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Your Reactions to John Sullivan's HR Dinosaurs Column

April 8, 2007
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Your HR Career, Featured Article
I found John Sullivan's treatise on the HR generalist profession to be disrespectful, incorrect and reflective of a lack of knowledge of how business organizations work. His broad generalization of the generalist profession lacks both specificity and is devoid of any reference to empirical data in support of his assessment and conclusion. Further, his essay seems to rely more on emotion than any substantive knowledge of organizational business process. In a final irony, it is likely that his article will be read only by those "generalists" who rely on your publication for relevant and current research.

I would suggest that if John Sullivan is truly interested in discovering dinosaurs, he need only look within the confines of his ivory tower.

Gary E. Banas
Director for human resources
Magic Media Inc.
Bangor, Pennsylvania

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The article on "HR dinosaurs" by John Sullivan was beyond ridiculous. Maybe he's really talking about himself. Eighty percent of the generalists I've worked with have been the complete opposite of the generalist he describes. It's great that he stirs the pot and gets people thinking, but this article was simply a waste of time, and I regret that I wasted two minutes reading it.

Ron Bozorth
Senior HR business partner
AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals
Wilmington, Delaware

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Once again John Sullivan has accurately portrayed the reality within our chosen profession. The HR generalist is in fact a concept that needs to move to extinction. Regrettably, I can hear the crying and wailing from a number of sources both individually and as professional associations. SHRM proved Mr. Sullivan correct when it decided that anyone with an interest in the profession and $160 could become a member and then, by virtue of that membership, refer to themselves as an HR professional. The concept that someone with minimal education, minimal experience and almost no business knowledge could in fact call themselves a professional, or even make professional contributions, is ludicrous. Somewhere the specialization must occur. Without that specialization the HR generalist is little more than an office manager, a general management person or, more appropriately, the company social worker devoid of business knowledge and very much the corporate parental unit.

There is a role for the HR generalist, make no mistake about that. Usually under the supervision of an experienced specialist or the rare highly experienced HR executive, the HR generalist can in fact provide broad-based project support to specialized HR initiatives—but not as individuals accountable to business units moving productivity forward and implementing change that improve profitability.

When asking these individuals to quantify their value added, you get responses like "Well, my efforts resulted in a reduction of lawsuits filed against the company, so I saved untold millions." "We made them happy so they worked harder." Uh-huh, and how exactly is that measured?

The generalist bases its existence on doing the job of management-employee relations. Recruiters recruit; compensation people do compensation planning and analysis, coupled with all the other things that go with it; benefits specialists do ... well, they do benefits. HR generalists tout their value by replacing management. HR generalists find themselves addressing ridiculous issues like bathroom etiquette, body odor, perfume scents and so on—things management should be addressing. When business realizes that all they have to do is make management manage, then the generalist has lost yet another niche. Generalists as a group do not like to recruit. Generalists as a group have a poor understanding of compensation law and ERISA. In short, as Mr. Sullivan so eloquently states, they are "hand-holding, silo-building, no-change agents who serve as barriers to HR having a measurable business impact."

I agree they are nice people. I agree there will be exceptions to Mr. Sullivan's broad statement (his relatively accurate statement, I might add). However, as a business function, the concept of the HR generalist is ridiculous.

Donald M. Herrmann Jr., SPHR
Vice president, human resources

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Incredibly shortsighted. He does exactly what he says the "dinosaurs" supposedly do: operate on opinions not based in fact. This is very hypocritical. I don't think he even believes what he wrote. He is just looking for attention. Unfortunately this e-mail does just that.

Michael Dragun
Director, human resources
New World Aviation
Allentown, Pennsylvania

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Aloha, John. Did you mean to enlighten, to put forth serious discussion, or just to evoke a response? This is the most cynical article that I have seen in years. As an HR professional and adjunct undergrad prof, you have offered a view of the HR generalist through your distinct lens, held precisely at your distinct angle. Shame on you as a professor of management science.

In the HR profession we have gotten rid of the type of HR generalist you paint in your article—years, years, years ago. What you have described is the "transactional model" of the HR generalist, which existed for many years. The new model is the "servant-facilitator," who is just as comfortable tearing down stovepipes as he or she is building up open communications channels, implementing change, coaching new managers who are having trouble grasping the corporate performance appraisal system, and managing cross-training and downsizing in their individual departments. You can call them to sit in on your meetings as scribe, facilitator or internal consultant. They make time. They help you solve problems. They help you explore or find the resources that help you solve problems. Outsource them and outsource the soul of your organization.

