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The New HR Charter – a series that raises the bar for HR professionals


Paul Kearns

Paul Kearns is an outspoken critic of HR practices that cannot clearly demonstrate the value they add to organisations. In a brand new series for HR Zone, Paul sets out a provisional Charter for a new era of HRM. A Charter against which you can gauge your own HR function. This is meant to launch an on-going debate and you are invited to take part. Please tell us what you think of the Charter – by posting your comments at the end of this story.

Do you ever get blank looks when you tell people at parties that you work in HR? Does your department ever get referred to as the ‘Human Remains’ department (it does at Motorola according to my friend who is a manager there). Do you ever get frustrated by your board paying lip service to good people management practices? Ever feel ‘out of the loop’ when big decisions are made?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you are not alone. I have worked in HR for over 25 years and I still regularly observe and experience all of these reactions.

It is so commonplace, in fact, that many HR people have developed a whole range of coping mechanisms to deal with being unloved and under-appreciated. One of these is to pretend that HR is a very misunderstood profession and that HR people just have to soldier on knowing, in their heart of hearts, that they are doing good works; even if they never receive the public acclamation they deserve. Indeed, many HR professionals get a nice warm glow from believing passionately that their job is to improve diversity, keep employees satisfied, minimise discrimination, even act as a go-between, smoothing relations between hard-pressed managers and their employees.

A different view would be that the HR profession has been deluding itself for many years. The reason we don’t get the commitment and support that the job requires is because boards of directors see HR as an overhead: an administrative, necessary evil that adds no significant value.

Regardless of your own perception, my own experience has convinced me of three significant facts of life:

1. Every organisation I have met could get much more value out of its people by managing and developing them better.

2. To do so they need a team of dedicated professionals to make this happen.

3. That team should be the HR team but existing HR ‘best practices’ are not delivering the full amount of potential value.

Now we are entering the era of HCM (Human Capital Management) where the value of people management practices will be put under the spotlight and judged solely on whether they create real value or not. So maybe now is an opportune time to re-visit some of the most cherished beliefs and articles of faith of those who work in HR. Perhaps it’s also time to start setting some standards for the profession at large.

That is what this series is aiming to do. It sets out a provisional Charter for a new era of HRM. A Charter against which you can gauge your own HR function. A Charter to challenge those who purport to be HR professionals but who can provide little evidence of their professional credentials. A Charter for HR to be taken seriously at board level. A Charter to provide the answers that HCM is asking – what value do we get out of our people?

This is meant to launch an on-going debate and you are invited to take part. What do you think of the Charter? Does it set a standard that will raise the bar on HR professionalism? Are there any key questions missing?

This series is not intended to make comfortable bedtime reading. In fact, it might even keep you awake at night. But don’t be afraid to take part – healthy debate is the bedrock of a healthy profession.

The HR Charter

Would you satisfy the requirements of the Charter? What evidence would you be able to produce that clearly indicates that you do?

1. HR should always aim to act strategically.

2. HR’s purpose is to add value through people.

3. HR should link all HR their activity to business measures with a clear line of sight.

4. HR should report openly and honestly on its results and learn from its mistakes.

5. HR should only use practices whose effectiveness has been demonstrated or make everyone aware when they are engaging in experimental activity.

6. HR professionals should be professional in everything they do and only compromise those professional standards as a last resort.

7. HR professionals should be willing to share their expertise with others in the profession.

8. HR professionals should strive to give organisations what they need not what they say they want.

9. HR should be as efficient as possible in all of its work.

10. HR professionals should continuously develop their own professional skills and knowledge.

…and of course, HR should never indulge in any activity that could be regarded as unethical, illegal or unsafe.

Planned articles for future debate

Here are some of the short pieces that will act as a spur to the debate. They will be posted every two weeks and we hope they will excite passions, generate robust arguments and produce a clear case for the future development of a strong, respected and high added value HR profession.

