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Dec 10, 2013

There's no end to the hatred of human resources

HR needs to actively campaign to get people to understand the profession is the 'grease in the wheels' of the workplace

By Dave Crisp

Sometimes a series of items triggers new thoughts. That can be productive, but you have to look carefully from several viewpoints to get the best perspective — and it may take you through some twists you didn’t expect.

First, a regular reader forwarded a link to another "Why we hate HR" article. My first reaction was to dismiss it as just one more. Then I thought I’d write “at least this guy tries to suggest solutions.”

I went back to check and noticed he’s also posted a 32 minute video interview of him and another consultant by a woman whose objective really becomes clear only at the end, after the consultants try to suggest various ways to fix HR. Ultimately she asks them with a sort of "we only have one minute left" approach to outline "horror stories that make them want to get rid of HR."

She isn’t very interested in hearing about fixes.

There we have it — a supposedly unbiased moderator reinforcing a continuing series of how awful HR departments are and the desperate struggle to suggest fixes. Why does this topic reincarnate more than the nine lives of a cat? Having picked holes in previous versions, I suppose I think everyone should now see it my way. Or at least I’m tired of picking holes in the articles themselves or adding justifications. Let’s try different approaches.

It’s time to face the fact that vitriolic and unfair criticisms of HR won’t ever go away and explore why and how it should be handled. There are several factors.

First, there’s a market for conflict stories, as this interviewer typifies: Tell me the horror stories, if it bleeds it leads, let’s expose malfeasance and stupidity. It’s the Dilbert motive — bad behavior is funnier and catchier than good, and it’s easier to find and poke fun at to get attention and a rise out of people, not to mention that in the re-telling of such horror stories they often grow in horribleness to make the point and garner sympathy, so there’s a steady bashing away. We see this not only with HR, but finance, IT, marketing, you name it. Why does it seem to stick more seriously with HR?

Perhaps much is intended in good fun, so one might ask whether HR is overly sensitive and why it rings bigger bells with more listeners who are all too ready to join in jumping on HR? I think there’s more to it than thin skin when we see supposedly responsible consultants, professors, reporters and others seriously suggest without a smile that organizations should literally get rid of HR departments. They still emphasize how valuable people are, but add how bad those assigned to deal with them can be. Why?

The second reason these have a life is that consultants make money by suggesting alternatives, just as the one in the link above — suggesting only parts of HR are useful, that much should be outsourced (to consultants of course), insisting that some activities are in conflict if kept in-house, such as trying to help employees while also working for interests of the employer.

Is HR destroyed by having to police policy and, for instance, reveal harassment (as the law requires) when an employee would prefer it be kept confidential? Is HR in a no-win position? Should we outsource half the job so the conflict disappears... and, if so, which half?

To a degree we are attempting that with employee assistance programs (EAPs) and external coaches — ensuring employees have ears that will listen who cannot share secrets inside the organization even if sharing those is intended to resolve the problems, yet doing so breaches confidentiality. But people often make HR their first stop, then get annoyed when HR doesn’t immediately take their side. But given there are two sides, one side will always be "not taken" and feel they have reason to be annoyed. If you have any HR function at all, this will be the case and those upset people will turn to outsiders to complain further.

The third reason is even less avoidable. Within every organization there are employees who are actively engaged, others engaged (but not so actively) and yet others disengaged and actively disengaged. Studies suggest varying percentages, but it’s common to think at most 20 per cent are actively engaged and another 50 per cent or so engaged with 20 per cent disengaged and 10 per cent actively disengaged.

Sound about right? A sort of normal curve?

But think what that means. Organizations survey and attempt to improve their numbers through engagement programs and HR tends to focus on that positive side of the equation. But... perhaps we should spend some time focusing on the meaning of the negative side, especially the actively disengaged rather than simply shrug and say it’s typical.

In every organization, there are quite a few individuals at any moment who are actively disengaged. In my former company of 70,000, a 10 per cent active disengagement rate would mean 7,000 individuals who are not just bored or disinterested in their work, their departments, their boss, their co-workers, but who are actively ready to bad mouth, complain, cause trouble even if only via passive resistance to any program or even worse.

I have to say I feel bad even mentioning this enormous number, but it’s so easy to say "10 per cent actively disengaged" without thinking much about what that means within day to day department operations. In an IT department of 500 such as we had, that’s 50 people actively working against the best interests of the company and other employees. Anyone who’s ever held a job among a group of workers knows these people exist and can name them. They cause havoc. Every manager’s time is sucked away from worthwhile pursuits attempting to deal with them — or they ignore them and are hated by others for letting the miserable bad actors get away with murder.

Is it any wonder there’s a never-ending stream of complainers who are inevitably going to hate HR and be extremely vocal about it? Sooner or later, these all end up on HR’s doorstep along with the ordinary "disengaged" who merely disagree with a company policy and are annoyed HR won’t make an exception or lobby for a rule change.

The latter are a fertile audience for the actively disengaged, but bad actors alone are enough to ruin anyone’s reputation. With HR typically being about one per cent of the workforce, the 10 per cent who hate them and another 20 per cent or 30 per cent ready to agree easily outnumber the voices in HR. People might be annoyed at a finance policy, say on reimbursement of expenses, but it is faceless. HR and the policies it must enforce are anything but. And it’s always easier to hate a person than a faceless organization.

You can see this will lead to more observations in additional posts. I say again, I feel bad even raising some of this because it sounds almost hateful in revenge for the articles we continue to see, but it’s time we took a look at what’s driving them.

Organizations are filled with all sorts of people. On a good day we only want to think about the great ones, the contributors, the innovators, the workhorses, the decent and good co-workers we depend on to make even difficult times livable. But when we ask ourselves why there is a continual stream of vitriol condemning HR, we have to spend a few minutes asking ourselves if there’s a remedy for those who actively seek to damage whatever relationships they can.

It’s easy to say just fire them, but even 10 per cent is a huge number. There are always numerous reasons they escape — the time involved to document, the fairness required (which hampers them not in the least), human nature that doesn’t want to deal with problems like these and more. Part of HR’s role is to dive in and try to help resolve this, a role not guaranteed to win friends.

So, HR friends, we need to start actively campaigning for people to understand we are the "grease in the wheels," as I used to say to myself. And the grease gets squished as it smooths out operations for others. When a line manager doesn’t want to take the blame for a decision or has to step in with discipline, it’s easy to say "HR made me do it."

People just don’t take to organization totally or easily in all cases. They will complain, and it’s us they will most likely complain about because they perceive us powerless, second-class citizens — as we have been portrayed by all too many participants and observers. Everyone has and everyone will continue to hear a stream of negative stories about some HR people (if not, as is often said, "most"). We can’t allow ourselves to be drawn into likewise condemning other HR people. Part of what we educate about needs to be the value of HR.

Well, there’s definitely more to say next time....

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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