Ask an entrepreneur why their company is so amazing, and they’ll chew your ear off. They have an amazing idea that’s come at just the right time. They have great, talented, engaged people. They have a fantastic, innovative culture, etc etc. One thing they never, ever say is they’ve got great HR.
On one level, that’s strange because HR is the business function most concerned with all these things. Their job is to find you the best people and build the best organisation, where everyone pulls in the same (right) direction, communicates clearly and contributes their own ideas about how to make it ever better.
At least, that’s what HR says its role is. You can barely make it two minutes standing next to an HR professional in the lunch queue without hearing the words ‘engagement’, ‘leadership’ or ‘empowerment’. So why do so many people look at it as a waste of time?
‘Partly it’s an historical hangover from it being an administrative function,’ says Rob Briner, professor of organisational analysis at Queen Mary University, London. ‘The problem is HR has tended to approach everything like that.
‘A few years ago, I asked some mid-level HR managers what was the most important thing they were working on, and about 80% of them said they were working on aligning things, harmonising things, standardising things. Is that going to help the business, I asked. Well, no, it’s just important that it’s standardised. Why? Well it just is.’
We’ve all been trapped in it at one point or another, the Kafka-esque web of regulations and time-stealing, box-ticking ‘initiatives’, the convoluted hiring processes, the ever-changing performance appraisal frameworks...
‘HR does tend to rush from one fad to the next. As a profession we take a lot of criticism that we always have something new, the next big thing that’s going to change the organisation, and of course there’s a lot of evidence that would suggest most of these things never have the kind of impact we think they’ll have,’ admits Sandy Begbie, chief people officer at Standard Life.
In general, this tendency towards optimism and grandiosity has left HR with a reputation for less-than-plain speaking. ‘HR departments usually, because they’re trying to do the right thing, have discovered that you ought to have a statement of values [but] they sound so generic and motherhood and apple pie that it triggers the cynicism,’ says John Kotter, emeritus professor of leadership at Harvard Business School.
If this were a performance appraisal, HR would be on report. Of course it’s a little too easy to poke fun at the profession. Many of the stereotypes or criticisms that could be levelled at it also apply to other functions – finance (bean counters), marketing (loopy), sales (loud). None of that really helps anything.
What does help is that there are plenty of HR professionals who are genuinely good business people, whose work genuinely helps their businesses. They deserve credit for that, and offer firms frustrated at their less-than-optimal functions a model for improvement.
So what does good HR actually look like?
It serves business objectives
‘I always ask three questions. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? How would you define the commercial value of this? What are the chances of success and the risks associated with it? It’s amazing how often really good HR people struggle to answer those questions. You should be able to get the answers on a single sheet of paper,’ says Bebgie.
HR ultimately has to be part of the business, not sitting outside it somehow. To be able to contribute to the success of the business, HR needs to be fully involved in it. As the Corporate Research Forum puts it in its HR Manifesto, ‘the description of an HR initiative is a misnomer. It is a business initiative supported by HR. The idea should not proceed unless endorsed and owned by the business.’
It pushes back
Because HR has tended to focus on process rather than outcomes, the function has traditionally been keen to respond to requests from senior management, says Briner. ‘ Doing what people ask of you is all good, but it only gets you so far. Eventually they will say "those people we gave the budget to, are they making a difference?" If you can’t show that, you’re pretty screwed.
‘It’s about pushing back a bit, connecting what you’re doing with what the organisation’s trying to do. Sometimes that means stopping doing things. HR has an anxiety that if it stops doing stuff, it will be a signal that it’s not needed. To me it sends the opposite signal. If you say we don’t think this is effective so we’re going to stop, long-term people are much more impressed by that.’
It builds good relationships
Your HR department may be brimming with ideas that could meaningfully make your organisation more effective, but it’s not going to do much good if you never talk to them. Similarly, it’s unlikely to be brimming with those ideas in the first place if it never gets to talk to you.
One way of doing that is putting your chief people officer on the board, but that doesn’t guarantee good, top-level communication. For that, you need good relationships. ‘Whenever you are operating between HR and business leaders, you’ve got to establish those collaborative, respectful relationships. That means those old fashioned things like building trust,’ says Harriet Hounsell, personnel productivity director at the John Lewis Partnership.
It uses evidence
‘One of the challenges of HR is that because it’s about people, everyone’s an expert. They think it’s common sense. "People leave their manager, not their job." Really? Do they? You’ve got to show the evidence, push back, say okay, you think stretch goals improve performance, well let’s look at that,’ says Briner.
Using evidence to support your decisions and then evaluate them after the event sounds like a no brainer, but it’s safe to say HR has been ‘on a journey’ with that. Unfortunately, that journey has sometimes taken professionals to a place where ‘any data is good data’ – somewhere no business should want to be.
‘I still think there's a profound misunderstanding of what evidence-based practice means, for example in HR there's more attention now paid to internal organisational data, like analytics, but that's only one of at least four areas of evidence you need to look at,’ says Briner. These include the judgement of professionals as well as internal data.
At present, HR is often seen as something on an add-on, something businesses need to have, but not related to what businesses do. There’s a reason top CEOs tend to come from finance or marketing backgrounds; you’d be hard pressed to find any whose route to the top came via HR.
This could change, opening up a whole new resource and perspective in business, but it will ultimately only happen if HR itself can prove it’s consistently useful, and plugged in to what the business wants and needs. And if that means the rest of us don’t have to spend hours jumping through hoops when we should be working, so much the better.
Image credit: Christian Schnettelker/Flickr