Mahalo for the rant!

Stephen Lenzi, PHR
Staff HR advisor

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I agree with so much of what John says about generalists in large organizations. But there is a place for generalists, and it is in the smaller organizations in which you may only find one or two HR professionals. In these situations, you'd better be a generalist or you will not be able to serve the diverse needs of your clients.

FYI, I do not serve in this role myself, but consult with several HR managers/generalists who find themselves in this situation. I remind them that it's important to be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades and a master of some; just one specialty will not do. What's also important is for these generalists in smaller organizations not to build a wall around themselves, but to continually reach out to remain current and vibrant, lest they follow the fate of the dinosaurs.

Thanks for another great column.

Ronald M. Katz
Penguin Human Resource Consulting
New Rochelle, New York

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I am a corporate VP of HR at a company where success is measured by quantifiable results. Our company has identified critical HR metrics through which we can be judged. Our HR generalists are facilitators of change working toward the strategic initiatives of the company.

I am concerned that the author is taking a strong if not emotional stance, nullifying an entire group of professionals solely based on his isolated experiences. While I am not a professor, I am a strong leader working in a "for profit" niche of health care where human resources is utilized as a player within the organization to effect change and further the organization's goals. My experience is that HR helps to bring down silos. We utilize the HR generalist model because it provides a one-stop shop principle. Our HR generalists support 500-plus individuals each. We have found that it is more efficient to be able to work through hiring and employee relations issues with one person.

Also, we have found that by standardizing our policies and benefits we have achieved scalability and our HR generalists handle larger workloads than many of their colleagues in other entities. We do utilize technology to be able to manage key metrics and source valuable information. Our HR team is always willing to be measured. We welcome the audits and follow-up that occur regularly within our organization because measurement is how we are able to demonstrate our results!

The truth is that most businesses are relationship driven. However, that does not discount the need for accountability and results. On an ongoing basis our HR generalists deal with complex situations providing expertise (e.g., employment law, compensation data, information on policies) to the organization. Finally, our HR generalists are certified experts (e.g., PHR or SPHR).

So, while it is obvious that the author is passionate about his feelings on this subject, I don't think the facts support applying his generalization so broadly. I didn't see specific case studies cited, nor did I see empirical evidence presented that would support his logic.

Lisa Courtney
Corporate vice president, human resources
Knoxville, Tennessee

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John Sullivan's comments are as ignorant as the comments of those who say, "Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach."

Ed Evans
Executive vice president, human resources and organizational development
Allied Waste Industries Inc.

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The HR generalist should be summarily given walking papers and told to find another line of work—and that includes me. In my own HR career, I have never seen so much policing, hand-holding, coddling, and feel-good stuff without making solid business decisions based on good metrics. The value my colleagues place on relationships is off the charts rather than the management sciences you talk about. The term "generalist" itself implies a death sentence, by saying we don't know what else to call you, but you do all kinds of general things we don't really understand, but someone said you are of value.

In the end, outsourcing is the way of the generalist and the real HR leader is by no means a tactical person, but someone who is going to be making real business decisions based on valued measurements like finance or marketing. If we are lucky HR will become a more valued decision science.

So you have a little background on where why I feel the way I do, I have been mostly a sole HR practitioner in small companies for quite a while, but also spent time in large companies. I hold a master's in HR and organizational change management, and function as an HR director in a medium-sized publishing company. Without going on for pages and pages, I just wanted to express my appreciation for writing such an article. I truly find value in reading about the not-so-feel-good side of HR.

Ray Vollmer
HR director
NewBay Media
New York

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I subscribe to your e-mail newsletter. To say the least, the article you published titled "HR's Dinosaurs" has caused a lot of office debate around the knowledge base of your author of the article. As a senior-level HR professional with a generalist focus on leadership, OD, etc., I question the credibility of your publication. A Strategic HR business partner is a generalist who focuses on coaching, motivating, consulting, etc. with other business unit leaders to help grow the business. Human capital management is the key to any organization's success, and a generalist is a partner with sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, etc. in the development of the strategic process.

I am in need of keeping this communication short due to I am scheduled to attend a meeting on metrics and report out on our scorecard!

