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Why is HR so hated?


Following on from his series of articles entitled, ‘My boss is bad’, Chetan Dhruve explores the perception that HR departments are deemed unpopular within organisations.

“Human resources is a management term that should strike fear into the heart of every self-respecting entrepreneur. Of course, senior executives understand that HR is powerful – a bit like Mossad [the Israeli secret service] or the CIA.”

So said Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, in an article titled The truth about the HR department, in the Financial Times. And in Dilbert, the cartoon strip that satirizes the workplace, the character Catbert is called the ‘evil director of human resources’.

What are words like ‘strike fear’, ‘Mossad’ and the ‘CIA’ doing in an article on HR? Why does a cartoonist use the word ‘evil’ when labelling an HR director? In contrast, HR is supposed to give us that warm, fuzzy feeling. More than anyone, HR is supposed to be the worker’s true friend. So why is HR so hated?

“HR is supposed to give us that warm, fuzzy feeling. More than anyone, HR is supposed to be the worker’s true friend.”

In his article, Johnson provides a host of reasons for this hatred: HR staff control highly confidential information, they consume rather than produce, they organise pointless training, they are bureaucratic and so on. In short, HR offers no value-add or worse, HR gets in the way of real work.

To that list, let me add one key item. HR is seen as serving only your boss, not you. So while you can count on HR when you’re a boss yourself (even though you already have power), you cannot count on HR on the issue of your own boss (even though you don’t have power).

If your boss feels you are giving him trouble, he can complain to HR who say, ‘yes, we can help you’. HR then gets into the act – through all kinds of things like warning letters, performance improvement plans and other such weapons to get you in line. If you don’t get in line, you’re fired.

On the other hand, if your boss is troubling you, HR will not do anything. Have you ever heard of a subordinate complain about her boss, and HR putting the boss on a management improvement plan on the pain of dismissal? No. So it’s not surprising then, that an article in Management Today (MT) magazine quoted a survey saying three quarters of employees think HR is useless or worse, harmful. And again unsuprisingly, the title of that article is: Hands up if you hate HR.

Hate is a rather strong word. Why is such a strong word being used? It’s because HR seems to be missing the point that the boss is all-important in a worker’s life. The MT article stated, as though it needed stating: “97% said that their manager was more important than their HR function, which demonstrates that HR’s main job should be to support and train managers.” But should training managers really be HR’s main job?

What is HR’s main job?

While the MT article got the importance of the boss right, it got the other part completely wrong: although the manager is more important than HR, this does not automatically demonstrate that HR’s main job is to support and train managers.

Bosses are important to subordinates because bosses have power over them. So the issue for a subordinate isn’t that the boss needs to be better-trained; the issue is the power the boss wields. This is not rocket science, but for some reason HR ignores this fact.

Since HR sees its job as supporting only the manager – anyone on top of somebody else in the organisation chart – this creates hatred. HR is unlike any other function such as marketing, operations or finance, in that staff expect HR to be there for them as human individuals, not as human resources.

A big part of the problem is that word ‘human’, because it creates high expecations. Hence, when workers feel they are being ill-treated – though within legal boundaries – by their boss, they assume a function with the word ‘human’ will help. This assumption is a big mistake.

To really understand what’s going on, let’s look at two fundamental issues in the terms of ‘systems thinking’. First, your boss is a dictator and you are a subject, with the system being that of a dictatorship. The emergent property is fear. (For a more detailed look at this, please read my earlier article on

In this fear system, there’s an organisation called human resources. HR has human in its name, but supports your dictator. Like the secret police, HR holds confidential information about you – as Luke Johnson said in his article: “Those in personnel know everyone’s salary and bonus and all their disciplinary records. Wily office politicians cultivate them, since they help decide who gets a pay rise and promotion, how contracts are drafted, how individuals are treated if there is a restructuring and so on.”

Now, if a worker has a bad boss and eventually musters up the courage to approach HR, the door labelled, ‘your boss is not our problem’ is slammed shut in the worker’s face. Why is the door slammed shut? Because the worker has dissented, something not permitted in dictatorships. The message to the subordinate goes out: HR’s job is to be there for your boss, whose problem you now are.

