I had dinner with my friend, an engineer whose firm produces military equipment used by our Armed Forces. He's project-focused and detailed-oriented. His daughter will soon graduate from college and has shown an aptitude for human resources. She's smart, has a great sense of people and sound judgment. She will go far. He's kidded me about the profession for some time, so I asked him about the irony, and he made a sound like Darth Vader's Imperial March theme music.
He put his reservations about human resources in perspective. "You need to have them; they're a necessary evil–I just don't see how they help us build our tanks." That, to me, is the nub of why human resources, compliance and related areas are seen as unnecessary at best and a drag on productivity at worst. When professionals staffing those functions are viewed that way, it's generally caused by one key professional shortcoming.
The best human resources professionals understand the link between what they do and how the business operates in terms of recruiting and retaining top talent, and, overall, helping provide benefits and conditions which enhance productivity. It permeates their advice, the questions they ask and the way they approach their roles.
Those who work closely with them get the value they deliver making businesses perform more effectively. They're advisers and get things done. However, there are other practitioners who see their role as organizing and managing processes, dotting I's and crossing T's; they're unconnected to how their organization's business is done and will never provide the kind of help and advice that would make them valued business colleagues.
To add value to their jobs, human resources professionals need operational experience. They have to know how products are manufactured, what types of people do the best work, and how revenue and profits are generated. If they can't take this knowledge and convert it into advice and service reflecting these business basics, they can provide administrative support but not much operational value. And, they'll never earn professional respect.
Last week, I spoke to a colleague who had been a vice president of human resources for a major media firm; she is now in a senior strategic role in a different industry. She told me that her business experience has given her a whole new perspective on business concerns. We laughed about her impatience as a "client" when dealing with HR representatives who don't understand business objectives.
How can this common problem be avoided? HR professionals need to rotate through areas like finance, manufacturing and logistics before they ever look at a performance plan, consider succession planning, set up inceptive programs or do other related functions. All of what they learn should give them a gut-level understanding of their organization's operational strengths and challenges. If they don't get the way their business functions, they need to find a role other than managing HR issues, at least those which actually involve human interactions and problems.
No matter how effectively we automate manufacturing, administrative work and other processes, how individuals work and what they do to make their organizations effective will always be critical. The best people working in the best conditions produce the best work, particularly where skill, creativity and teamwork are vital. Unless we embed human resources professionals in the heart of our businesses, they'll never have the understanding and practical wisdom needed to aid my friend and others like him who care only about building the best tanks.
Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.