How many HR officers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Four. One to assess the risk of the light bulb changing process, another to consult the light bulb and its stakeholders, yet another to ensure that the health and safety procedures are being adhered to while the bulb is being changed, and a fourth to actually change it.
Everyone hates human resources. It’s one of the pet peeves of most employees. But then, let’s face it, most HR people are not that bright and HR has not proven to be an effective career track. It’s certainly not the fast track to the top. Historically, it’s been a depository of people who haven’t made it somewhere else. Not going anywhere? There’s always HR.
HR is widely seen as obsessed with duplicative and wasteful process, turning every minor transaction into a forest of paperwork. It’s also regarded as a handmaiden of management with HR people behaving like Soviet bureaucrats, spouting the ideology and then doing the opposite as required by their political masters.
One of the great management thinkers Gary Hamel was brutal about HR when we had a conversation about it some time ago. "HR is mostly interested in compliance, both compliance with external laws and regulations and things that govern employment, and internal compliance, like are people following the rules and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,’’ Hamel said. “Now a certain amount of that is alright but if you ask what contribution HR has made to helping organisations become more innovative, to helping people become more passionate, I don’t think they see their job that way, sadly. Either they don’t understand what it means to get the best out of people and build human capital or they understand it but they’re not doing it.”
Writing in BNet, Margaret Heffernan sums up the problem perfectly. Heffernan writes: “In most companies, HR lacks organisational clout because it doesn’t have its own P&L. No revenue = no influence. That some firms have outsourced their HR function goes to show just how low it can fall within the corporate power structure. Others claim that HR doesn’t exist to do anything — it’s just there to prevent lawsuits. Focused on compliance, it has neither the mandate nor the will to go beyond mild-mannered policing, which just annoys everyone. And the poor naïve employees who think that HR is 'on their side' soon discover the opposite: that HR exists to make bosses’ lives easier when they want to get rid of someone.”
As reported here, a survey of UK employees found that 37% said HR people have no credibility.
Probably the most scathing attack I have ever read on HR was done in Fast Company magazine
five years ago. Yes, the world has moved on since then but when you read the piece, it’s still as fresh as ever. “Why are annual performance appraisals so time-consuming - and so routinely useless? Why is HR so often a henchman for the chief financial officer, finding ever-more ingenious ways to cut benefits and hack at payroll? Why do its communications - when we can understand them at all - so often flout reality? Why are so many people processes duplicative and wasteful, creating a forest of paperwork for every minor transaction? And why does HR insist on sameness as a proxy for equity?”
Entertaining as it is, the piece unfortunately doesn’t offer any insights on how we can fix it.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor reckons we shouldn't blame HR. We should really focus on companies that treat their staff badly. If that’s the case, how can we expect HR to be any better? “The real problem is that too many organisations 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 organisations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?”
In other words, he says, it’s not their fault. Blame it on the system. HR is just the fall guy.
What do you think of HR? What experience have you had with HR? Was it any good? What happened? How can it be improved?