Patricia Altendorfer
Manager, human resource services
Eschelon Telecom
Twin Cities, Minnesota

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I have a question for Professor Sullivan. At the end of his commentary, he stated: "With the dinosaurs out of the landscape, HR can begin to innovate at the same pace as the rest of the business." How would he suggest that this take place? I found his comments interesting and they did hold some truths, albeit targeted and blunt. I don't think that his comments applied to every HR generalist, yet I enjoyed reading his article.

Maxine Lawrence
Senior recruiter and training coordinator

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Scary that John Sullivan has taught management for 30 years, after reading his perspective on HR generalists. I pity his students. Seems as though he has either been exposed to incompetent HR or had a very bad experience. His perspective is antiquated and uninformed.

I work in a medium-sized, privately owned, very successful Canadian chemical distribution company that has been in business for 30 years. I have been HR director here for approximately 13 years, and although I do not know how Mr. Sullivan defines the role of generalist, I would certainly describe myself as one. Attraction and retention of high-performance human resources is a key objective for me and my department, as is ensuring that our compensation, including incentives (both monetary and nonmonetary), is fair, competitive and truly motivates our employees. Providing professional training and ongoing coaching to managers so that they are effective and have the right skills to attract, retain and build a high-performance team is another key objective.

Our business model is based on relationships, whether it's with our customers, our suppliers or our employees. They drive our business.Metrics are a given. We must measure retention, return on investment for training, cost of losing good people, employee performance, etc. No doubt these things are important and must be analyzed as part of the HR basics. What truly defines success in human resources (not just the department but the whole company) is the level of engagement and the quality of relationships employees have with their colleagues, managers, customers and suppliers. The HR department drives one of the key strategic objectives, which is to ensure that employees relationships are developed and nurtured. These relationships are the foundation of our business.

I have no disagreement with the importance of metrics. That's good business but not an end in itself. Please don't forget about the human element. I am very lucky to work with some managers in my organization that have raised people management to an art using their analytical and relationship skills as well as their emotions. Someone, please help Mr. Sullivan speak to companies that strive for best practices in human resources. It is obvious in his article that he has been speaking to the wrong generalists!

Joanne Modafferi
Director, human resources
Quadra Chemicals Ltd.
Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec

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I had to comment on your article "HR's Dinosaurs." Am I a dinosaur? When I look in the mirror what I see is an intelligent, well-educated, caring individual with more than 25 years' experience in the HR field, not a lumbering, extinct fossil. There is that word you seem to hate so much: "caring."

Do we serve a purpose? Are we there for the employees when their child has cancer, or they find out they have a heart condition and don't know where to turn? When they are having financial difficulties and need help? Or emotionally they are drained and need someone just to talk to? Is my door always open? Do I put paperwork aside when an employee has a question on benefits, wages, medical coverage, or they just want my input? You know I do.

Are we there for the managers when they need to produce results financially and cannot take the time to deal with day-to-day problems on the floor that are people-related. Do we keep them updated on the law, so a certified letter is not delivered from a disgruntled employee who feels that they where treated badly or differently than their co-workers.

Quantifiable results or the bottom line, do we save or make money for our company? Stopping unnecessary lawsuits and keeping up morale so we have a productive working environment; having a lower than 1 percent turnover in staff by recruiting and finding the best match for our organization; the ability to work in-house without the cost of outside HR specialists that have no idea who we are, where we came from or where we are going—you bet we impact the bottom line!

It took a lot of work to get to this point, and I take a lot of pride in being an HR generalist and in what I offer my company. Oh yeah, in answer to all of the above, it is the HR generalist who is there when an employee or manager needs support both personally and professionally. Emotional? You bet I am emotional!

One last item: Keeping up on all the latest developments, not only in subjects that relate to HR but to the business world in general, is essential to running a successful, caring HR department. You may ask how do I accomplish this being just an HR generalist? I would have to respond by saying: reading books, using a computer, attending seminars and networking with my peers. Surprise! I am not only caring, I am intelligent also!

Beth Arp
HR and safety manager
New Windsor, New York

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So much of what you stated in your article about "HR Dinosaurs" truly reflects my experience after 20-plus years of middle- and senior-level HR management. However, throughout this career as a client manager responsible for all things HR-related (generalist), and as I endeavored to define my partnership role as a valued team contributor, I have found influencing day-to-day decisions of policy exceptions essential to driving the mission and meeting our business objectives within the framework of legal and forward-thinking people management to be the greater donation HR contributes to business management. Having functioned earlier in my career as a compensation, recruiting, labor relations and employee relations specialist, I can state categorically my impact then was less and my perspective more narrow with a much greater silo mentality.