  • Does HR have a reputation problem?

  • What does best practice mean in HR?

  • Do competence frameworks and 360 feedback add any value?

  • What does being an ‘employer of choice mean?’

  • Correlations and causation – do happy employees mean happy customers?

  • HCM – what is it and what is all the fuss about?

Paul Kearns has been an outspoken critic, for some years, of HR practices that cannot clearly demonstrate the value they add to organisations. He has agreed to act as both the moderator, guide and ‘shaper’ of the Charter debate for HR Zone.

Paul is Director of PWL, a specialist HR measurement consultancy and is the author of several ground-breaking books including ‘The Bottom Line HR Function’ and his latest work ‘HR Strategy: Business Focused, Individually Centred’ (see HR Zone review). On our sister site Training Zone, you can read Paul’s ‘Bite size business partners’ series, providing tools, tips and the tricks of the trade to help training and development professionals get closer to their business.

All contributions to the debate should be submitted online, by posting your comments below (click on ‘add comments’) or you may wish to start a new discussion thread in the Any Answers area of HR Zone. Paul will not be engaging in any offline ‘debates’.

Related item
Does HR have a reputation problem?

10 Responses

  1. Organisational value of HR Sharing Expertise
    I would just add a comment to Item 5: HR Sharing expertise with fellow HR professionals.

    If we see HR in the context of building an organisation’s people capacity and an organisation development tool, it is not just important that HR share their expertise with other HR colleagues. Sharing of expertise should go wider than this. I would regard it the responsibility of all in HR to share their expertise with managers throughout the organisation. In order for HR to be effective and business focused, a major success factor is how many other managers understand the value that can be added by excellent people management – eg throughout departments and teams, managers from the CEO to the most junior team leader appreciating the importance of recruiting appropriate skilled people, communicating key goals, motivating, focusing and valuing the team, giving feedback, acting as team coach and team developer.

  2. Charter – Expectations
    We are constantly being reminded that service and customer focus is what HR should be about. Therefore it would seem more sensible that it is the customers who use HR services who should determine what the HR charter should be. The world is full of inventions which no one has a use for I would hate to think this is another one

    I believe the HR Charter should be drawn up by customers of HR not HR providers/experts. Those customers may need educating in what HR can provide and have it explained to them what the business benefits of HR are. Maybe the HR Charter is a marketing tool to help provide this information but until (the majority of) firms understand , see the need and begin to demand what the HR Charter offers I feel it is not demand led enough to have impact.

    The reason so many HR people will back it is because they want to make a diference or want to be heard by the Board or line management.

    Having said that, I do beleive that majority of HR practitioners have settled in to a relatively comfortable existence, content that no one is challenging them and even if they were challenged they probably wouldn’t know how to respond.

  3. The good, the not so good and the…
    I have found myself over the years generally agreeing with what Paul Kearns has to say and applaud his HR Charter. Although I have to say there isn’t anything ‘new’ in what he is saying and that it would be difficult to find any so called HR Professional who disagrees with any of the statements.

    I’ve been in HR for most of my working life, having made the transition from General Management and am now a self-employed consultant. I have found that HR people can generally be put into three categories;

    1. There are the good ones who are likely to be doing what Paul has been advocating for most of his 25 years in HR.

    2. There are HR professionals who are fully competent and knowledgeable in their area of expertise but are lacking personal credibility with Senior Management and at Board level.

    3. And then there are ones that just lack credibility and vision. Interestingly when you talk to these people they tell you that ‘I’ve always got on well with people so HR seemed the logical career move’ – What’s all that about!

    For me, the answer to making a greater contribution is appropriate knowledge and skills but also an inner confidence to believe in yourself and have the managerial presence to articulate a vision/strategy in a compelling way along with the courage to extend beyond personal comfort zones. (Thankfully this can be managed)

    Add to this the skills of Project Management and an IT awareness that extends beyond mail merge and data entry and you are well on the way to success.

