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Why HR Can't Win Today

May 1, 1998
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Featured Article
If you've been feeling "damned if you do and damned if you don't" lately, you're not alone. Human resources professionals everywhere are feeling they can't win today than ever before. And they're shouldering more role-related dilemmas as a result. Remember the UPS strike a few months ago? There, the HR leaders tried to temper strategic workforce-planning issues against temporary workers' needs. And how about the Texaco racial-discrimination case last year involving secret audiotapes and allegations of racism among senior managers? HR had instituted diversity training, but incidents of apparent racism and discrimination happened anyway -- and ultimately cost the firm more than $175 million.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna (played by Gilda Radner) humorously used to say on "Saturday Night Live": "If it's not one thing, it's another." She certainly had a point. Many human resources professionals can relate.

While strikes and discrimination charges are no laughing matter, for HR professionals, dilemmas like them are hitting faster, harder and more profoundly than ever. Consider these real HR issues: Employees are filing more lawsuits than ever. Disgruntled line managers need state-of-the art training -- yesterday. CEOs won't let HR anywhere near the strategic planning table, but in their next breath profess: "Employees are our most important asset."

It's time for an HR reality check. As if you didn't already know it, the damned feeling is real. What you might not have thought about is that much of the frustration stems from dichotomies in the many roles HR plays. It could be that your HR department has so many internal and external customers -- the senior management team, CEOs, employees, shareholders and other stakeholders -- that you're having a hard time steadying your eyes on the firm's business goals and your HR mission in fulfilling those goals.

Of course, there are no simple answers to the complexities of HR's many dilemmas, or to figuring out which roles the HR department should play in organizational strategy. But understanding where the dilemmas lie and why your current HR role is causing confusion, is a good place to start.

Damned, no matter what.
How often do HR professionals feel damned? "All the time," says Max Wagoner, HR director for P2S Engineering Inc., which is based in Long Beach, California, and employs 69 workers. "I've told people the job is many times like being a high-wire walker. You can't afford to deviate even marginally from a very straight line without falling off. And, of course, falling off can be very expensive."

One of these expensive areas where HR often faces the "damned if you do or don't" scenario is employment law and other legal entanglements. "There have been times I remember thinking that if I did A I'd be breaking one law and if I did B I'd be breaking another, and the only choices were A or B," laments Wagoner. "So sometimes it meant making a decision as to which of the choices would be the least costly or have the least chance of coming back to bite us."

But legal entanglements are only one reason why HR people are feeling damned these days, albeit a big reason. HR also has to fight old stereotypes and is still punished, it seems, for past sins. Other times, senior managers simply aren't willing to allow HR's emerging role as business partner. "I just left an organization where HR was just damned," says Nancy Probst, who's now a manager and organizational development (OD) consultant of management advisory services for Dixon Odom PLLC, a certified public accounting and management advisory firm, based in High Point, North Carolina. At her old firm, a large health-care system for which she was the director of organization development, Probst says she had helped her boss, the chief HR officer, outline a vision of HR as a strategic business partner. Unfortunately, the directors in that organization just couldn't see the HR leader's vision and fought it constantly. They truly preferred to preserve the paper-pushing, compliance/police role human resources had played for so many years," she adds. "As a result, in their eyes, HR had little respect and basically couldn't do anything right."

That's not to say the damned feeling is unique to HR professionals. Other directors of business functions, such as sales, production, accounting and marketing, also experience job frustrations and dilemmas. For example, a production manager has to decide which jobs to push through first on the production line. An accounting director has to figure out how to surface losses in one division, while trying to bury profits in another. These scenarios are certainly real business. But at the core of their functional roles, these other professionals don't seem to experience the same type of role frustration that HR professionals do.