“In getting into bed with the CEO and other top functional managers, HR starts talking their language.”

Ergo, articles like ‘hands up if you hate HR’ start cropping up. Ironically, most – if not all – HR people think of themselves as ‘people’ people. And indeed, most of them are. But HR folks have insider knowledge that protects them from having false expectations of their own function – they know they aren’t going to get any help from HR when it comes to their boss (unless it’s an issue of legality of course). So there’s no sense of betrayal.

But despite the insider knowledge, HR folks are under a great deal of pressure and stress. It’s not difficult to see why. On one hand, HR is expected to serve the dictatorship system. On the other hand, workers expect HR to be there for them. HR is caught right in the middle. Nonetheless HR isn’t excused, because HR is considered to be unique among functional departments.

HR is supposed to be different

But HR isn’t different. In getting into bed with the CEO and other top functional managers, HR starts talking their language – jargon like ‘strategic human resources management’ is spewed out. This jargon ignores – and thus insults – the people who work under bad bosses.

Instead, how about if HR said: “Strategic human resource management is not our top priority. Our top priority is the top priority of our workers – bosses.” Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Why? Because in a dictatorship, critically discussing your dictator is not something you do in polite society.

But the reality is that to be seen as a genuine value-add, HR needs to do far, far more in the area that matters the most to workers. Sending bosses on leadership training courses is not a good enough answer.

In fact, most people see it as hogwash. Worse, bosses feel smugly arrogant that they are considered leadership material. HR people feel they’ve done their job because the training is conducted and attended. The person who’s left out of the loop – the subordinate with a bad boss – is a hapless bystander in this self-congratulatory party.

The only answer is for HR to change the system in a genuinely fundamental way. That means a system in which freedom is the emergent property. And that means giving subordinates the vote.

Read Chetan Dhruve’s other articles:
My boss is bad
My boss is (still) bad
My boss is bad: Are you a victim?
My boss is bad: Organisations, CEOs, staff – they’re all victims

Chetan Dhruve is the author of ‘Why Your Boss is Programmed to be a Dictator’ (published by Cyan/Marshall Cavendish). You can contact him at [email protected] or visit his website at

10 Responses

  1. Missing or not listening?

    You missed the point so I’ll make it more directly for you. You can’t simply assume something “strikes a deep chord” simply because its read by lots of people – perhaps its not striking a deep chord perhaps its just a popular diversion, has zeitgeist humour rather than relevant subject matter, good drawings etc etc. To assume that cartoon is indicative of perceptions towards HR simply because a two dimensional drawing within it somehow relates to HR and its widely read is not just tenuous its misleading – there is no more reason to cite a cartoon than to choose my more widely read porn scenario.

    Harvey, is making the same points as me, your construct/hypothesis seems to be formulated first and then challengeable evidence and anecdote is use to support it.

    Neither did I say the vessel (glass) was important. I said its how we choose to react to it – MOST people don’t instantly react negatively and blame it on it a glass being the wrong vessel – (your construct).

    Neither is it defensive to ask for reasonable, sound evidence. If the construct was valid to any reasonable degree then sizeable employees would be moving jobs all the time wouldn’t they and grievances would be astronomically high?

    Isn’t a plausible explanation that people like to moan sometimes and often this is aimed at figures/structures of authority?

  2. Still perplexed of Broadstone

    Thanks for your reply. Nevertheless I’m am still perplexed about HR’s main job being: “change the system in a genuinely fundamental way. That means a system in which freedom is the emergent property. And that means giving subordinates the vote.”

    I’m probably at a disadvantage, not having read your books. However, in the world of capitalism, it is my understanding that everyone – subordinates and bosses – have the vote, usually with their feet. And subordinates are not powerless, even though it might appear so in the less trade-unionised environment of the 21st century.

    I think that the statement you posit about HR being regarded unfavourably is somewhat inaccurate. My business is survey/feedback, and I run surveys for HR Departments, measuring the satisfaction of their internal customers (both managerial and non-managerial customers). The results so far are NOT in accord with your earlier statement of 75% unfavourability.

    Additionally I run individual 360 degree feedback surveys for HR practitioners (amongst others), and again my experience of reviewing nd facilitating the data does not lead me to the conclusion that HR is negatively regarded.