    HCM is a fantastic opportunity to raise the bar in HRM for those willing to take up the challenge. On the other hand I do have some empathy for those who are trying to make a contribution to a business who’s leaders criticise the HR function without getting their own house in order first! I’m constantly amazed at the numbers of people I meet who do not have a clue of what their organisation is striving to achieve!

    I could go on about the ‘people responsibility’ of line management but fear that this could take us of on a tangent.

    Paul is right to continuously challenge the profession, his charter could be wrapped up within the ‘best practice v best fit’ argument, but for me what really makes the difference is the personal confidence of HR individuals to challenge, and have the courage of their convictions to do the right thing.

  4. A Charter for results, not compromises
    If I can respond to Mike Healy’s question first – who’s Charter is this? I think it is a Charter for business focused HR professionals, not for administrators, nor those who see HR as just a support service and certainly not for those who have pre-prepared answers (Hay McBer competencies, emotional intelligence questionnaires etc.) for ill-defined or even non-existent business needs. Often, such ‘solutions’ are compromises (why don’t we just get rid of managers who don’t have the right competence?) and there is nothing wrong with compromising, per se, but item 6 on the Charter says that compromise should be the last resort – not the first. Maybe this is a shift in emphasis for most HR people.

    With regard to John Mitchell’s comments, I have to admit I’m very surprised that John thinks the CIPD’s agenda has been the same as my agenda (or the Charter) for many years. If it has John then I don’t know why I have criticised them so vehemently and publicly for so long. We could debate this at length but I think debating the role and position of the CIPD is a side and, at this stage, a subsidiary issue. Whatever I say, or they say, the Charter is about the practice of business focused HR and the value it should add, regardless of whether one is a CIPD member or not. Certainly being a qualified CIPD member brings with it no guarantee of business results through HR.

    I think the debate has got off to a great start and I hope that if we are going to disagree let us endeavour to disagree about matters of real substance and not get bogged down in any semantics. There is an awfully long way to go in this debate.

  5. Response to John Mitchell
    Your comments have led me to believe that I may not have articulated my comments as intended.

    I have faced the issue of added value and the commercial contribution of HR throughout the last twenty five years in Senior Exec roles with National Grid, Dunlop and other household names across Europe.

    I have had exposure to many CIPD Branches and the most recent have been hijacked by self-employed Trainers and Consultants who have never been near value added HR. In fact their whole Branch Programme seems aimed at providing networking opportunities for new business!

    This is not a criticism of CIPD as an Institution but possibly the reason why many businesses think HR is irrelevant. Which is why, in my opinion, the Paul Kearns’ debate is worthwhile.

  6. HR, added value and CIPD
    Paul is clearly right and I am pleased to see it on hrzone. However he isn’t saying anything that is new – many have been saying this for years; and that includes CIPD.

    What is surprising is to read James Brooks suggesting that CIPD isn’t banging on about these issues. I cannot speak for his local branch but the Institute’s Professional Standards are crammed full of the Kearns perspective. (So much so that many of those studying for membership of our professional body complain that it has gone much too far – they want to see less strategy and more hands-on operational stuff.)

    I notice the Devon and Cornwall branch had a conference last year on this and another on the Kearns perspective next spring.

    Please: credit to CIPD where it is due.

  7. Who’s Charter is this?
    As a previous HR Director and Vice President HR in large companies I tend to agree with the above points that the Board will wish to see the impact HR is having.

    However I feel line managment and HR practitioners themselves can often take the less painful route of plodding along and doing what has always been done citing the difficulties of showing cause and effect. The HR Charter like many management fads can only succeed where there are champions with sufficent power, energy and diplmatic skill to make the change happen. Managing change is not solely about setting an aspiration it is also about compromise and fitting others agendas around your own.

