May 21, 2018

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Guilt, Roles and Opportunities

Maybe HR is simply expected to do too much for too many. I rarely read a commentary or attend a party where I don't pick up critical comments. This isn't unique. But as a teacher, guidance counselor and later a retail executive, I would at least occasionally hear positive stories about my professions, albeit less than half the time. Somehow in HR, I come away questioning myself to a much greater degree than in earlier jobs.

The scope of HR responsibilities is vast. It's rare even to have projects that actually finish. In most cases, they morph into some new form with new possibilities for the future; like HR intranet portals, which can grow endlessly, adding topic after topic for information- hungry workforces.

HR isn't a career area of choice for people who need to feel satisfied upon completion of specific tasks. The work is never done. Fortunately, that also makes it enduringly interesting and filled with opportunity.

The most obvious points for praise arrive when a merger or a union negotiation is well-handled. These distinct events can be appreciated. A great deal of our work arises in the context of daily routine and passes almost invisibly.

Recently, I was fortunate to interview Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School for (see interview www.HRInterview). With careful thought, she noted that in the last 10 years or so, HR issues have come front and center in the minds of CEOs and senior executives concerned with company performance. However, she feels this wasn't the result of HR's efforts and that HR dropped the ball on a number of opportunities, including the quality movement and presently the knowledge management explosion, which have tended to be picked up by IT and other departments. Coming from a top-notch observer these criticisms are powerful.

It's common to hear negative comments perhaps with some justification. HR does a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing as a result. Of course, we can't claim to have raised the profile of HR issues single-handedly, but surely we participated throughout. A steady stream of research reports and articles in the popular press have made the phrase "Human Capital" almost an everyday term. HR not only fails to get credit, but is frequently criticized for not doing enough or focusing on the right issues.

We're blamed for not understanding the need for numerical measures for these newly-accepted key business factors. One wonders if accountants were subject to this sort of criticism before the invention of double entry bookkeeping 400 years ago. Still, it is nearly a hundred years since the advent of Taylorism with its time and motion calculations. How far should we have come toward measuring everything?

Throughout my years leading an HR function for a major corporation, I frequently felt guilty for all kinds of omissions. I came to see that part of this was the price of doing the job effectively. There are times when HR should clearly not intercede directly.

It didn't bother me that sales people would often complain that HR ought to have ordered line executives to purchase systems and programs that both HR and the sales people believed would enhance company performance. HR's role frequently entails making recommendations and looking for team support before acting, rather than making unilateral decisions. HR's top role is team-building rather than becoming one more silo doing its own thing.

Sorry sales guys, it will remain the case that CEOs, other line executives and particularly senior teams are likely to have the last word on a great many expenditures. When approaching HR for support, sales people should anticipate the best result is to have HR backing them in a presentation to the corporate team rather than expecting a directly approved purchase order. If HR is doing its job effectively that support will not only be useful, but necessary before approval is given. It shouldn't be a waste of time to lobby HR, it just isn't the final step.

It also didn't bother me to be criticized at times by both line staff and managers who each felt HR should've taken their side and told the other party to tow the line. HR's role in many internal disputes is to get the parties together and ensure that issues get discussed between them rather than having HR act as a go-between, a police officer or final decision-maker. Of course, we have opinions about who is right or wrong, but it's far more productive to help the parties learn to solve problems between themselves with a little encouragement rather than expect a third party to fix the situation for them. Leaving some individuals believing that HR ducks tough decisions is a small price to pay for doing the right thing.

There's an enduring feeling, as we all know, among line managers as well as many academics that HR doesn't always pull its weight. Is this just sour grapes on the part of individuals who once failed to get what they wanted from an HR manager somewhere? Or is it just part of what HR is all about that we don't get appropriate recognition? Most HR departments that I encounter are doing their level best to keep up with changing trends without succumbing to fads. They're trying hard to invent effective measures without reducing everything to the level of two plus two. They're constantly researching, proposing better solutions and striving to be effective at the senior strategy table. Why don't we get more respect?

My goal is to explore these questions concretely over the next few months and see if we can't change our guilt to pride in every aspect of our operations. Let's recognize our successes where they exist and figure out what the real shortfalls are so that we can fill those gaps, if any.

-Dave Crisp