HR – a damp squib or a firestarter?

HR, the hard worker, the Cinderella of organisational life.  Can’t go to the Christmas party because someone has to stay behind and turn the lights off;  fearful of being friends with people, often the least coached, trained, developed, supported function.   At worst, the least trusted function.

No wonder  HR appears to have a permanent identity crisis.  Does any function analyse itself so much?    Oh the existential angst.    So much is written about the design, the roles, even the very name of the function creates debate, – HR, Personnel, L&D, OD etc (the most recent suggestion I heard is Human Capital – yuk).  Questions often asked include:

  • How can HR get a seat at the board table?
  • How can HR have more influence?
  • I joined HR to be a people person, but discover it’s the least trusted function in the organisation.  How can I get them to like me?
  • How can I demonstrate my understanding of “the business”.

And somehow, the HR hopeful finds themselves torn between their desire to be a listening ear, to be a sympathetic saviour, to help people be more effective in their role, and the requirements of their MD to restructure, to get rid of,  to cover backs, to protect and – to keep their own needs to themselves and to crunch numbers for an anonymous hungry data monster.  “Give me ROI, give me more”.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

Perhaps there’s been a massive over complication (bring in the consultants); perhaps there’s a simple solution.    Perhaps those people people should be managing the people.  I have always thought that the most effective managers are those who genuinely like other people, quite like themselves, are curious, smart and are lacking in ego.    They enjoy solving problems and helping people resolve conflict.  Is that you?  Perhaps you should consider moving out of HR and moving into management where your generalist knowledge and desire to effect change can be put to good use.

HR often good intentions, but unintentionally can get in managers way.   A paradoxical dilemma.

Managers need to be able to make mistakes and to experience the consequences of their mistakes,  Owning recruitment, designing their own function, attending tribunals if they have messed up,  or haven’t, owning and managing their budget for training and development.  Designing and co-delivering their own training, managing their teams absence, coaching their people, developing their people and delivering results through their people.

So what could HR be?  A small  team of super generalists who have influence,  competence, confidence, and knowledge to ensure they support and challenge the managers to grow in their own confidence, competence and knowledge to become HR generalists.  HR can be powerful and influential, but only if it is freed from operational constraints.    And they let managers get on with it.  Advise but ultimate decision lies with the manager.      They get out of the managers’ way, and the manager and their manager are responsible for success or failure.

Managers could be great HR generalists but only if they are given the empowerment both to flourish and to fail.

The people people work with the people, the problem solvers work with the problems.

HR fulfils its promise and becomes a behind the scenes strategic thinker and planner – with the skills of a super generalist.


2 thoughts on “HR – a damp squib or a firestarter?

  1. Although Cinderella was the belle of the ball, I always gravitate towards those that spark a bit of controversy – the firestarter! This is an individual who understands HR is in the perfect positions to challenge business performance…rather than restrict themselves to “personnel” activity. Someone with passion and an inquisitive nature who enables managers to do their jobs. Someone who doesn’t just advise but takes ownership of issues, asks the right questions, analyses and interprets business data – all to improve the organisation. Does this sound like traditional HR function? No but it sounds like an awesome one!

  2. The discussion “Who do we think we are?” has been raging in CIPD ever since I was on their board ages ago – I got fed up and left. Every year I’d hear a set of “new years resolutions” such as “we should get better at math” and “we need to get down with the business”. I suggested that the answer was to just do these things rather than making them an agenda item every year. Some people thought I was strange.

    If CIPD had spend half as much time dealing with questions of substance rather than style, I suspect they would be in a better place.

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