    For example, politics, particularly international politics would elcome some changes e.g. reduction in world hunger or reduction of CO2 emissions, however, we know that actually getting others to agree to these aspirations and then actually doing something about it is a very different matter.

    So I welcome the intentions of the charter and I understand the enthusiam behind it and for it, but I am more cautious on the practicalities of making it work. I prefer a hearts and minds approach where I win people over on a individual basis rather than dragoon them into doing something they resist.

    Best of luck


  8. Spot on the money – HR Professionals must note!!
    What a breath of fresh air Paul Kearn’s comments are. I think they are absolutely spot on the money when it comes to where HR currently is as a profession. Being a relatively new entrant into the HR world I find it extremely frustrating at how the profession is undersold. We as a group of professionals have completely failed to make a robust and believable case for how HR ‘adds value’ to an organisation. A fundamnetal outcome of any debate on HR and where it is heading, should be how to build the business case for HR. We as HR professionals need to clearly understand our organisation’s strategy and prioritize all initiatives based on the measured value they will add to the organisation. We need to get out and about within the organisation to raise our profiles as well as better understand what it is our organisations actually do! Finally as HR professionals we must first and foremost be able to clearly define exactly what HR costs the organisation in £ terms

  9. In agreement with Paul Kearns
    I am very pleased to see some sensible business focus associated with HR. Paul’s experience mirrors my own and to this day I suffer the regular frustrations of a CIPD Branch network made up of officers with no real value added HR experience, mitigated only by the pleasure of delivering commercial returns through HR in the various companies I have served. Anyone stirred up by Paul’s views shouldn’t be in the business!

  10. Ignore Paul Kearns at your peril…
    HRZONE members are fortunate indeed to have Paul Kearns contributing, and, yes, it won’t necessarily be what you want to read;in fact it may cause you examine fundamentally what you are doing and why.

    I would comment on only some of the Charter points for brevity:

    Charter Point 1.
    HR is always stretched either through endless meetings or equally endless time-wasting administration and cosseting of staff and managers who are too lazy to do things for themselves. Of course, HR exacerbates the problem by gatekeeping, or failing to pass on the tools to enable others to help themselves. This stems from an innate drive to justify the function’s existence, and explains why HR can end up dealing with Compensation and Benefits, Payroll, Company Cars & Telephones, Health and Safety, Pensions, etc., as well as sitting in on interviews.

    Charter Point 5

    HR is very prone to the latest gimmicks, and keen to impress by implementing them without too much thought. For instance, what is the point of psychometric and aptitude testing for all new staff / managers, if it is not first performed on the existing workforce?
    Emotional Intelligence and Diversity are all very interesting, but can HR demonstrate in hard earnings or effectiveness terms if these concepts deliver? Marks and Spencer have a Head of Diversity, which presumably means there is a department, but recent news suggests that it can’t be helping..

    Charter Point 10

    HR is very introspective. As an example, many HR practitioners I know only read “People Management”, “Personnel Today” and perhaps “Human Resources”. By doing this, they are failing to take account of the business world as a whole, the one inhabited by their Boards, Managements and other corporate clients. HR must widen its knowledge base, or risk being caught on the back foot. (Yet, for all this HR reading, how many HR Departments are ready with a policy in place on day one of a new piece of legislation coming into effect??)

    Finally, the last, unnumbered Point:

    HR routinely colludes on a widespread scale to support poor managements in the commission of unethical acts; the “paying off with compromise agreement” of people the organisations want to get rid is a typical example. Is it any wonder that the profession has an enduring image of “toadies” or “axemen -no sexism intended -“

    I am an HR practitioner of over 20 years, and have made mistakes, and will continue to learn until my last breath, but the fact cannot be ignored that unless we get our act together as business people, many of us will be doomed to irrelevance.

    My final comment would be that the CIPD does not seem to have taken a lead on this more realistic thinking, and could also become an irrelevance; how many memebers whose subs are Company-paid would pay it out of their own money?

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