"I haven't personally confronted that type of no-win scenario to any extent in the positions I've been in," says Art Karacsony, manager of marketing and communications in Coopers & Lybrand LLP's Parsippany, New Jersey, office. "In my role, I wear a number of hats: public relations, advertising, strategic planning, business development, corporate communications, management and so on." But, he says, these hats all fit well within his job of serving his primary customers -- the firm's 1,200 partners.

Interestingly, when functional managers outside of HR do experience dilemmas, the concerns often tend to be employee-related. "In an ideal world, we could serve both of these objectives -- being an employee advocate as well as a business manager -- successfully," explains Susan A. Orr, director of catalog marketing for Programmer's Paradise, based in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. "Of course, we don't live in an ideal world, so naturally, our dual objectives often conflict."

However, the frustrations of business people in functional roles other than HR seem to arise with the changing nature of business itself rather than basic role discrepancies. Not so for HR. Much of HR's struggle and conflict has surfaced in the form of the "damned if you do or don't" feeling because HR has increasingly taken on the business partner role, while still holding on to other traditional HR roles: being employee advocates and administrators. This leaves HR with a uniquely dichotomous function in the corporate world.

Notes Bob Carter, HR staff consultant for Guilford County government in Greensboro, North Carolina, "Leave it to human nature, culture, life experiences, brain chemistry and [other factors], to make the world of HR one of the most difficult to master in terms of organizational effectiveness."

Adds Joan Farrell, vice president of HR for Lawson Mardon Wheaton Inc. based in Millville, New Jersey: "I've worked in both line and staff roles, and my three years in production management were like a vacation because the possibilities were limited, the choices were clear, and at the end of the day you could look back and measure progress." HR's role isn't so clear-cut. But it wasn't always that way.

Today's HR role: various and dichotomous.
Traditionally, the human resources role was fairly straightforward. The personnel function was the administrative force behind employee issues. Personnel managers hired, fired and did employment-related paperwork. Now, human resources is more. Much more. Not only is HR responsible for the administrative tasks and strategic planning issues relating to employees, it has also moved into the business partner roles of being a change expert, an organizational performance specialist, a best-practices consultant, a legal liaison and now, even a risk manager.

According to HR guru Edward E. Lawler III, director of the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations in Los Angeles, HR's role is now both:

  • Follower and Leader
  • Reactive and Proactive
  • Administrator and Strategist
  • Controller and Business Partner
  • Conscience and Businessperson
  • Employee Advocate and Manager
  • Doer and Consultant.

The many roles are causing HR to make some tough decisions: Choosing between business reality and social welfare, between current expediency and long-term viability, and between blind regulatory compliance and common sense. The problem is: What's good for the business isn't always good for employees, and vice versa.

For example, in the "Reactive and Proactive" scenario, U.S. HR managers are responding to single employees who are demanding that company benefits be more universal and not presuppose that employees have a traditional family. For instance, many companies provide child care, but don't provide elder care or pet-care assistance. While HR managers have to react to benefit problems at hand, they also have to think proactively about making a benefits package that pleases workers and yields a high return on their company's investment.

But, perhaps the biggest role conflict for HR has come in trying to be both business partner and employee advocate. This dichotomy has surfaced some big hot buttons for HR people in terms of clashes between employee-relations issues and ethical problems.

To add fuel to the fire, the dichotomies HR professionals face in trying to serve both company and employee interests aren't always appreciated by other managers. "Unfortunately, operations managers and accountants don't always understand that employees are the company's most important resource and where your actions are really an extremely beneficial 'business partner' activity, they're sometimes seen as 'pro-employee and anti-company,'" says Wagoner.

He admits the employee advocate and business partner dichotomy does lead to some very real "damned if you do or don't" scenarios. He points out that if a company has a union, for example, the labor relations manager spends his or her time representing the company exclusively. However, in nonunion workplaces, most HR managers have to understand the needs of employees and management. "Does this create a conflict between roles?" Wagoner asks. "It shouldn't. But, in fact, it does perceptually."

