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Jan 6, 2014

HR, defend thyself

'Why we hate HR stories' will continue, so we need to become HR champions

By Dave Crisp

HR is in a Catch-22 situation. We can’t eliminate people who don’t like HR. In fact, we often shouldn’t since some of them help innovation and it’s hard to tell who’s who. For the same reason, we can’t stop them from talking. We also know consultants looking for proof things need changing and reporters looking for horror stories and great headlines both seek out and publicize what they take to be “HR failures.”

So, what can HR do? A few things are obvious. First, we can accept there will always be a steady stream of "why we hate HR" stories and people recommending getting rid of HR. We can stop reacting with shock or letting these get us down, or worse — into apology mode. We can wear it as a badge of honor that if HR is doing its job properly there will be two sides to be heard on every issue. When we hear only the negative from observers, we know they have almost certainly missed half the story.

Second, we can refuse to contribute support for pure horror stories without counter analysis and clarification. All too often when these come up, HR people seem to jump forward to agree there are lots of terrible HR departments and that “HR has to change” as if there were clear solutions that every HR department should apply and many are too dull to.

We need to become HR champions first and foremost (without becoming defensive) with the goal of helping people understand the proper role and exceptional contribution that HR can and often does make — if it is supported and aligned with overall strategies which, as we all know by now, is the way things should be. We don’t need a whole lot more HR people suggesting other HR people need to change to align with overall strategies, but simply that this is recognized by everyone (with a brain) as fundamental.

OK, HR is a tough job and someone has to do it and take the blame. But where are the other champions? Surely no matter how tough and complex the challenges, senior teams ought to be able to agree on some approaches that are better than others? Isn’t aligning with overall organization strategies, for instance, one of these?

HR researchers attempted recently to show there are HR standards by which organizations can be measured to help investors decide which companies will succeed best – proof HR is important and can be done well. Yet HR organizations themselves seem to be battering away against these, citing the old objection that "it’s one more thing for companies to pay for and waste time on stuff that’s unproven."

Complex perhaps, but hardly completely unproven, though when I pointed out an article that annoyed me from John Boudreau of all people, normally a supposed champion for HR, a colleague wrote suggesting he and others are right to say there’s no proof.

No proof? We’ve now had 40 years of research proving certain approaches in HR work best and that developing certain types of leaders can be extremely valuable for organizations, sometimes raising results three to 20 times or more. My stream of previous posts has routinely cited such proofs or near-proofs. More appear daily in business and HR news. In the last weeks, there have been headlines like “When morale jumps, stock prices soar (for companies)” and an article in Forbes about how much is lost or gained from disengagement or engagement to name just a couple at hand.

The objection will be that much of this is anecdotal and situational. Sometimes that’s true, but definitely not always. Even then, where are the counter articles showing valid proof these things have NO impact or are bad for organizations? The "Why we hate HR" horror stories are highly anecdotal as well, but who levels that objection? Instead we seem to accept "I hear this from everyone" as if that were true or reliable and definitive.

A great many of us have experienced the heady success of a team well led and know there are certain leadership attributes that can be trained to make that happen, for instance. Are we simply wrong? Are we imagining all this? Is it blind luck? We’ve seen certain types of leaders fail repeatedly and can predict who and when quite often. We see another type succeed repeatedly and can predict a good many of those.

Sure the earth still looks flat, but how many times did Columbus have to sail around it to prove otherwise to the ultimate satisfaction of most. Success in financial terms should be the measure and there have been plenty of studies of that citing great HR practices, detailing what they are and linking the excellent results they produce.

Part of the problem is the supposed intangibility of the matters HR deals with compared with the supposed concreteness of systems like finance and IT where we are sure we can tell what’s useful and reliable and what isn’t. Sure, like the reliable financial methods that led to the 2008 meltdown of so many economies — highly reliable finance strategies no doubt, until they weren’t. Still we don’t see too many articles suggesting that finance systems should be eliminated in organizations. We often see suggestions to outsource routine accounting, payroll, etcetra, but rarely is it suggested the entire function should be done by outsiders.

One recent article I enjoyed was this by way of example: Stop wasting time on HR reporting. Sounds like HR messing up again, doesn’t it? If you read through you see the schizophrenic nature of the thesis, which boils down to "we really need good HR reporting, some of it isn’t." They go on to say HR systems need support, investment and serious work to become more useful and need to be integrated into all parts of the business with HR becoming a strategic partner throughout. They also note this may actually be happening, with more systems and reporting being done, but perhaps some of questionable value.

Now did that justify the headline? Maybe just one more word would have helped: Stop wasting time on "weak" HR reporting. I guess that would have taken too much space? Well, no, there actually was plenty of space if you look. I’d be first to point out there’s lots of weak HR reporting due to lack of investment, lack of interest in its value at high levels in organizations and lack of ability of HR to move resources to it.

Am I going to apologize to anyone for this? No. I’m going to challenge senior management teams to ask themselves what they need to do about it. Have they asked their HR people what would help? Who’s actively disengaged from these important needs of the business?

These are just some of the arguments for seriously questioning the stream of negativity about HR. I’m sure you can think of many more. Yes, HR proof and application are complex and have a long way to go for anything like 100 per cent acceptance, but getting rid of HR isn’t an option nor should it be if we want our organizations to grow and prosper.

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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