Don't shoot the messenger, but the debate about the quality of HR just won't go away. For example, look at an article this month in People management, the magazine that's the mouthpiece of the CIPD no less. Stephen Moir, deputy chief executive of the Yorkshire Ambulance Service and former HR director, says that large-scale transformation programmes in the public sector could fail if "HR dinosaurs" do not change their approach (image above by jscreationzs).
Also this month, a report found that the way HR people are recruited (ie the wrong people are selected) can stand in the way of effective performance. The report was produced by the Oakleaf Partnership.
On the other side of the Atlantic, HR professionals have been hitting back recently at a series attacks on the profession which began with an article in Fast Company magazine in 2007, written by Keith H. Hammonds, deputy editor.
What are key criticisms of HR?
This month Meredith Soleau writes about "What CEOs Hate About HR People" on Fistful of Talent. She interviewed five CEOs and this is what they said about HR:
- HR is more concerned about avoiding discrimination than making the business competitive.
- HR doesn't or can't recruit.
- HR is bureaucratic, administrative.
- HR can't develop cutting edge development programmes.
- HR focuses too much on compliance and risk.
- HR is all talk and no results.
- HR doesn't understand finance.
- HR can't communicate ideas.
- HR can't manage performance.
The 2007 Fast Company article accused HR of being too bureaucratic, of using too much jargon, of being ghettoized, and only really competent at the "administrivia" of pay, benefits and retirement. Specifically:
- HR people aren't independent thinkers or people who stand up as moral compasses, and the gulf between capabilities and job requirements appears to be widening. H
- HR pursues efficiency but doesn't add value.
- HR is too focused on protecting HR and on compliance which means "saying no a lot, of playing the bad cop". Instead HR should value high-performing employees and focus on rewarding and retaining them.
- HR doesn't have the ear of top management.
Many of these themes are repeated in another article by David McCann on CFO blog, "Memo to CFOs: Don't Trust HR", published in 2009. McCann quotes Rutgers University's Professor Richard Beatty who attacked the HR profession for being unable to provide analytics that are useful in making workforce decisions that build economic value. His criticisms included:
- HR activities have no relevance to an organisation's success. For example, employee surveys done at IBM and other companies found little relationship between job satisfaction and performance ratings.
- HR wants to treat most employees the same way, and wastes time on poor performers when it should focus on high performers.
- HR fails to manage strategic talent.
- HR isn't very good at data analytics, and doesn't think like business people.
Although two of these articles are more than three years old they still strike a chord because they are cited in the recent debate about HR capabilities.
The defence of HR tends to be that the profession is in a period of evolutionary transition and that HR professionals have made considerable strides to address most of these criticisms.
For example, in January, Ron Ashkenas wrote in Harvard Business Review:
"It's all down to HR's evolution in the last five years or so. People have negative experiences with transitioning HR functions. One is time taken to set up HR systems to handle transactions, while trying to strengthen the more strategic and consultative roles of HR -- such as talent assessment, leadership development, change management, and organisation effectiveness."
Ashkenas argues that in the last decade HR has moved to make line managers accountable for their people so that HR can take an enterprise-wide approach, guide, and provide tools, but not do everything employment-related for managers.
Sharlyn Lauby is more critical of HR in "Thoughts On 'Stop Bashing HR'", a response to Ashkenas's article, published this month on HR Bartender.
"What's the gripe with HR? If you believe the HBR article, it's the classic "HR isn't strategic enough" excuse. I'm starting to wonder about the validity of this argument. Hear me out. Why would any successful business wait 15+ years for their HR department to become strategic? Seriously?! No successful business would wait 15+ years for their sales department to become strategic.
"The profession needs to step up to the challenges ahead and know that if they don't, their company will react accordingly."
"Isn't it time HR hit back?" asks Stuart Shaw on Human Capital League. Apparently contradicting most other commentators' view that HR needs to up its game on using analytics and adding value, Shaw says HR needs to be move beyond the business partner model and be less preoccupied about producing metrics to persuade finance directors.
"Our customers and employees (and even politicians these days) want our brands to be open and transparent and ethical and green and integrated into communities. Not wedded to maths and risk and egos and a pseudo science of management and leadership divorced from reality."
Another US blogger, Cathy Missildine-Martin on Profitabiity through human capital titles her article "Here We Go Again...More Haters on HR". She accepts that HR has not got it right yet.
"Yes, we as a profession have been slow to embrace some very important concepts like, I don't know...business acumen, metrics and strategic alignment. I get that, I do."
However she gives seven reasons why she thinks HR is raising its game.
The debate goes on.
Other HR strategy related content follows covering company culture, employee engagement, leadership, HR metrics and social media.