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What’s wrong with the HR/Personnel profession? – Opinion


What’s wrong with the HR/Personnel profession? – an outsider’s, now insider’s, view. Contributed by Malcolm Finney of Management Dynamics

“HR seen as inefficient at managing information” announces HRZone quoting some findings of Cognos in a recent business survey. Now I must confess to not having read the findings of the survey quoted but am not all that surprised. However, I believe that there are deeper issues with which those engaged in the HR function need to grapple. Some months ago in a legal journal one HR specialist suggested the HR profession is “the least understood” and suggested that the problem with HR is “one of awareness and understanding”. I suspect that many HR specialists on reading the Cognos survey will no doubt be thinking something similar.

This is not so, in my opinion. However, if the HR profession is misunderstood and there is a lack of awareness and understanding of what it has to offer then who is to blame? I would suggest that it is the HR profession itself. Who else can it be?

The members of the HR/Personnel profession (call it what you will, this is part of the problem) appear to those outside it to be too concerned with their status or lack of it, eg complaints about a lack of board representation, instead of concentrating on what they arguably should be doing. Namely, helping their management colleagues do their job “better”.

Whether HR managers/directors like it or not their prime role (certainly as seen by their business colleagues) is as support for so-called front line management. Unfortunately, however, so often they see themselves as free standing from management with their own agendas. All this does is to breed antagonism between the HR function and general management which results in making the former’s job impossible.

Having their own agenda also leads to the production and distribution of information perceived as important to the HR department rather than supplying what management really wants. Just as management has to meet the actual needs of its customers (irrespective of management’s own beliefs as to what customers want) if the company is to survive and prosper so the HR department should seek to serve its customers, ie the “in-house” managers. Failure to do so will mean the HR function will quite simply remain unused and its staff unwanted and unloved with its own attendant consequences.

Navel-contemplation also seems high on the agenda. The apparent ongoing debate about whether to call themselves “personnel” or “HR” specialists is a prime example. All that this type of debate does is to reconfirm that the profession is far too concerned with its own ego and agenda than with offering a much needed service. Achieving chartered status (whilst not unhelpful) will not result in immediate and automatic equality with their accountancy or legal colleagues. Such equality has to be earned the hard way.

And what about the break-away Training group? This group now seem to want their own separate profession, no longer wanting to be part of the IPD who it seems they say has failed them. The merits and demerits of the case are academic. Such public arguments only add to the external perception of ego and status boosting.

Perhaps much can be learned from the insurance industry. Many years ago insurance was perceived as a cost to companies. The in-house insurance manager and his/her department were seen as cost centres. Enter the risk manager. Agreed, same person different label. However, much more importantly the name change also heralded a new and proactive approach. The result was that insurance came under the control of management turning what had hitherto been perceived as an uncontrollable cost into a directly controllable profit opportunity. By delivering to management something that was seen as helpful, useful and of clear and direct benefit a not insignificant improvement in the perception of in-house insurance departments and its personnel resulted.

So what can be done?

First, and most importantly is the need for personnel/HR practitioners to recognise that the in-house HR department is there primarily to serve management (whether it likes it or not) so as to enable management do its job better. It can do this very simply, by asking management what it wants. The answer is not to tell management what it is going to get.

Second, is the need to become more integrated with management, not more distant and isolated from it. Walk the floor. Being locked away on a self contained floor away from its internal customers is hopeless. Attend departmental meetings of all descriptions even where on the face of it there appears to be no HR input required. This way you will get to know what is really happening at the so-called grass roots. It’s important, however, to do this in a way which is not perceived as spying. Trust, of course, between parties is paramount.

Third, try to become a bit more customer or user friendly. A start would be to stop referring to management/employees, as appears to be the trend, as “human capital” or “human resources”. Capital and resources are terms which should be restricted to items such as plant and machinery; cash at bank; inventory or stock in trade etc; not human beings. Employees resent being classified along side such assets and treated as if they can similarly be manipulated.

Fourth, abandon the use of voice-mail. Be it personnel or HR it is about people: their needs, wants and aspirations. When a call is made to personnel/HR a human responsive voice is wanted, not some cold detached impersonal pre-recorded message.

Fifth, reduce significantly the number of internal meetings at which only personnel/HR specialists attend. Your in-house clients need you. If you must understandably meet as a group, do so out of office hours when calls on your time from your customers are likely to perhaps be less.

In short if personnel/HR practitioners wish, amongst other things, to be given due status and achieve board level representation then they must stand in the trenches with management, providing the constructive support which management needs. They need to become a much more involved and integrated part of the team.

There is little doubt that many managers do not know how to manage and certainly are not acquainted with new developing techniques in the management/employee area. HR has a significant role to play in ensuring that management is appraised of these new HR developments and trends. However, to do this requires the HR practitioner to get into the manager’s world and not to simply stand apart from it. By doing so management will appreciate the practical involvement which will naturally flow and will see the HR specialist as an important ally not as someone who sits on the outside criticising.

Malcolm Finney B.Sc., M.Sc(Bus.Admin), M.Sc(Org Beh) MIMgt, C.Math MIMA, is founder of Management Dynamics, specialists in the provision of consultancy and training to the professions and financials sector.

One Response

  1. Malcolm Finney has an archaic view of the profession
    Malcolm Finney seem stuck in the 70s and 80s when describing the HR profession. He appears to see us as management lackeys, there only to hold hands and blow noses. HR can be a proactive force for change within an organisation, playing a leading role in communication and change management. It’s not just a matter of supporting management …. the HR profession is about being management.

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