HR background needed to run HR: Survey

But non-HR people can learn from experience and bring different skills to department
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/04/2009

The majority of people in the HR community think only people with an HR background should run HR departments, according to the latest Pulse Survey.

The survey of 2,650 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) finds 56.7 per cent think it’s definitely or probably a bad thing when someone without any specific HR training or experience is put in charge of an HR department.

Often people outside of HR don’t appreciate the effect HR programs have on productivity and the success of the organization, instead seeing the function as a cost centre. This is especially true of finance professionals, said Bernie Hagan, an HR professional in Toronto. Of the five finance people she has reported to in her career, only one truly understood the value of HR, she said.

Many HR programs and practices are developed to follow legislative requirements but they’re also meant to motivate employees to be productive, she said.

“This productivity equation isn’t an easy one to capture,” she said, especially for finance people used to dealing with clear cost-and-profit figures.

For many respondents, the answer as to whether it’s a good or bad thing when a non-HR person is put in charge of the HR department isn’t always clear-cut. Nearly four in 10 respondents (39.4 per cent) say it could be either good or bad.

In a small organization with a one-person HR department, where the choice is either to promote someone from within who doesn’t have an HR background or to look outside for someone with HR experience, it’s often better to go with the internal candidate, said Anne Goldson, an executive HR analyst in Markham, Ont., who was recently promoted to her role after the former executive HR analyst retired.

“People feel more comfortable going to someone they know than going to someone from outside,” she said.

This comfort level increases the likelihood employees will access HR services and programs, said Andra Brigmohan, manager of HR at Veritas Communications in Toronto.

Brigmohan worked for three years in administration before the president of the 36-person firm recognized the need for a separate HR department and promoted her to the position one year ago.

“I can understand where at a much larger organization you would need someone with specialization and a more extensive HR background,” she said.

But in a smaller organization, such as Veritas, as long as the person has the right support, she doesn’t need that background, she said.

That support can include training reimbursements, memberships in professional organizations and flexible work hours to attend classes, seminars and conferences. It’s also important for the head of the HR department to know where to turn to for information, be it a professional association’s website or employment standards legislation, said Brigmohan.

More than three-quarters of respondents (76.3 per cent) think the profession should take steps to welcome non-HR people who are responsible for HR departments and associations should provide them with HR-specific training.

In large organizations, the head of the HR department is often considered part of the strategic management team and, therefore, needs a good business sense, which an organization might find more easily in someone from operations or finance than from HR, said Terri Oliver, director of HR consulting services at the MI Group in Mississauga, Ont.

“Overall business knowledge is so important,” she said. “I’ve dealt with people in HR who really don’t understand what their company does.”

However, that’s not to say someone with an HR background won’t also have the right business expertise, said Oliver.

“It comes down to finding the right person,” she said.

If an organization does decide to appoint a non-HR person to head up the HR department, then it needs to ensure the right people with the right specializations are in place to support the department head, said Oliver.

Nearly one-half of respondents (44.9 per cent) think that by putting a non-HR person in charge of the department, the organization is demonstrating how necessary HR experience is for people who aspire to lead the organization in the future.

“I’ve had experience where non-HR people have been my superiors and it gave them a chance to see a different side of business and it gave us an opportunity to train them as well. When they went back to their line position or management positions, they had a better appreciation of the HR function,” said Bob Kenward, a 25-year HR veteran in Vancouver.

And instead of devaluing HR skills and expertise, by putting non-HR people in charge of HR departments, the organization is “saying it values their people and wants to give them as broad an experience as it can,” said Kenward.

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