Alternatives to Hating HR (1)

A ping-back on my recent post introduced me to John Sumser’s very interesting blog, specifically linking more comments about Dick Beatty’s diatribe against “HR.” I believe in the value of debate so I’m happy to link both good and bad opinions out there. Jon is certainly more constructive and he’s rounded up a number who are as well. However, it’s still not enough for me.

There are currently two opinions commonly published about HR. First, that most people in it are useless, especially at understanding, justifying their cost/value or contributing to results in their organizations. Second, the growing alternative view, like much of what Jon collected, that while most HR people are useless, it’s neither entirely their fault nor true of all since some actually reach the level of valuable, measured proof of strategic contribution.

I argue there’s a third view that we should hear a lot more about. that HR is making a valuable contribution almost everywhere, but only to the extent they’re allowed, assisted and supported by the rest of the team. (Try running your organization without any.) Consider that HR is largely doing what it is told and empowered to do by more senior organization leaders who control what HR is paid (typically less than most functions), who’s appointed (qualified. or not), what it’s entitled to do (mostly essential administrative stuff with a smattering of more strategic items ‘if there’s time’) and who listens when HR has something to contribute.

Instead of solving these problems, most people seem content to stand back and blame HR for not ‘proving its value’ as if there isn’t already a mountain of scientific evidence showing that the impact of doing HR well is enormous (Pfeffer’s work offers great examples). We should be talking about how to focus what we know can be done to fit our specific organizations not blaming the guys in the middle who are striving to do what they can with the resources they’re given. Pile on is not constructive.

I’ll expand later, but for now let’s make one thing clear. Try appointing a junior accountant as CFO and then encouraging your managers to ignore what she or he ‘suggests’ if they feel they have a better idea. Of course things would come crashing down in less than a fiscal year. CFO dictates aren’t ‘suggestions’ and are invariably backed up by CEOs and armies of accounting staff policing the rules daily. But with HR issues, people are so adaptable they put up with and take orders from blatantly bad leaders as well as good, the former being tolerated for years, often encouraged and even promoted because they ‘get the numbers.’ Embarassed Employee

Most people continue to produce as faithfully as they can at least for a while till something better comes along and they cover poor performance of those around and above them up to a point. Financial lapses aren’t so self-repairing. Let me say for the record, if HR had similar rule-enforcing support bad managers wouldn’t be tolerated, let alone promoted. That would certainly make measurement of HR practices a lot easier, too, by enabling a much more consistent application of HR strategies than the hit or miss hodgepodge we normally see.

Now HR could never and should never strive to operate via pure enforcement. Human situations are simply too varied. By its nature HR has to work through other leaders in the organization and ideally help develop them to be the best possible. Nevertheless, clear HR values guidelines would help insist that leaders act with good will, positive reinforcement and other basic effective leadership practices. Needless to say perhaps, HR can’t be the body enforcing those values. As Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” Let’s help HR with the tools and measures instead of suggesting they ought to make them all up by themselves. Help make HR part of the team or spend the rest of your declining performance time questioning why they can’t perform.