HR ‘Hate’ Endures

June 15, 2007
Two summers ago, Fast Company made a splash with its cover story "Why We Hate HR." The HR community, not surprisingly, did not respond well.

The central theme of the article was that a company’s human resources staff should add value to the business by finding, nurturing and developing talent. In most organizations, however, this was not what was going on, according to the story. Instead, HR was fixated on administrative and procedural functions and generally ignored larger strategic imperatives.

People seemed to get the message. HR leaders everywhere, from big companies to small, joined in the debate, and "Why We Hate HR" was seen as a well-needed wake-up call for the profession.

Well, somebody apparently rolled over and went back to sleep.

Just last month, a new global study of senior executives and HR leaders found that only 23 percent of corporate leaders feel their HR departments play a crucial role in corporate strategy or have a significant impact on operating results.

In addition, "Aligned at the Top," by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and The Economist Intelligence Unit, found that senior business leaders "perceive HR to be more focused on transactional activities … and HR operating efficiencies rather than high-level strategic people issues. … In fact, when senior executives discuss people issues, HR oftentimes isn’t even mentioned."

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard folks chatter about "Why We Hate HR." Many people, primarily non-HR business people, agreed with the article. A lot of others, largely those with human resource backgrounds, felt it was insulting and unfair. Now, two years later, along comes another survey showing that, really, nothing much has changed.

It would be easy to pile on and add my voice to the HR naysayers, but I won’t. I’ve worked closely with many human resources executives and professionals over the course of my career, and for the most part, they were of great help. I resolved many sticky people problems with the fine help of HR.

But the Deloitte/Economist survey is another indicator that when it comes to HR, something needs to change. It also points to a business truism: No matter what their rank or station in the organization, every single worker must create or build value. If they do, chances are they will stay employed. If they don’t, they probably won’t.

HR needs to be at the center of this, helping to build value through people. But if HR is not doing that, as both the "Why We Hate HR" and Deloitte study suggest, what are they doing? According to the study, "HR executives … continue to focus on their core role of improving HR’s operating efficiency, building scalable HR structures that can support the company’s growth—a ‘dial-tone’ level function that top executives already take for granted."

"It’s a stunning paradox," says Jeff Schultz, a principal with Deloitte Consulting, "that HR is not being looked to for leadership on the people agenda." Stunning, yes. Surprising, no.

I’m not surprised because it seems that no one connected to the HR profession—not the national organizations, state HR chapters or prominent HR professionals—seem to think that this is much of an issue.

I pointed this out in a column I wrote last year after hearing the president of a national HR organization speak. Her talk seemed to be completely out of step with the conversations people everywhere else were having about HR and the people her group represents.

So, as we gear up for another big HR gathering in Las Vegas later this month, I wonder: Who will step up and help our human resource professionals focus them on what they need to do to work strategically, add value and build people practices to maximize their organizations’ performance?

I pray someone will, but my fear—again—is that they won’t.

Workforce Management, June 11, 2007, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!