Says Lawler, "I think the toughest role for HR is the duality issue around conscience and employee advocate." It's now common for HR organizations to have centers of excellence that take care of administrative tasks related to worker issues. And HR can have another area that's strictly concerned with business-partner issues. "What I'm not so sure about is how you balance the traditional role of HR being the employee advocate and conscience of the organization with simultaneously being a business partner," he ponders. "It's often in the same meeting that you need to be both."

He suggests that in the best of all worlds, the conscience and the employee-advocate roles would be shared by everyone in the organization, especially those in other leadership roles. But getting other functional leaders to share the corporate conscience may be a daunting challenge considering that HR people (46 percent) currently tend to feel they're cleaning up the messes caused by ethics violations in their companies, according to "The Business Ethics Survey Report," a joint study of 747 HR professionals released in 1997 by The Ethics Resource Center based in Washington, D.C., and the Society for Human Resource Management. Getting other managers to act in sync with ethical standards could be a daunting task, but it's not impossible.

And on the employee-advocacy front, HR professionals would have to continue pushing responsibility for employee-advocacy issues further out into line managers' and supervisors' hands. This has been a constant struggle for workforce managers who have been trying to switch gears and take on more of the business partner's role over the past few years.

This is exactly what one general manager for HR in a large, nonunion company in Australia has done. "To empower employees, we've created and successfully trialed a position of 'employee adviser.' This position is not in HR," says this HR professional who recently posted her company's idea on a popular Internet HR listserve. She adds: "HR staff advise management; the employee adviser supports employees. It also means I have a more independent view on whether management is stepping out of line and whether, and to what level, I may need to intervene."

Adds USC's Lawler: "I'm inclined to think that in the short term, if HR people are really going to become business partners, they have to partially abandon that [employee-advocate] role and gain credibility first as a business partner." Then, once HR professionals have gained credibility as business partners, they can come back to that employee-advocacy role. "Because if you keep that [employee-advocate role] as a central piece of your behavior, it's very hard to get seen as a business partner," he says.

This idea represents a radical shift from what most see as the current role for human resources. But face it: HR's role has become somewhat of a repository of tasks, functions and roles. To HR's credit, HR professionals have proved in recent years that they can and will take on an organization's toughest challenges, while still providing world-class, administrative record-keeping services. But, have HR professionals let organizations put them in a no-win situation where they can't effectively serve two or more masters?

"HR, as a profession and as a function, is in flux," says Probst, the OD specialist who had left a firm where human resources was just damned. "It's important for HR professionals to truly decide what their roles will be. They need to take a proactive stand and make this decision based on the best outcomes for the organization. They've always been reactive and have waited to be told what they should be. Therefore, they haven't gained the respect they so desire." Perhaps it's time to pick a role, instead of trying to be all things to all people, which can't be very good to HR departments' bottom line or the companies they serve.

Don't get stuck in a no-win spot. Choose your role wisely.
When senior human resources managers clarify their primary roles upfront -- whether it's making the radical shift away from employee advocate to be more of a business partner, being a change agent or being the knowledge worker management guru -- the dichotomies will work themselves out. That's not to say that in the end you won't have more than one role. Many world-class HR operations do. Yet, to put it simply, it's not unlike the roles of any given individual who might at the same time be a businessperson or worker, a mother, a wife, a community volunteer, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a civic leader and so on. Everyone plays different roles at different times. However, it's crucial to be clear about which roles are primary, which are secondary and how best to fulfill the roles your HR department agrees upon as most important with your firm's other business leaders. And have a clear plan in mind.

The best HR professionals today are starting with their companies' business mission and defining their human resources mission from there. Those who don't, flounder. "The business mission is your North Star," says Lawson Mardon Wheaton's Farrell. "Without it to focus on, you can wander lost in the seas of uncertainty forever." The lesson here is: If you take it for granted that you're there to fulfill the needs and requests of everyone in the organization at all times, you'll be spending a lot of time on unnecessary and nonvalue-added activities. Think big picture.

