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HR Needs to Stop Being Its Own Worst Enemy

Posted by David Wight in Business Management, Human Resources | 0 comments

Somebody Has to Do It,

It’s ironic that HR began as a payroll function. Talk about a no-win situation, payroll is taken for granted when it’s done properly, and all hell breaks loose when there’s a mistake. Independent of whether you think money is a motivator or not, employees tend to get upset when their paycheck is wrong.

Human Resources has come a long way since then. As it continues to evolve, however, we need to avoid certain traps that only detract from our colleagues’ perceptions of our worth and the value we add in helping organizations meet their business objectives.

How HR Evolved

As a function, Human Resources developed along two parallel dimensions:

  1. Providing services to the organization that are necessary for the maintenance of a workforce

 

  1. Providing internal controls for the management of that workforce to protect the organization.

From payroll, HR expanded its role to include a variety of other largely administrative functions such as benefits administration, wage and salary administration, the processing of job applications and even labor contract administration. Increasingly HR took much of the administrative burden of maintaining a workforce away from managers. This way administrative tasks could be completed more consistently and efficiently while freeing up managers to focus on achieving positive results. And managers were more than willing to give up these tasks since they seldom saw them as central to their jobs. That was part of the problem; while HR was providing a service to organizations by removing this work from managers…the nature of that work simply wasn’t seen as particularly valuable. Necessary?   Yes. Valuable?…not really. Whatever gratitude other managers may have felt toward HR for relieving them of these burdens was fleeting at best.

Some of these tasks also took on a control function, in addition to being more efficient for HR to keep track of time cards, absenteeism, and vacation time. This is where HR began to take on the role of being the company’s “internal cop” for employee issues. This control element of HR’s role began expanding when federal and state governments started passing legislation focused on the employer-employee relationship to correct organizational abuses involving child labor, excessive working hours without pay, and racial and other forms of discrimination.

This was particularly true with the Civil Rights and Affirmative Action Legislation beginning in 1964 that carried the potential for hefty fines, loss of business, negative PR, and tarnished organizational reputations. Unlike its previous administrative tasks, however, this increased control function suddenly gave HR both power and visibility within the organization that it previously lacked. And of course, HR eagerly latched onto these new responsibilities since what function doesn’t want more power and visibility? HR became responsible for making sure management adhered to these new laws, and protecting the organization from these negative results.

This gain in HR’s visibility and power, however, came at quite a cost.   These control functions were essentially defensive; they didn’t actively contribute to the attainment of organizational objectives. Instead of improving the rest of management’s perception of HR’s value, we increasingly came to be viewed as a function that too often got in the way of what managers were trying to accomplish, was resented when it threw around its new found weight, and, if possible, was to be avoided. At best, the managers of other functions grudgingly looked at HR as a necessary evil but seldom did they see it as doing anything positive to help attain meaningful business objectives. More often, management perceived HR as a barrier bogged down in bureaucracy and they only went to HR when it was required or as a last resort. And in the latter case, too often they had to listen to the HR “professional” tell them what they couldn’t do, or point out their mistakes in how they managed their people.

 

Trying to Change its Role……..A Strategic What?

Over the past 25 years the criticism of HR has increased dramatically. Some critics have gone so far as to call for its elimination, while others have noted the need for HR to change its role within organizations. In response to this criticism, the most recent trend has been for HR to position itself as a “Strategic Business Partner” to the rest of management. I don’t know of a single other support function that tries to characterize itself as a partner. Aside from completely bastardizing the definition of the word, just calling yourself a partner doesn’t actually make you one.   Instead, it makes the HR function look foolish,….revealing an almost desperate need to establish its worth in the eyes of the rest of management.   And don’t even get me started on “strategic”. How can we call ourselves strategic when most of us are financially illiterate and don’t understand the language that businesses use to keep score?

I think I know what they’re trying to say……..that HR needs to be better integrated in the core operations of the business units we support, so we can add more value. This means that we have to work backwards up the stream of their operations. The only way that will happen is if we begin to provide them services they perceive as valuable. HR knows how to crawl. Now we need to learn how to walk, only then will the business units begin to invite us to run with them. Being a bureaucratic administrative function, or an internal cop, however is never going to result in HR being seen as a functional “partner” that has a meaningful positive impact.

 

HR as a Valuable Contributor

Taking away more of the work that managers would be happy to turn over to HR isn’t the answer. The willingness to be the garbage can for the responsibilities managers want to get rid of, does not translate into HR being perceived as being more valuable. HR has to learn to push back against being this kind of a dumping ground.