    Whilst my HR Customer Satisfaction and 360 work indicates (unsurprisingly) that their are no perfect organisations or individuals, there’s no evidence that they are all c**p.

    I think that the statement that having a bad boss is the #1 reason for leaving is also very questionable. You might like to look at the research carried out by a company called Talent Drain. Their research report published in Jaanuary 2008 is downloadable at

    Yes, the survey reveals that there are some systemic issues which may cause people to leave…but these don’t account for all turnover.


  3. Examples
    Juliet – thanks again. With due respect, I think comparing porn to Dilbert is comparing apples to oranges.

    If there’s a cartoon strip that portrays a great boss and a ‘godlike’ HR director, and is as wildly successful as Dilbert, that would perhaps be a more appropriate comparison.

  4. Better examples
    Thank for your response Chetan,

    Your rebuttal if founded on the premise that Dilbert is more “credible and honest” than any study because it has “obviously struck a deep chord with massive numbers of people around the world” – that’s a non-sequiter.

    Porn has a larger global audience with plenty of ‘office based scenarios’ encompassing many power based and job interview scenarios, surely its a more credible example by virtue of its sample size?

  5. Response to Harvey’s comment
    Harvey, thank you for your comment – I’m the author of the article and would like to respond.

    The answer to the question, “What is HR’s main job” is given in the last paragraph – in my opinion, it is to “change the system in a genuinely fundamental way. That means a system in which freedom is the emergent property. And that means giving subordinates the vote.”

  6. Response to Juliet’s comment
    Juliet, thank you for your comments. I’m the author of the article, and would like to respond to your various points:

    The article is not founded entirely on one quote from Luke Johnson and the Dilbert cartoon. The article also mentions a survey in Management Today magazine, which says about 75% of employees feel HR is useless or harmful.

    Returning to Dilbert, the comic strip is extremely popular, with an audience of 140 million readers. The comic has appeared in 2,000 papers in 65 countries and 25 languages; add to that the 10 million Dilbert books sold. The comic’s characters (including the pointy-haired bad boss and the “evil” HR director) have obviously struck a deep chord with massive numbers of people around the world. No study’s sample size would even begin to match the size of Dilbert’s audience. Surely that tells the story and is more credible and honest than any study would ever be?

    The quote from Johnson is from a man who is in a top position in a large organization, so presumably his opinion also counts for something.

    In terms of objective evidence, a Gallup poll of one million people found that the no. 1 reason that people quit their jobs is a bad boss. (Link –

    I’d like to also emphasize that although my articles talk about bad bosses, they fundamentally talk about bad systems. I’m saying that we get bad bosses because our systems are bad. So the question is not one of looking at the glass as half-empty or half-full.

    The question is, do we have the right glass – do we have the right system? Just like how the container shapes the water, the system shapes our behaviour. Whether the glass is half empty or half full is completely irrelevant. (I would urge you to read my article on bad bosses and systems thinking at

    I have no support for the assertion that HR is supposed to give us that warm fuzzy feeling. But obviously you feel it’s not HR’s job to be warm and fuzzy. I don’t know if you work in HR, but if you do I wouldn’t be surprised – and that’s why you’d be protected from the illusions the rest of us labour under.

  7. Perplexed of Broadstone
    What is this article all about?

    If it is to answer the question “What is HR’s main job?”, then I am none the wiser.

    And the initial premise about HR being unpopular (hated?) is questionnable ……. although I have a strong suspicion that HR departments often don’t take time to explore what their internal customers (management and non-management) think of HR’s services in order to raise service quality.

  8. negative reality
    Mmm I like others before me take issue with the perpetuation of ‘victim’ mentality here.

    The article is entirely founded on one quote from Luke Johnson and a Dilbert cartoon – and then seeks to prove ‘bad managers’ (again) where’s the objective evidence and study? Even perceptions have observable evidence upon which to challenge them. “HR is supposed to give us that warm fuzzy feeling” – what’s supporting this assertion?

    One can choose how one reacts to any situation but to assume that the vast majority of the workforce construct their view of reality as “glass half empty” is misguided, adverserial and negative.

    Good luck with the book sales.

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