It's not HR that's to blame

John Hobel, Canadian HR Reporter's managing editor, responds to scathing HR article in <i>Fast Company</i>

Beware the August issue of Fast Company magazine. With a cover that blares, “Why we hate HR,” it’s not for any human resources professionals who are faint of heart.

The magazine’s deputy editor, Keith Hammonds, seems to blame HR for organizational problems that are often beyond its control — problems that lie more with senior management teams that don’t value sound people strategies. It’s a lot like handing a worker a spoon to dig a trench with, complaining about the lack of progress and then firing the person for being an incompetent idiot.

Which brings us to Hammonds’ first complaint: “HR people aren’t the sharpest tacks in the box.” He relies on the argument that the best and brightest from business school don’t go into HR, and adds anecdotes about HR people doing stupid things.

But attending business school should not be confused with an IQ test. As for anecdotes about “the dumb HR guy I once met,” the same evidence can be used against all professions. I’ve met my share of uninformed executives, incompetent doctors and just plain stupid veterinarians who would be challenged to beat my cat in a game of checkers. And I’ve met scores of committed, intelligent HR professionals who understand both the sector their organizations do business in and the people strategies required for success.

It’s not HR professionals who spend their time chasing expensive mergers and acquisitions that drive down stock prices, lay off thousands and disrupt business only to find that one company isn’t stronger than two and market share has eroded. It’s not HR professionals who make products unavailable because the needlessly redesigned packaging isn’t ready. And HR professionals aren’t in charge of engineering at NASA.

Another complaint is that HR’s metrics often measure activity rather than outcomes. There’s validity to this complaint, but HR metrics are relatively new. Figuring out what makes staff more engaged is complex. Many variables influence employee behaviour. Besides, study after study reports that the biggest reason employees stay or leave, work or slack, is their immediate supervisor. Until HR gets carte blanche to remove bad bosses at will, employee relations will suffer.

The article also complains about not rewarding high performers (as if HR has the final say in compensation), and that HR needs to do a better job communicating corporate values (as if there’s value in telling staff that squeezing salaries and resources is necessary in order to buy the CEO a second summer home).

A lot of the derision lobbed at HR is more appropriately leveled at senior management teams that care little for employees. Who is to blame when “employees are our greatest asset” is a meaningless phrase? Is it any surprise that HR departments in such organizations lack strength?

Give HR the tools it needs, the freedom to apply organizational effectiveness and the respect it deserves and watch the success that follows. As HR grows in stature, the success of HR-enlightened organizations will prompt competitors to do the same.

John Hobel is Canadian HR Reporter's managing editor. He can be reached at [email protected] or (416) 298-5197.

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