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HR's Dinosaurs

March 29, 2007
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Your HR Career, Featured Article
Why do we still have HR generalists? I have met thousands of them in both large and small corporations and unfortunately have found most to be little more than hand-holding, silo-building, no-change agents who serve as barriers to HR having a measurable business impact. They view HR as ``art,'' basing decisions on emotions rather than management science.

    Now, don't get me wrong. For the most part they are genuinely nice people, but they do more damage within an HR organization than any negative article about HR could ever do. Corporations that have studied the actual impact of generalists almost immediately cut their number by half, opting instead for Web-based information systems and call centers that leverage corporate-wide technology for greater consistency and improved quality of content, which is authored by true subject-matter specialists. Some of the reasons why you should cut back or consider eliminating the generalist job altogether include:

    They build silos. Generalists are gatekeepers and fierce defenders of their turf. Their almost universal mantra is ``But you don't understand—we are different'' out here in Omaha, Costa Mesa or the advanced-widget division of XYZ Corp. International generalists have elevated this ``we are different'' excuse to an art form. Why? Mostly because as long as their region or business unit remains a mystery, they have both job security and a strong club to beat back any headquartersinitiated change. Generalists are not powerful by themselves. They learn how to wield power by limiting information and access to their general managers on any matter related to HR that counters their own perception.

    They resist measurement. If you look within your firm, you'll find that your generalists have no output or results metrics of any kind. They resist corporate-wide HR metrics and technology because once those are instituted, they'll no longer be allowed to hide in their well-protected enclaves.

    They rely on relationships. The business world runs on quantifiable results. Even places like China and Europe, where relationships used to reign supreme, are realizing that relationships take time and don't guarantee competitive results. Generalists prefer to build tight relationships (or even friendships) with senior managers, mostly because they don't know the business or how to leverage HR to produce an immediate increase in measurable results. You don't need a relationship with your investment broker if he provides you with a pile of earnings every week, and the same should be true for generalists. Many generalists are really just highly paid HR assistants who help general managers fill out forms, get through the performance appraisal process and handle troublesome people issues (something that should be done by the managers themselves).

    They rely on memory. I don't know why, but generalists hate to look things up. Instead, they rely on memory to answer even the most complex question. Organizations that have measured the accuracy of generalists' responses to questions have found an accuracy rate akin to that found in Enron's books.

    They are not experts. By definition, they do lots of things—but are experts in none of them. In a complex world where communication is cheap, it's better to have experts located remotely than to have someone on site who is out of practice in many important areas.

    There is no outsourcing option. Perhaps the biggest reason to oust the generalists is that they purposely make their jobs so vague and convoluted that no one could possibly come in and make a case for streamlining the function. Their lack of documentation, formal processes and absence of measurements are designed to protect their own jobs. No vendor in its right mind could produce a return on investment in such a job.

    Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to evolve the generalist. The time has come to eliminate the job altogether and invest the savings in technology capable of supporting enterprise-wide predictive labor force metrics and centers of excellence. And if you need someone for hand-holding in a region or business unit, just send an HR assistant with an Internet connection or a call center phone number and you'll get pretty much the same results for a lot less money. With the dinosaurs out of the landscape, HR can begin to innovate at the same pace as the rest of the business.

Workforce Management, March 26, 2007, p. 58 -- Subscribe Now!

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