It’s hard to do the math on people (Editor’s notes)

Latest jab at HR on metrics has a ring of truth
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/03/2009

Every once in a while, someone winds up and takes a few shots at HR. A couple of years ago it was Fast Company writer Keith Hammond, who stirred the pot with his infamous “Why we hate HR” article. Last month, it was Richard Beatty, an HR academic at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., who took some shots at the profession during a speech to an audience of CFOs at a conference in Florida.

If you’ll allow me to use a bit of a metaphor, HR is to professions what Canada is to the world. It often doesn’t get the respect it deserves, it’s a little bit insecure because it’s a relatively new player and it’s an easy target for people looking to take cheap shots.

But are Beatty’s recent comments cheap shots? Or is it more a case of the truth hurts? Beatty, after all, took careful aim and fired at what many consider to be HR’s Achilles heel: Metrics.

According to an article in CFO magazine, Beatty soundly denounced the HR profession for being unable to provide analytics that are useful in making workforce decisions to build economic value. He also claimed many typical HR activities have no relevance to an organization’s success.

“HR people try to perpetuate the idea that job satisfaction is critical,” he said. “But there is no evidence that engaging employees impacts financial returns.”

He said HR spends too much time trying to improve low performers and not enough time attracting and retaining top strategic talent. Trying to be an employer of choice? Well, in his eyes, you’re being “silly.” That just leads to “everybody and their dog’s brother” trying to get in the door because it’s a good place to “hide out.”

It’s pretty easy to get your back up when you hear such comments about your profession, putting down all the hard work you do and all the positive things you bring to the table as an HR professional. Another option is to ignore his comments as the ravings of a lunatic and simply go about your business.

But neither of those reactions seems quite right. Beatty, after all, is an HR guy who claims to have your best interests at heart. In a later interview, he said: “I love HR and I want HR to be great, but I want HR to do much more to create real value and impact on organizations.”

While HR certainly doesn’t need another disparaging voice — in this case, an academic bleating from his Ivory tower — his words do have a ring of truth. HR should, and undoubtedly will, get better at doing the math.

But there will never be a magic formula. This isn’t finance, after all. (And how ironic and unfortunate Beatty’s audience was CFOs, the very people HR often needs to plead its case to.) You’re not dealing with numbers, with handy calculations and formulas to give predicted outcomes. HR is all about dealing with people. And people, as we all know, are a pretty unpredictable lot.

HR needn’t get mad. The best revenge is living well. Or, in this case, doing the math where possible and trusting your gut when necessary about what’s best for the business.

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