Instead, we need to return to our roots as a support function, but our services need to be ones that the managers of other functions actually value…….services that actually help managers solve their problems and accomplish their objectives. Writing detailed job descriptions that are outdated in 6 months is not going to work; better to identify the competencies a role requires that can then be used for selection, development, succession planning and a host of other employee related decisions. Following up with managers to make sure they complete their performance reviews is not going get HR where it wants to go. These are the kind of mind-numbing, energy-wasting tasks that have contributed to HR’s current “pain in the butt” reputation. If an organization wants Performance Appraisals completed, make the manager responsible for ensuring that all of his or her subordinates with direct reports completes the evaluations reviews. Turn it into a managerial program…..not an HR program. HR would be better served by focusing its efforts on redesigning a process that actually works to help optimize employee performance since, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know the current approach is fatally flawed.

We also need to stop taking ownership for company-wide initiatives, like succession planning, organizational culture and change, and employee engagement, just because they happen to involve employees. Nine out of ten times these belong to top management; they are the ones who are responsible for making sure new leaders are ready to take over after they leave to ensuring the company’s continued survival. HR can support them with both knowledge and tools, but these don’t make us the owner.

Rather than the model of partnership where parties divide the outcome of their joint effort in proportion to the value of their input, I much prefer the model of internal consultant. This positions HR as a service provider to its managerial clients. The key now, is for us to develop and provide services that our clients actually value……services that that they think will help them become more successful.

HR needs to learn how their company’s business and functional units measure their own success, and then figure out ways to help them improve those results.   Moreover we need to be able to show the impact we’ve had on their performance against their metrics.   That will actually get their attention. Providing these services does not include taking ownership of these issues or problems away from manager. In fact it’s just the opposite……our internal clients need to be reminded that these issues are part of what it means to be a manager.

All of these services however must somehow be aligned with the company’s strategic direction.   If HR continues to   deliver them in a vacuum, the function will never been seen as adding real value, much less be given the opportunity to become a strategic advisor.

This doesn’t include telling a manager what he/she can or can’t do; as soon as you do that you’ve taken ownership of the problem away from the manager into your own lap. The manager who owns the problem makes the final call, unless there is blatant disregard for the law or a violation of core organizational values. And even then you are better off going through the established business hierarchy to get the problem corrected rather than the HR hierarchy. It’s time for our managerial clients to start policing themselves. Recently I read an article where the author was saying that HR was responsible for providing an organization with its talent. NO WE DON’T…..that’s just wrong! HR may be instrumental in generating a candidate pool, but the hiring manager makes the final decision. What I have found these managers value is when HR helps them identify the critical skill, knowledge and personal characteristics that differentiate between candidates who will and won’t be successful, and then helps develop their interviewing skills so they are better able to measure those factors. When we help our clients solve problems and become more successful, then they’ll start to become more open to considering other ways that HR can help them. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to work ourselves into their more core operations rather than being a peripheral afterthought.

Human Resources has come a long way since then. As it continues to evolve, however, we need to avoid certain traps that only detract from our colleagues’ perceptions of our worth and the value we add in helping organizations meet their business objectives.

How HR Evolved

As a function, Human Resources developed along two parallel dimensions:

  1. Providing services to the organization that are necessary for the maintenance of a workforce

 

  1. Providing internal controls for the management of that workforce to protect the organization.

From payroll, HR expanded its role to include a variety of other largely administrative functions such as benefits administration, wage and salary administration, the processing of job applications and even labor contract administration. Increasingly HR took much of the administrative burden of maintaining a workforce away from managers. This way administrative tasks could be completed more consistently and efficiently while freeing up managers to focus on achieving positive results. And managers were more than willing to give up these tasks since they seldom saw them as central to their jobs. That was part of the problem; while HR was providing a service to organizations by removing this work from managers…the nature of that work simply wasn’t seen as particularly valuable. Necessary?   Yes. Valuable?…not really. Whatever gratitude other managers may have felt toward HR for relieving them of these burdens was fleeting at best.

Some of these tasks also took on a control function, in addition to being more efficient for HR to keep track of time cards, absenteeism, and vacation time. This is where HR began to take on the role of being the company’s “internal cop” for employee issues. This control element of HR’s role began expanding when federal and state governments started passing legislation focused on the employer-employee relationship to correct organizational abuses involving child labor, excessive working hours without pay, and racial and other forms of discrimination.

This was particularly true with the Civil Rights and Affirmative Action Legislation beginning in 1964 that carried the potential for hefty fines, loss of business, negative PR, and tarnished organizational reputations. Unlike its previous administrative tasks, however, this increased control function suddenly gave HR both power and visibility within the organization that it previously lacked. And of course, HR eagerly latched onto these new responsibilities since what function doesn’t want more power and visibility? HR became responsible for making sure management adhered to these new laws, and protecting the organization from these negative results.

