This is not HR bashing. I love HR. Not in a creepy way. That would get me hauled into HR.
The term HR is increasingly being transplanted with the term ‘People’. CHROs are being replaced with CPOs. Our organisations believe we need someone to tell us how to deal with ‘people’. Why not? We need a CTO to guide our use of technology. But a CTO isn’t going to tell you how to use your iPhone, and your HR function shouldn’t be telling you the basics of treating another humans as, well, humans. Because, as we are regularly told by various thought leaders, business IS people.
As someone who works in HR, I 100% believe that people are what makes a business. But I have routinely witnessed business (in the news and in person) who don’t put people first. So how can we fix the issue of the ‘right’ way to do HR/the people function in a way that has real impact for the business.
People experts that aren’t afraid to give it away for free
Imagine for a moment that you had managers who occasionally had to work on the front line to do the work of a fleet of electricians. Would you be happy that those managers didn’t have skills and natural aptitude to carry out that work? Would you see the frequently broken equipment and disappointed customers as a necessary cost? Or that fact that they need to phone in every 5 minutes for advice an acceptable operating model? I doubt it.
So why do we accept that managers need guidance from HR, at any level, to be able to do their jobs. Electricians, have vocational training and often on the job learning by way of vocational schemes, before they have the necessary qualifications to carry out the work. And in many cases it is only those with aptitude that do it anyway.
And yet we often accept we need huge support teams to keep our people’s motivation on life support and our managers legal. It shouldn’t be like this.
Don’t get me wrong of course there is value in people whose accountability is to think of people. And value in training people in people skills. But how many of our HR interventions have the sole purpose of creating independence from HR as its primary objective? It is too easy to be driven by unconscious biases to keep us doing what we know we can do and feel comfortable with.
The diagram below places pictorially what I believe HR should be aiming for — liberating actual people practices, including being ethical and legal, from being solely the responsibility of HR. All 4 quadrants add value. So this isn’t saying if you are in another box you are wrong — that might be right for where the business is at right now — but you should have an eye on the top right — isn’t that the case with all quadrant models?
And if you are still on the page that the current model works, please consider that 85% of employees are not engaged, 23% feel burned out and 37% of British workers think their job makes no useful contribution to society. If having an HR strategy is what is needed to look after the people does that mean 85% of workplaces don’t have a strategy?
Put a different way, have you experienced the centralised/decentralised/centralised rollercoaster? The story goes like this:
- The business is a bit crap at doing x (in the example of HR they are probably treating people like crap) we need some experts to guide this
- Experts from outside/inside the business are set up to create a function that supports the business. They implement everything they learnt in their professional training,
- The implementation over time becomes clunky and expensive, growing to meet each individual aspiration and slowly losing sight of the core business function. Creating processes that serve the function not the business.
- Someone senses the need for a ‘shake-up’
- The obvious means to align more with the business is to move accountability/people/responsibility back out the business
- The business has the same issues it had before and in time the cycle starts again
The reason this happens is because Human Resources (in my example) is human. And if you always recruit experts in HR to do HR they will more often than not implement by-the-book HR. This might partner the business but it’s rarely ruthlessly aligned to business outcomes. The reason the cycle happens so often is a version of the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ — because we are paying attention to something it gets enough of a boost in the short-term to convince everyone the change was worth it. By the time the ineffectiveness becomes apparent, everyone has moved on. Until it drops below a certain level to go to the next wave of the cycle.
The law of the instrument: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” — Abraham Mazlow
So what has this got to do with strategy? Well firstly each move from central to decentralised ‘requires’ a strategy. In fact, you could argue each CHRO appointment often comes with a healthy directive of ‘sort things out around here’ and incentivises the incumbent to start the next wave of the cycle. At least it’s a change right?
HR strategies are often built by HR experts, allegedly experts in people. And yet it’s remarkable how many people working at this level haven’t studied ‘people’ (psychology/sociology/anthropology/philosophy) but have studied HR. But this is not a call to rebrand all our HR strategies People strategies — it is just an observation that HR can easily miss the business but also the people in pursuit of doing ‘good HR’.
Understanding people isn’t witchcraft
“But you can’t expect business leaders to understand people!”
