Do voluntary work if you’re not about helping business

As an admirer of Stephen Overell’s articles, I am a little surprised to find myself thinking he is certainly not ‘on the button’ in his recent article ‘Why HR is right on the button’ (Personnel Today, 20 September).

I agree that HR is intrinsically more interesting than other professions -personally, that is why I entered it. What I take exception to is his contention that HR people have an “impulse to improve working life”, that the profession would be so much more “thin and miserable” without the “employee advocate” role.

I agree that this is probably where a lot of my colleagues in HR sit. But this is precisely why HR has such little credibility in business, and why it is often so dispensable.

Finance is probably less interesting than HR, but what board of directors would ignore the finance director’s advice? This is because finance is business critical, whereas HR people often couch their arguments in 19th-century notions such as “we are here to help people”.

No we are not. That’s what unions are for.

HR is here to help managers run the business. If that means adopting progressive policies that will make working life easier for people (as it invariably does), fantastic. But that is not always the case, and it certainly should not be the starting point for a modern HR function.

That so many HR people are still trapped in outdated notions of being an ’employee champion’ (as both Ulrich and apparently Overell are) is indicative of both how naive and damaging to our collective professional credibility these misconceptions are.

We will never get out of our whinging inability to become ‘players’ in business while we pretend that the main purpose of HR is to be nice to other people.

Most of the time our recommendations end up benefiting our employees, but this should be because it makes business sense, not because we scratch the scabs of our consciences about being management lackeys, or the deleterious effects of capitalism.

Give it a rest. If you are not about what helps business, don’t be in business. Go and do voluntary work.

The longer we continue to gaze at this particular navel, the more we don’t deserve that much sought-after influence at the top table.
Ian Foster
Strategic HR adviser
Hampshire County Council

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