Are we asking too much of HR? (Editor’s notes)

HR professionals must wear many hats, have many skills
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/01/2009

Want to be a CFO? You’d better be good at math. Want to be an engineer? You’d better be good at troubleshooting and problem solving. Want to be the next Sidney Crosby? Let’s hope you can handle a stick and puck like nobody’s business.

Want to go into HR? No problem. You’d better be good at training. And employment law. Add in some conflict resolution, communication and, yes, even math. Oh, and don’t forget to be compassionate while, at the same time, firmly sticking to the cold reality of inflexible corporate principles and policies. Heck, about the only thing you don’t need to do is be good with a stick and puck.

Any way you slice it, employers are asking a lot from HR practitioners. What other department in the company has to wear as many hats? And the tasks that fall to HR aren’t exactly Mickey Mouse — they’re complicated and some of them can be emotionally taxing.

For this issue’s HR Leaders Talk (see page 15), we chatted with senior HR practitioners about letting people go. With the tough economy, it’s an exercise many HR professionals have experienced in recent months. And it’s not fun — HR practitioners candidly admit it can take an emotional toll.

People’s identity and self-worth are very closely tied to their jobs. It’s how they keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. It’s how they provide for their children. Losing a job can be a devastating experience. Yet for HR professionals, delivering that news is just a small slice of the job — another skill set they’re expected to expertly bring to the table. They have to do it firmly, with compassion, all the while steering clear of legal landmines that could cost the company dearly.

There’s a show on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs. In it, host Mike Rowe travels around doing work most people want no part of — such as being a roadkill cleaner or worm dung farmer. As disgusting as those jobs sound, they still seem better than laying off a good worker you’d like to keep but can’t because the economy is sour. (And firing a worker for cause isn’t exactly a picnic either.)

In the quest to be strategic — a battle the profession seems to have finally won — HR professionals also have to become business experts. They have to understand the bottom line. They have to build complicated business cases and prove return on investment for countless initiatives. They have to understand what every department in the company does, become experts at organizational design and stay on top of legislative changes. They have to advocate for employees, while representing the employer.

And they have to deal with the unexpected. HR professionals must cringe every time their phones ring — there are almost limitless possibilities of what the person on the other end is going to say or ask.

It could be a question from someone who thinks their cubicle neighbour is violating the dress code or wearing too much cologne. It could be a manager demanding the company fire a worker because she just can’t stand him. It could be the CEO looking for an ROI calculation on the last training initiative.

As more organizations realize the value HR brings to the table, the demands are only going to increase. And how is HR responding to this perfect storm of want and need by organizations? Just as you’d expect — with quiet, enthusiastic competence.

Are we asking too much of HR? Absolutely. Would any other profession be able to change and adapt and take on new challenges the way HR has? It’s doubtful.

But, luckily, employers have picked the best people for the job. Now, go answer that phone…

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