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Mar 3, 2014

The role for HR in the no-HR organization

Should we worry that great leaders would eliminate HR?

By Dave Crisp

If you’ve been following the previous couple of posts, you’ll know they discuss a new book about changing the way organizations typically work in some very radical ways. (It's called Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love.)

Some will worry (and others no doubt rejoice) that the example in the book is a 350-person organization that operates with no HR people. Since we normally advise organizations they will probably need someone dedicated in HR once they reach 100 to 150 employees, this might not sound like good news for HR. My feeling is quite the opposite.

It’s widely understood by now that HR has two broad roles in organizations. What usually comes first is a clerical, administrative role that often starts with payroll, benefits enrollments, lining up postings and interviews and/or doing some or even all of them for new staff. The core issues here start with paper-heavy duties that start as clerical tasks but evolve to include health and safety, human rights, union-avoidance or managing and basic training and development. These in turn lead uphill to more complex programs for succession planning, leadership development and so on — the core of training and development roles.

The idea is that modern HR continues to evolve toward strategic duties and tasks intended to first support and then, ideally, further the actual business objectives of the organization more directly. Stepping from clerical duties to strategic duties has proven challenging, with some who excelled in the admin aspects of HR not being up to the higher level role and even more organizations not crediting that HR could do this, and so pigeon-holing them as useless at this and therefore excluding them from the meetings, relationships and tools needed to do it properly.

Sandwiched among all these is the official shoulder-to-cry-on role HR is normally expected to play by everyone at every level of the organization. In part just because the name contains the word “human,” the role is supposed to take responsibility for fixing people who are wounded, hurt, upset, caught in some policy or procedure, suffering with a bad boss, being bullied in any number of ways or just plain have an idea that no one else wants to listen to or act on.

Actually, studies all show the first and main shoulder to cry on is the employee’s co-worker, but not everyone has a friend in the organization — something that has now become a measure of engagement. Those without friends, or who need more than someone to listen and sympathize, feel they should be able to count on HR to take remedies further. Mostly these involve delicate matters that may have no solution or that no one has ever encountered (and therefore is likely to mess up). As sensitive, open-minded and careful as we tried to develop our HR managers to be, there is no way to prepare them for the unbelievably wide range of complex individual issues they may occasionally encounter — often ones that would try the wisdom of Solomon.

HR mostly doesn’t relish exclusive ownership of the clerical stuff, even the higher level union/safety and other complicated policy and practical matters associated with them. They tend to be thankless tasks that can mostly only make you look bad if you mess one up.

Much as we make fun of it, most people choose careers in HR because they "want to help people" so they more willingly take on the shoulder-to-cry-on roles, but with far less training and experience than needed to do them anywhere near flawlessly. Like more counselor-type workers their batting average is probably around 50 per cent success (yes, psychiatrists, psychologists — all around the same). But that also means 50 per cent failure. But it helps to get at least some of these problems remedied and contributes to a sense that the organization cares, at least on the part of some employees. Mistakes in either clerical or counseling tasks causes many individuals to very personally hate HR, unfortunately, but that goes with the territory.

Ideally if HR could train managers well enough, the tongue-in-cheek theory goes, we could do ourselves out of our jobs. If managers could fill out vacation schedules, get employees using self-serve systems for payroll and benefits, answer all the policy questions or refer staff to information sources, etcetera — and if they were good shoulders to cry on themselves, with sensitive solutions to individual problems and needs, there would be no need for HR.

HR itself typically works furiously to help this happen — trying to find better admin systems, train managers to listen and respond helpfully within the rules, policies, laws and so on. We really do try to do ourselves out of as many of these jobs as humanly possible to cram into line managers skill sets. We really believe the best manager for everything is the employee’s direct supervisor, whatever level they’re at. Nothing beats someone who’s in touch day to day solving issues immediately... and correctly. Managers, on the other hand, have work to do and are fervently hoping they can lay off as much of this non-essential stuff to HR as possible. Work could theoretically run flawlessly if only it weren’t for the human problems. What the heck is HR for anyway?

And the strategy role for HR?

Well, line managers would like to own some of that and often feel just as excluded as HR often does, perhaps even more. In fact, where HR is respected and valued by a CEO and seems to have a special in, there is often jealousy, fear and misunderstanding of what HR may be telling the boss. In the natural jockeying for who’s the next CEO, executives don’t appreciate an outsider — who doesn’t understand the business — suggesting to the CEO that they may be too harsh with their staff or not conscientious enough with their people or not a good leader.

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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On getting HR when org reaches 100, 150
Wednesday, March 05, 2014 7:40:00 PM by Dave Crisp
Hmmm, interesting view and wish it were so clear. I did say 'their first DEDICATED HR person at 100 to 150,' meaning they may well have used consulting, part time, etc., prior to that and most probably do. I agree HR should be in the mix from day 1. Perhaps I should have been clearer and it's worth pointing out the earlier needs.

However, lots of companies believe the CEO is the chief HR officer and that goes for small operations where the CEO often feels, stated or not, that this is the case and NO ONE else is needed. They are as mistaken as they would be thinking they need no accounting advice as you say and can do it all themselves, but this is still common, which is a point worth making. I think many struggle along feeling they can't afford it and they are concerned about setting good policies in place, but HR is an area where many people think they know what those policies are... just as in the book I mentioned. Some are more or less right than others.

Without someone dedicated (full time) to HR you can still appoint someone to oversee those responsibilities consciously with or without consulting help. I don't think we disagree as much as we need to find ways to make this happen that don't appear to be adding overhead without understanding people in small businesses often have to wear many or at least, several, hats to make ends meet.
On getting HR when org reaches 100, 150
Wednesday, March 05, 2014 1:54:00 PM by Andrea Zanetti
I don't know where this idea came from that organizations are recommended to get their first HR person at 100-150 employees. I suspect it was extrapolated from the concept that a LARGE organization might have one HR person per 100 employees, and even that type of generalization doesn't take into account the breadth services the HR department provides.

I recommend we stop saying that a company's first HR person is needed around 100 employees. (How's this: You only need your first finance person when you reach $1 million in revenue, not before. See how ludicrous that sounds?)

HR people are required way before the 100 employee mark. A company may start out with a casual independent HR consultant as an advisor, then retain that independent HR consultant for regular consultation, then have a part-time HR person on staff (even with 30 or so employees), then grow to have a full-time HR employee at perhaps 50 or 60 employees. Starting the company on the right foot should be the goal of small companies, before bad policies and habits are developed that require significant retraining and cultural adjustments to correctly align policies.
Couldn't agree more...
Tuesday, March 04, 2014 3:16:00 PM by Brian Ward
Nice article Dave. HR relegated to admin tasks or not being regarded as a strategic support continues to hurt many companies. As an HR Manager I was fortunate to have bosses who saw HR as strategic and supported me in delegating/automating HR admin tasks. To achieve that I needed to step up to the plate and take some strategic risks myself, which I would urge HR Managers to do. Thanks!