Uh-uh, Bill Taylor.
I just read Why We (Shouldn’t) Hate HR on FastCompany.com. I wish Bill (one of the brilliant founders of FastCompany magazine) hadn’t questioned the intent and meaning of Keith Hammond’s original 2005 article, Why We Hate HR. If anything, it’s more valid today than it was 5 years ago because today budgets are tighter and employers must hire and manage people with even more care. HR is still the focal point of the problem.
I don’t think pushing the HR problem onto a company’s employees “because they are the human resources” works. I think that’s another issue and another article. Hammond was talking about the Human Resources department, not the employees. Let’s stick to the subject.
Perhaps time prompts us to recast the original question: Do we really hate HR? I don’t think so, but HR bugs us. We’ve seen all the ways that HR as an organization — generally speaking — doesn’t work very well. Some HR departments flourish and represent a return on investment to their companies; but I think the majority of us agree that most don’t. Hence our “hatred” for HR. I think that since you Hammond that big question to us 5 years ago, it seems the more important question today is, Why HR?
I don’t think there’s a good answer that supports the existence of most HR departments. Sure, some good HR departments pay off, but does any company really need an HR department?
Even if we set aside the truly productive HR departments, the problem is all the other HR departments that are unnecessary and counterproductive. Let’s look at what HR does, and how it could be done better by another corporate function:
1. Handle regulatory matters. Most companies have legal departments. The answer seems simple: Let the legal folks grow an implementation and compliance team for human resources matters. Keep the responsibility close to the department that does the work.
2. Employee training and development. Where does this role really belong? At home in each business unit or company department. Create a position that enables managers to decide how to educate, train, and develop their workers. Implement it locally, where bureaucratic nonsense is less likely to interfere. How many questionable “consultling firms” do HR departments hire and foist on business units, without the unit really wanting the service? I can count on two hands and feet the number of pedantic consulting firms I’ve seen hired by HR because they wine and dine and flatter HR execs. Let the business units decide how to invest the funds for a return the business units are accountable for. (When is the last time you saw HR reprimanded for hiring a crummy consultant or trainer?)
3. Organization design. If this is a business science, I’ve never understood why it is a separate discipline. Any business unit’s management team is responsible for structuring its operations, and it should hire the experts it needs to help it do the job. I’ve seen one disastrous organizational design after another created by people who are not expert in the business being designed.
4. Workforce analysis and data management. If ever there were an administrative role in management, this is it. I believe performance and workforce planning problems start when the department (HR) responsible for them is not measured on… workforce performance. Show me a company where HR is measured and judged based on the actual performance of all employees, and I’ll eat this column. This is a perfect role for oversight by the finance department, which also rounds up departmental budgets each year. But make each business unit accountable for its own analysis and planning.
5. Employee relations, social programs, and events. Gimme a break. Companies don’t need den mothers. Rather than pay big bucks for big programs, big mission statements, and big public relations initiatives, spend a few dollars to hire a specialist for each business unit who is responsible for monitoring and coordinating employee programs. Make sure these specialists learn your business first. Retired high school vice principals are good candidates.
6. Compensation and benefits management. Don’t waste that great finance department you have. Those people are really good at numbers. Invest in some further training and develop some specialists to handle competitive compensation and effective benefits programs. Gathering and analyzing competitive market data is not rocket science; get your department managers involved. Why does any company need an entire department — whose performance isn’t (can’t be?) measured — making decisions about competitive compensation practices?
7. Recruiting, processing and hiring. Let’s consider some facts. Last year one of the biggest online job board’s revenues were around $1.3 billion. Your HR department is the source of most of that revenue. But your company made only about 4% of its hires from that job board. Is your board of directors aware that your HR department is shoveling company cash to “recruitment advertising partners” whose services don’t work? Unless you’re one of the handful of lucky companies that has internal recruiters who get out from behind their computer screens and actually go out into the world and seek, find, seduce, cajole, and otherwise steal good workers, your HR department is costing you not only money — but your lifeblood. While critical, profit-producing jobs go undone — and HR’s performance goes unmeasured — your HR execs are telling the world there’s a “talent shortage” while we’re experiencing the greatest glut of unemployed, highly-educated and skilled workers in history. (I wrote my own “Why We Hate HR” column earlier this year: Time for HR to exit the hiring business.)
Bill Taylor says, “The real problem is that too many organizations aren’t as demanding, as rigorous, as creative about the human element in business as they are about finance, marketing, and R&D. If companies and their CEOs aren’t serious about the people side of their organizations, how can we expect HR people in those organizations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?”
I don’t agree. I think successful organizations are very rigorous and creative about getting profitable work from their employees, their managers, and their business units. The problem is, those organizations don’t expect as much from HR, hence HR is usually not overseen, not measured, and not judged for its performance. It’s the department no one wants to be responsible for. It’s the department that is not subjected to outcomes analysis. Anything goes. And we know it does. That’s why we hate HR — though we shouldn’t. After all, HR does what the board of directors permits it to do.
The best HR people I know find ways to embed themselves into business units. They become part of a business team. They don’t hide behind “company overhead.” More than anything else, it’s the success of those precious few “HR folks” that makes me ask, Why HR?
I still haven’t heard a good answer.
[I originally wrote this column for FastCompany.com, which published it under its Leadership section. It got little notice. Something tells me the Ask The Headhunter audience will have a lot more to say about the topic.]