Really? I think you’ll find all business leaders learn consumer behaviour brilliantly. And yes they draw on experts and market surveys to help their understanding but the skill of integrating this information, using it to derive strategy and adjusting as they go along is something that all business leaders learn to some extent. In fact, isn’t it conspicuous the frequency with which you find the competence of understanding consumer behaviour amongst business leaders, compared to really understanding employee behaviour?
There isn’t a ‘consumer strategy’ there is just the business strategy. Employees are just as integral to the success of the business — that strategy should be as integrated as well.
The term ‘rent seeking’ generally refers to those who manipulate public policy to create a climate in which they can increase their profit. But applied to this situation you should ask yourself, “Who has the most to gain from making the policing of people’s behaviour an apparent necessity and the comprehension of understanding people a rarified specialism”?
There was a time where knowledge was king. Pre-internet you needed specialists, people who knew their stuff and knew the right people. We are in a post-information age, where knowledge sometimes even good knowledge, isn’t that hard to come by. It is wisdom and the skill of using knowledge that’s more important.
What the people-people should be doing
The simple truth is that the only strategy should be the business strategy. This doesn’t mean strategic thinking shouldn’t be more widely distributed. But the creation of a document, the investment in communicating it, the co-creation to ensure the business is behind it, should be reserved for the business strategy.
Business leaders want managers that are able to support that strategy, I don’t care how.
They want help to herd a culture that aligns to the value proposition of the business not a 14-page document on it.
They want HR leaders who are accountable for the success if the business — they don’t care if you did the things you described in a document they signed up to a year ago.
Keep the people component of strategy and the operationalisation of people administration separate.
Long term strategies are increasingly a thing of the past anyway. Businesses move too fast to keep the same plan year-on-year. If your job is to respond to business needs, then your planning cycles will often be shorter still.
Yep I’m doing that
But if you are a senior HR professional that can’t describe the business model and revenue streams you are part of the problem. You need to be an expert and business leader.
If you ask for permission to launch an HR initiative, you are most likely also part of the problem. Your work should be so integral it would be like your feet asking your legs permission to walk.
But the issue doesn’t always originate in HR. The business’ lack of understanding of how to build a people-focused business means they look to be told what to do. But ‘bolt-on’ people strategies are expensive and inefficient. The most progressive organisations put people first, they then (sometimes) need experts to help get the specifics right. Ask yourself, in the future, if all organisations are ethical and ‘get’ the basics of a people-centred business, what would HR be? This is the necessary evolution.
In essence, there is a strange unhealthy dependency between legacy business behaviours that see people as an afterthought, and HR professions that are so keen to prove their value they create work to demonstrate it. It’s an unhealthy relationship of dysfunctional insecurities.
For many years there has been an obsession with having a ‘voice at the table’ — an HR person on the board. The PR campaign for this was good. Most companies eventually had a significant HR person in their top tiers either because they really believed they should, or they had to for the visuals. This was progress. But it came at a price — the board could now look to the HR guy to make sure they were doing ‘people stuff’. In some cases, it creates a board where accountability for people is not evenly distributed. In my view, if you have great leaders on your board their job titles are irrelevant (although of course shareholders might not agree). Great leaders know how important people are, they don’t need to hire a conscience.
The essence of getting the relationship right between HR and the business is assuming that everyone in the equation is a grown adult capable of being accountable. If I told you next week that your job getting from ‘point a’ to ‘point b’ quickly, you’d probably take up running. Because you are a grown-up. Assuming you signed up to do that, it’s your problem to solve. Unless someone else makes it their problem and offers to solve it for you.
Grown-up businesses take the human beings in their organisation seriously. They seek to understand their behaviours and build something they would want to be part of.
Grown-up HR professionals know that they are the business. Not a separate entity competing for the spotlight.
A love letter to the great ones
Please let me be clear. This isn’t about all HR leaders. I have had the good fortune to work with many who, within the confines of the business model, have done great things. This is for them:
You have stayed close to the business, supported the evolution of a great customer-focussed culture, and generally helped create a great place to work. You are lightweight and heavyweight at the same time. You are some of the greatest leaders because you never felt your self-importance. You balanced humility with a dogged determination to do the right thing. You are ethical advocates and very smart strategists. You are leaders.
And I know, you would’ve done all of that irrespective of the job title.
This article is written by Trevor E. Hudson and was first published on Medium on May 21, 2020
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