For example, Gayle Evans, assistant vice president of HR for Standard Insurance Co. based in Portland, Oregon, originally set her group's human resources mission four years ago, but reassesses it yearly based on her firm's business mission. The goal of her company, whose motto is "People, not just policies," is to provide excellent insurance products and services to its customers. From there, Evans' HR team extrapolates its mission: "Our HR service strategy is to be perceived by our customers -- and we define those as external applicants, employees and managers -- as caring, knowledgeable, flexible, responsive, approachable and fair."

To assess how well the firm achieves its business mission and HR mission, each of the company's seven divisions has subjected itself to a rigorous quality-improvement process since 1991. The process is based on both the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award qualification process and the Oregon Quality Award process. It measures quality in seven categories, including HR development and management, and quantifies the results of those activities. Evans says the clincher for her HR department's strategy is making Standard Insurance a great place to work for all of its 1,750 employees. "And that's all linked to our corporate vision, which is driven by the elements of long-term relationships, excellence and a supportive work environment," she adds.

This is exactly the area that USC's Lawler says is how human resources can still strategically keep the two HR roles as company advocate and employee advocate: That of making a company an employer of choice. These days, with the shortage of qualified workers, HR can frame the argument for continuing to be an employee advocate by positioning it under the "employer of choice" mantle. "The window has been opened more in the past couple of years as organizations have become concerned about retaining people and attracting high-talent people -- particularly technical people," says Lawler. If HR chooses the employee-advocacy role as its primary mission to make a firm the best place for employees to work and thereby fulfills the corporate mission of having the best workers who can be the firm's strategic advantage, then HR's role is clear. And everyone else will be clear on HR's primary role as well.

When setting your HR vision, pay close attention to the CEO's leadership signals. The CEO will speak volumes in the way he or she sets the company's agenda. For example, at Verifone Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard that's a global provider of secure electronic payment solutions based in Santa Clara, California, its 2,700 employees around the world are considered the firm's number one corporate asset. Therefore, the firm's former chairman, president and CEO, Hatim Tyabji (who just announced his retirement last month) has considered HR his right arm for the past 12 years. "Most CEOs look upon HR as a backwater function," says Tyabji. "But I look upon HR as a key element of my overall strategy in moving my company forward. HR people here are front and center in the formulation of the strategy and how to achieve it."

Adds Tyabji, "We don't operate in silos here." He doesn't separate the HR strategy from the business strategy because Verifone's human resources strategy often drives the business. For example, to capitalize on top world talent, HR set up development centers globally in countries such as India. Half the firm's employees work outside the United States. The company's revenue has grown from $31.2 million in 1986 to $387 million in 1995; HR helped make it happen. "HR at Verifone is not an administrative spectator sport; it involves being part of the business solutions," says Katherine Beall, vice president of global human resources. "Our HR strategy is to be collaborative business partners who provide value-added HR services."

And at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Polaroid Corp., Joseph G. Parham, Jr., corporate vice president of HR and total quality ownership, says he sees his primary role as working with the CEO to help run the company. "In so doing, I believe the interests of the employees, customers and shareholders align nicely with exceeding the customers' requirements. Satisfied and enthusiastic employees are bound to deliver results which satisfy or delight shareholders."

That's HR nirvana, you say, and it's impossible to achieve that type of human resources business partnership in the real world because most senior managers aren't that enlightened. Just because it's difficult to achieve doesn't mean it's impossible. Now that HR has begun to shake up the corporate hierarchy by stating its strategic partner value, it's time to further clarify what it means to add people smarts to your business -- and how it plays out in the management ranks.

Take a stand. Clarifying your primary role as a strategic business partner shouldn't mean putting yourself in a no-win situation by diluting your HR effectiveness with conflicting roles. Experts say it's well worth the effort. In fact, in this case, you just might be "damned if you don't."

Workforce, May 1998, Vol. 77, No. 5, pp. 62-74.

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