A recent article in Harvard Business blogs (Why We Shouldn’t Hate HR by Bill Taylor) commemorates the 5th anniversary of the infamous 2005 Fast Company article Why We Hate HR, and challenges the original author’s thoughts about why the title of his essay seems to name a fundamental truth. The real problem, Taylor says, is that organizations don’t make the same investment of creativity and rigor in the human element of business that they do in R&D, marketing and finance. Successful organizations are focused on getting “wildly talented people” in the door and then encouraging them to form productive partnerships.
I don’t disagree in the least. In fact, I would even add an example to Taylor’s list of successful companies (he talks about Cirque du Soleil, Pixar and DaVita); Zappos is another company that has focused on the human element as the chief success factor in its business and seen a payoff as a result. They’ve done it by translating the trendy term “engagement” into something simpler and more intuitive: a definition of “employee happiness,” which the company then strives to achieve through meeting intrinsic motivational needs like a sense of purpose, progress and relatedness.
Having said that, I think there is another perspective on why we hate HR, especially when it comes to smaller companies. It’s a simple one: we ask HR to walk an impossible tightrope as a member of management who must also advocate impartially for employees. We set up our HR people for failure. No one trusts them as a result.
Recently I worked with an organization in which the hourly HR staff had just organized and certified a union. When the training director told me about it, I was both horrified and fascinated. “How could that be?” I asked the training director. “Wouldn’t that bring up all sorts of conflict-of-interest issues?” She shrugged. “We certainly think so. But it remains to be seen how this will play out.”
I thought about it all the way home. Even the HR people don’t trust HR! Not to mention they don’t trust senior leadership; and senior leadership will undoubtedly not trust HR in the future. What a muddle it will be to redefine the role of HR in that organization now that they’ve thrown a third party into the mix. Questions will arise in the handling of every issue; who is HR representing? Who has access to confidential employee information and how will it be used? What are the hidden agendas? Thinking about it just boggles my mind.
It seems clear to me that if the HR profession is to fight its way out of its PR problem, it will take a complete redefinition of roles and responsibilities, as well as a bigger investment of energy and resources on the part of an organization’s senior leadership.