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Improving HR’s image

Combating negative, outdated HR stereotypes

By Brian Kreissl

HR still gets considerable criticism from a lot of different quarters. Some of it might actually be deserved, but a lot comes from outdated stereotypes and a misunderstanding of the role of HR within organizations.

Below, I list some of those stereotypes and examine whether there’s any truth to them. I’ve also attempted to offer solutions to how we can combat some of the negative feelings surrounding our profession, further our careers and expand our knowledge in the process.

HR is too ‘touchy-feely’

This old stereotype still sees HR as the planner of company picnics. According to this thinking, we’re all so nice, well-meaning and friendly, but not terribly efficient, diligent or intelligent.

Part of this comes from the fact we’re all about people, and some of it harks back to a time when HR was more transactional in nature. While I don’t think we want to entirely lose the feeling we’re warm, caring people, we can do without people thinking of HR as the “ditzes” of the corporate world.

This can be accomplished by learning more about the business, showing more of a concern for the bottom line, delivering value-added HR programs in line with the organization’s strategy and by increasing the capability and effectiveness of managers. We also need to do a better job educating people about just what HR actually does.

HR isn’t strategic enough

We’ve been hearing this one for 30 years now. But I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I don’t think every HR practitioner can or should be operating at a strategic level.

But I do think what so many in HR miss is they don’t understand what “strategic” actually means. It gets a bit annoying hearing some HR professionals tacking the word “strategic” onto something in hopes that will make it so.

There are many excellent books and courses out there on business strategy. It’s also helpful to get a broader understanding of business in general and the specific business you’re in.

HR is just overhead

Whenever there’s an organizational downsizing, HR is often one of the first areas to be cut. Too often, we’re thought of as unnecessary “overhead.”

In some organizations, we might actually be a victim of our own success. In many ways, the goal of a talented HR professional is to make herself obsolete by enabling line managers within the organization.

Yet, line managers can’t do it all by themselves. HR needs to figure out how to be indispensable by continually reinventing itself. Therefore, it’s vital to understand what’s currently keeping managers up at night.

HR is too compliance-focused

This kind of surprises me in a way, because I think many HR professionals could actually improve on their knowledge and understanding of employment law. So, I think it’s a fair criticism of many senior executives to say they’re hoping to ignore the compliance side of business and somehow blame HR for the ever increasing regulation of the employment relationship.

However, I’ve also met some HR professionals who — because of their lack of legal knowledge — were constantly worrying about being sued, even for silly reasons. If they truly understood the legal side they’d be better able to help their organizations manage and avoid legal risks.

HR departments don’t treat their own people very well

For some reason, walking into many HR departments, the tension is palpable. Why is that? Wouldn’t you think a company’s HR department should be one of the best places to work?

As HR professionals, before we turn our organizations into employers of choice, perhaps we’d better get our own houses in order. If there’s backstabbing, lack of information sharing or bullying in the HR department, how can we be taken seriously as the drivers of organizational excellence?

HR people are too negative

This is something I’ve noticed myself. A lot of HR professionals can be unduly negative at times — probably because they’re sick of the stereotype we’re all so “nice.”

I believe it’s also a result of the mistaken belief that cutting something down just for the sake of doing so makes one look more intelligent and “strategic.” This might work for a while, but if you do this for long enough, people will catch on.

If something stinks, say so. Offer genuine and constructive feedback for improvement.

But if someone’s done a really good job on something or a program is working really well, don’t be afraid to give credit where it’s due. And don’t frantically search for something negative to say just because you can.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit 

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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