This gain in HR’s visibility and power, however, came at quite a cost.   These control functions were essentially defensive; they didn’t actively contribute to the attainment of organizational objectives. Instead of improving the rest of management’s perception of HR’s value, we increasingly came to be viewed as a function that too often got in the way of what managers were trying to accomplish, was resented when it threw around its new found weight, and, if possible, was to be avoided. At best, the managers of other functions grudgingly looked at HR as a necessary evil but seldom did they see it as doing anything positive to help attain meaningful business objectives. More often, management perceived HR as a barrier bogged down in bureaucracy and they only went to HR when it was required or as a last resort. And in the latter case, too often they had to listen to the HR “professional” tell them what they couldn’t do, or point out their mistakes in how they managed their people.

 

Trying to Change its Role……..A Strategic What?

Over the past 25 years the criticism of HR has increased dramatically. Some critics have gone so far as to call for its elimination, while others have noted the need for HR to change its role within organizations. In response to this criticism, the most recent trend has been for HR to position itself as a “Strategic Business Partner” to the rest of management. I don’t know of a single other support function that tries to characterize itself as a partner. Aside from completely bastardizing the definition of the word, just calling yourself a partner doesn’t actually make you one.   Instead, it makes the HR function look foolish,….revealing an almost desperate need to establish its worth in the eyes of the rest of management.   And don’t even get me started on “strategic”. How can we call ourselves strategic when most of us are financially illiterate and don’t understand the language that businesses use to keep score?

I think I know what they’re trying to say……..that HR needs to be better integrated in the core operations of the business units we support, so we can add more value. This means that we have to work backwards up the stream of their operations. The only way that will happen is if we begin to provide them services they perceive as valuable. HR knows how to crawl. Now we need to learn how to walk, only then will the business units begin to invite us to run with them. Being a bureaucratic administrative function, or an internal cop, however is never going to result in HR being seen as a functional “partner” that has a meaningful positive impact.

 

HR as a Valuable Contributor

Taking away more of the work that managers would be happy to turn over to HR isn’t the answer. The willingness to be the garbage can for the responsibilities managers want to get rid of, does not translate into HR being perceived as being more valuable. HR has to learn to push back against being this kind of a dumping ground.

Instead, we need to return to our roots as a support function, but our services need to be ones that the managers of other functions actually value…….services that actually help managers solve their problems and accomplish their objectives. Writing detailed job descriptions that are outdated in 6 months is not going to work; better to identify the competencies a role requires that can then be used for selection, development, succession planning and a host of other employee related decisions. Following up with managers to make sure they complete their performance reviews is not going get HR where it wants to go. These are the kind of mind-numbing, energy-wasting tasks that have contributed to HR’s current “pain in the butt” reputation. If an organization wants Performance Appraisals completed, make the manager responsible for ensuring that all of his or her subordinates with direct reports completes the evaluations reviews. Turn it into a managerial program…..not an HR program. HR would be better served by focusing its efforts on redesigning a process that actually works to help optimize employee performance since, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know the current approach is fatally flawed.

We also need to stop taking ownership for company-wide initiatives, like succession planning, organizational culture and change, and employee engagement, just because they happen to involve employees. Nine out of ten times these belong to top management; they are the ones who are responsible for making sure new leaders are ready to take over after they leave to ensuring the company’s continued survival. HR can support them with both knowledge and tools, but these don’t make us the owner.

Rather than the model of partnership where parties divide the outcome of their joint effort in proportion to the value of their input, I much prefer the model of internal consultant. This positions HR as a service provider to its managerial clients. The key now, is for us to develop and provide services that our clients actually value……services that that they think will help them become more successful.

HR needs to learn how their company’s business and functional units measure their own success, and then figure out ways to help them improve those results.   Moreover we need to be able to show the impact we’ve had on their performance against their metrics.   That will actually get their attention. Providing these services does not include taking ownership of these issues or problems away from manager. In fact it’s just the opposite……our internal clients need to be reminded that these issues are part of what it means to be a manager.

All of these services however must somehow be aligned with the company’s strategic direction.   If HR continues to   deliver them in a vacuum, the function will never been seen as adding real value, much less be given the opportunity to become a strategic advisor.

This doesn’t include telling a manager what he/she can or can’t do; as soon as you do that you’ve taken ownership of the problem away from the manager into your own lap. The manager who owns the problem makes the final call, unless there is blatant disregard for the law or a violation of core organizational values. And even then you are better off going through the established business hierarchy to get the problem corrected rather than the HR hierarchy. It’s time for our managerial clients to start policing themselves. Recently I read an article where the author was saying that HR was responsible for providing an organization with its talent. NO WE DON’T…..that’s just wrong! HR may be instrumental in generating a candidate pool, but the hiring manager makes the final decision. What I have found these managers value is when HR helps them identify the critical skill, knowledge and personal characteristics that differentiate between candidates who will and won’t be successful, and then helps develop their interviewing skills so they are better able to measure those factors. When we help our clients solve problems and become more successful, then they’ll start to become more open to considering other ways that HR can help them. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to work ourselves into their more core operations rather than being a peripheral afterthought.

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