The HR staff was willing to hear out the claim from the employee, but they simply logged it and passed it along to a manager.

    I think the HR was in a tough situation there. They had to protect the interest of the company, but be politically correct to be empathetic to the employee.

    So A question I have is if an employee has a concern about their manager, is there a way to work with HR to resolve it? Can working with HR lead to being placed on another team or manager?

  • christinelivingston says:

    Scot, I've been busy and not reading much stuff online recently, so I'm only seeing this now. You've taken the words from my mouth!!

    I used to be an HR Director in a former life. What I simultaneously loved and hated about the job was the fine line one had to tread between being an advocate for the people, and advising the business on what it needed to do in the people's best interests. Still, that for me was the magic of good HR – building trust with both business leaders and the people in the organisation.

    Sadly, in recent years, I think due both to cost cutting and indeed to academic writings that have promoted the need for HR to be more of a business function, a lot of the HR people I come across are a bit like automatons. They run processes. Their concern for the human spirit in the equation is next to non-existent. The CIPD here in the UK publishes a discussion document recently on how HR needed to reinvent itself. Hallelujah! I thought. But, it turned out to be a load of disconnected, meaningless bollocks. Yes, it focussed on the need for better employee engagement and for talent management, but the way it was talking about these things said process, not people. What they miss is that, in putting these fine business school type labels on things they disassociate themselves from the people and the business they are really there to serve. Even the name – Human Resources – lacks something.

    To my mind, HR should be focusing on the fact that job satisfaction statistics are bombing at the moment and wondering why that is; reinventing work, and if reinventing itself falls out of that, so be it.

    The most successful, talented HR people I know are alive. They have high integrity and are not afraid to tell it like it is to their senior colleagues. When the MD says, “we need to lay off 500 people”; the HRD doesn't just leap to running a brilliantly smooth redundancy programme, with lots of nice binders and ready made outplacement support. She asks, “is laying off people really necessary?” She shares how this will kill any goodwill that the business has built up and how this will impact the business's chances of recovery. She advocates consulting with the people on the realities of the situation and getting their ideas and input. She facilitates these kinds of dialogue. If lay offs are necessary she will ensure support is in place that attend, not just to process, or the emotional fall-out of the people who go, but of the people who stay.

    The things is, most HR people also have a stake in the game. They feel as threatened as the next person. They are more likely to keep their heads down and get on with instruction than to put their necks above the parapet and risk being attacked for their difference.

  • eric m says:

    From my experience directly with HR and watching others interact with HR, I can truly say there are not many positives to be found. There is a big to do this past week with this kid that was bullied into suicide. I felt really bad for this kid. When I think over my work career, it's not that different then the bullying and nonsense I saw in high school. The interaction of individuals and abuse/bullying by managers is not much different than high school, just more insidious and under the table.

    Don't get me wrong. I've worked on great teams with great people. I've had great managers. I've also had some really bad ones. Often we defied great odds and met our goals both as teams and individuals. Unfortunately, I've often seen a lot of energy wasted and human potential wasted by political games, management infighting, ego clashes, etc.

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