PR wants a divorce from HR: survey

Communications professionals don’t want to report to HR

Communications professionals apparently don’t want to be part of the HR department, according to a recent British survey. Of the 100 internal communications professionals polled by the British Association of Communicators in Business, 87 said their function should be a separate discipline from HR.

The debate about where communications belongs has been raging on this side of the Atlantic as well, according to Julie Freeman, president of the International Association of Business Communicators, a San Francisco-based communicators professional network.

“Of our members, the majority feel that it does not belong with HR, but there is still a sizeable percentage that feels that it does belong with HR,” she said.

One of the reasons so many internal communications professionals object to the function being part of HR is that they view HR departments as “by-the-book” types, more concerned with policies than people, said Freeman. This can cause problems for communications professionals because many HR issues have a significant emotional component for employees. For example, when a company reduces benefits to save money, employees will likely experience feelings of anxiety and fear about what’s next, said Freeman.

“Where a human resources department is sensitive to that kind of concern, then having the employee communications department be part of that function isn’t a problem,” she said. “But if they’re not, then it may require that employee communications be a separate function — an equal partner with HR in communicating various HR issues.”

While it’s common for internal communications to be in whole or in part under HR’s purview, many organizations house internal communications in the corporate communications department, run by a vice-president or director of communications who is also responsible for external communications.

“There’s definitely a logic in that because the corporate communications person is going to understand the value of communication,” said Freeman.

If employee communications exists outside of HR, it’s important to have a close working relationship between the two departments, said Brian Orr, vice-president of human resources and community relations at London Health Sciences Centre.

“They’ve got to be working very closely together,” he said. “If that working relationship isn’t there, this doesn’t work. This is an absolutely key internal working relationship.”

A partnership

At London Health Sciences, HR and communications are separate departments but both directors meet on an almost daily basis and each of the senior managers has his own HR and communication professional who work in concert to make sure the manager’s needs are met, said Orr.

Whether a company is dealing with an HR issue like benefits or a business issue like bankruptcy, it’s important to proactively and effectively communicate the situation to employees, said Freeman.

“The employee grapevine is always active in an organization and often very accurate,” she said. “So it’s important that employee communication is a strong function in the organization so the company can have the opportunity to be proactive about any messages or information it wants employees to have and not just be reacting to rumours.”

Organizations also have to co-ordinate internal and external communications to make sure employees aren’t getting their information from an outside source, said Orr.

“You’ve got to give the priority to internal communications,” he said. “Staff do not like hearing it through the newspaper.”

Where internal communications is housed doesn’t have to be an all or nothing affair. In large organizations with a corporate communications department, HR might have one or two communications professionals who report directly into HR. In this case, it’s important for those professionals to have access to the corporate communications department to ensure they get the right professional development and to ensure consistent corporate messaging, said John Challinor, the general manager of advertising and corporate communications for Sony of Canada.

Access to the outside world

“To have a communications professional inside of HR with no access to the outside world can lead to an insular view when it comes to public relations and the issues and the challenges affecting the organization externally,” he said.

Challinor, who is an accredited public relations professional, has been an internal communications professional for IBM and Compaq.

“I worked along with HR to communicate those organizations’ key messages to employees,” he said.

When offered internal communications jobs that reported into HR, Challinor turned them down.

“I didn’t think it was in the best interests of public relations to be inside human resources,” he said. “HR has one view of the organization and it most certainly is an important view, but there are many other views. All those views need to be represented and effectively communicated.”

While communications professionals such as Challinor and Freeman are strong believers that internal communications should be a separate department, each organization needs to make the decision based on what kind of communications it needs and how well HR can support those needs, said Freeman.

“Organizations should look at what way of organizing the function is best going to satisfy the need of communicating on a regular basis with employees in a way that makes them feel engaged with what’s happening in the workplace,” she said.

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