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Is it time for HR to come down off its pedestal?


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The strategic future of HR in rhetoric is strong. The CIPD have recently published their manifesto for a new Government, ambitiously driving forward their national pivotal role in ‘championing better work and working lives’. Indeed, HR have admirably fielded significant threats in recent times. Their very existence was questionable throughout the most recent recession.

Talent management came under threat. Outsourcing was a dragon that had to be caged. Learning and development took a hit but emerged victoriously rebranded as organisational development for some. In the UK, the CIPD worked hard to build HR professional status by creating national competency standards and have offered impressive dialogue examining mega-trends, transformational change and most recently using neuroscience in organisations.

It all sounds good out there in HR.

But let’s face it, in reality is HR really achieving their strategic aim? Are they pivotal to business and are they really getting businesses to invest more strategically in their greatest asset – their people? Chests swelling with pride, the CIPD and academics proclaim a loud yes! And having taught HRM and the CIPD for years, I can indeed talk that talk impressively. But on the ground and out there, can this profession really walk the walk of 21st century strategy?  Maybe not.


Just a snapshot, but we see most recently in the UK hiring intentions are now ‘sky high’ but productivity is lagging 21.7% behind the G7 average. Is that because HR maybe haven’t quite taken hold of the engagement conundrum and played a key part then? The CIPD continue to work on consistent ways to report human capital metrics according to their HR Public Policy writer.

I wonder why HR still seem to be struggling with metrics at times in this technological data driven age. HR are still coercing employers to respect diversity (and we are not quite there yet are we truthfully?). HR remain sceptical and cautious about using social media despite the plethora of debate glorifying its’ potential. Very recently it has been reported that although 87% of L&D professionals believe that business planning is a top priority for the profession, ‘less than half, 47%, said they had the necessary skills in-house to achieve organisational change’.

Shocking really and additionally my work as an HR consultant has shown me HR can be perceived to be overly bureaucratic, defensive and process-driven.

In this worrying context, there is a risk that instead of HR’s potential strategic contribution to the organisation being capitalised on, HR might become under-utilised and relegated to focusing only on core functions and efficiency measures.

But for me in some ways it is time to revisit some of what might be considered basics to create new directions. By basics I don’t mean functional personnel duties, I mean basics in attitudes and behaviours. HR themselves should harness some of that neuroscience! A little of good old self-awareness is needed in the profession here. You might say the CIPD measure this through their professional standards but I see it direly lacking in some HR learners.

We are not on a pedestal and must stop working in our silos. Recently a HR writer argued on LinkedIn, ‘No matter what you do (in HR), someone is going to criticize and distrust you — and many will hate you, even if they don’t know your name. That’s the reality.’

HR, we really must stop with this self-pity and blame! We are not untouchable. It is about building relationships not defending our territory.

Revisiting the basics it is time to communicate, collaborate and co-operate with line managers and employees. So many times I hear manager bashing in the learning environment. Let’s reduce our self-imposed boundaries and work alongside IT, PR, marketing and other core business functions too.

But we must really learn from them and reduce our suspicions to widen our understanding and expertise.

Let’s step off the pedestal and really focus on our 21st century approach. 

3 Responses

  1. Could you please tell us Nik
    Could you please tell us Nik what industry you are in, because much of what you describe would be readily accepted by some, but not others. Also, could you tell us the number of branches/departments/and Staff for each. Then we can determine how widely we accept or question what you are suggesting is a “must-do”.

    Cheers. DonR.

    1. Hi Don. Just wondering
      Hi Don. Just wondering whether you meant to comment on this article, or the one by Nik Penhale Smith on getting things done without managers?

  2. This article raises some
    This article raises some really important points that we’re currently exploring at the CIPD, in our research on the basic principles of professionalism in HR and related disciplines. It’s true that in management and HR practice the body of evidence is not as deep as in other disciplines, like medicine. And even in areas of HR where there is enough evidence – like in the case of diversity cited in this article – overriding factors and interests of various business stakeholders often take precedence. I think the core challenge for HR today is in helping to create value for everyone by balancing the interests of these parties (different business functions, the employees, the customers), as well as the different time horizons (short-term gains and long-term sustainability of the business).

    Like the author, I don’t think the answer is in adherence to a rigid standard or a textbook solution. The complexity of the world of work and the pace with which it changes today challenges the whole assumption about ‘best practice’: a process that is right in a large organisation may not even exist in an SME. Cultural differences in the ways organisations do business, and in people’s expectations about working add further complications. So at the CIPD we’re exploring the concept of a principles-based approach to defining what good looks like in HR – that is, defining a few basic principles that hold true regardless of context, backed up by a vast body of knowledge that professionals can draw on to design bespoke solutions that fit the needs of their stakeholders.

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