My belief is that HR addresses recurring opportunities to improve business decisions through effective workforce management. Help desks can rarely compete with this kind of intervention. Without such a perspective, we will instead yield to digitizing all things for the sake of easier assembly line automation. This does not help people to realize and understand what they do makes a difference. What I do does.

Lou Surdi
Director, human resources
Espanola, New Mexico

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There are several shades of gray you choose to ignore. By your own admission, managers should be taking care of the people problems. They don't! Enter the generalist—to prevent the litigation and lawsuits because Joe Employee decided to show Betty Assistant his new tattoo that happens to be on his butt, and now Betty is screaming for the corporate scalp and Sam Shyster, Attorney at Law, takes her case and promises her a million-dollar settlement and names you, Billy Manager, as the defendant not the company because you let it happen.

Yeah, generalists are all those things you said in the article, but they also put up with the stinky, smelly poo-on-the-table issues no one else wants to touch because educational institutions do such a poor job of training managers in the skills that they need to survive in the business world. I have yet to see, read about or audit an MBA course that even begins to address the real "people issues" a manager will face in the business world.

It's so easy for the CEO on down through every management level to say "Give it to HR; that's what they are there for." Now there's a metric for you: "What was the total litigation potential to the company bottom line had HR not intervened and avoided litigation." You have got to give the generalist some credit there.

Thomas R. Nickel
Director of education, learning and development
Annapolis, Maryland

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I take issue with Sullivan's use of the term "generalist" to describe the silo builders. What is his opposite of a "generalist"? A savvy HR director must know his business, strategic planning, a broad range of personnel functions, including labor relations in some cases, as well as being an expert in organization development and transformation. I would call such a person a generalist.

Robert Ahern
Competitive Human Resource Systems
Manlius, New York

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I couldn't resist comment on Dr. Sullivan's editorial.

How we mock that which we don't understand. The generalist role is to be a subject-matter expert in applying corporate philosophy and values as they relate to employees and to support managers by coaching them to develop themselves as experts.

Yes, the end goal is for managers to deal with most people issues themselves, but how do they become expert at this? From a university course or trial and error? Will what they learned in their last job apply here? If a manager's last job was in a command-and-control work environment, can they use a call center to help them manage people at Microsoft? What about newly promoted managers?

To outsource this would assume the person at the end of the phone could look up every human interaction in a manual and determine the best course, and that the same solution would apply regardless if the caller were from Microsoft, Wal-Mart or Southwest Airlines. Perhaps the intention is to have one size fit all—that there is a perfect corporate philosophy and value system that every company should use.

I can see how a medical doctor's job could be outsourced. There are a finite number of diagnosable illnesses, so one could phone a call center of experts, list one's symptoms and either get a prescription e-mailed or be scheduled for tests. But there are so many permutations of human interactions needed to achieve specific results, I don't know how a database could contain them all.

Considering how many times the call center says, "You'll have to speak to your local HR representative" for even simple benefit or compensation questions, I wonder who will be the local HR rep for questions about applying a new corporate initiative on performance management.

Mary Springer
HR manager, benefits/employment standards, enterprise solutions
Graphic Communications Group
Kodak Graphic Communications Canada Co.
Burnaby, British Columbia

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I am writing in regards to an article that I read this morning. I love the bulletins that I receive, and I typically take time during the day to read your articles and catch up on the daily industry news. This morning I had time between meetings and read the article "HR's Dinosaurs" by John Sullivan. I have never been more appalled by an article on your Web site. This article was negative, rude and demeaning.

I have been a generalist for a number of years, and I was highly offended by this author's view of my profession as well as the thought that a reputable site such as yours would post something like this. Most generalists have the ability to form excellent relationships, gain a wide understanding of the business and provide a level of service to a business unit that greatly surpasses that of a call center.

In this day, generalists are innovative business partners who align their goals with that of the organization. A professional would never limit access to a general manager or to information, and the thought is absurd.

Perhaps John Sullivan is the dinosaur.

Talisa Cherfils
Human resource manager
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