HR hits back at criticism from Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera

The Times business correspondent Sathnam Sanghera says that the amount of fuss HR makes about itself far outweighs the contribution it makes to the world. And he goes on to say: “You’ll find more neurosis in your average edition of Personnel Today than in your average Cosmopolitan“.

Sanghera acknowledges that the recession has prompted a shrinking of HR departments, but as far as he’s concerned, it hasn’t gone far enough. He ends by saying: “Get rid of 90% of HR policies, 90% of HR people, and then wash your hands of it.”

His comments prompted quite a range of responses from the HR community, as Tara Craig found out.

Graham White, HR director,
Westminster City Council

Reading Sanghera’s article was like reading a short wardrobe adventure story by C S Lewis. He portrays HR as an ineffectual neurotic doing little to influence commercial history. How right he is. For more than five years I, and many like me, have been saying that most of what HR does can be done by others quicker, cheaper, and more effectively.

It’s time that “Emperor HR” throws off its new clothes and realises that it survives on the back of ignorance and fear. We either convince our organisations that we work magic and cast spells that keep away the nasty evil tribunals, or worse, we have great prophets like Lord Ulrich whose every word brings Midas success to those who put them into action.

Sanghera says: “You’ll find more neurosis in your average edition of Personnel Today than in your average Cosmopolitan“. A neurotic is someone whose thoughts, feelings, intuitions and sensations change because of something that influences their thinking. Could HR professionals be people whose thoughts, feelings, intuition and sensations change just because of something they have read?

Sanghera welcomes the shrinking of HR, but thinks it has come about as a direct result of recession. Not so – there are some HR people out there who have already begun the journey of moving HR from a department to a philosophy. HR is on a long and painful journey, but we will get there. It will be a world where managers manage, leaders lead, and HR’s size is tiny, but its role is massive – the sustainability of our organisations determined by the quality of the staff we employ.

Neil Morrison, group HR director at publisher Random House Group

Good people deliver good work, then progress and develop regardless of the function they are in. There are good HR professionals and bad HR professionals, just like there are good and bad accountants, marketers and journalists. As with any discipline: know your business, know your strategy, know your people and then get on and deliver.

HR, and its self-obsession with rebranding and repacking, only has itself to blame for articles like this one. No-one becomes more strategic overnight just because their job title changes. We should leave the branding to the marketers and spend more time attracting and nurturing the talent who will be able to bust the myths about “useless HR”.

The business opportunity and need for good HR interventions exist. We should focus on this rather than relentless window dressing. That said, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over someone who confesses to having never dealt with HR and has some column inches to fill. We know how hard we work and the contribution we can make. As Sanghera noted in an earlier column, “If hell is other people, then managing other people is an eternal hell”.

Jackie Lowe, HR director at call centre specialist beCogent

Sanghera has a point. A naive and ill-researched point, but a point nonetheless. It is easy to attack a function that you don’t fully understand. Ignorance, after all, is bliss. In simple terms, taking out the HR function would reduce overhead costs, but so would taking out any function that isn’t directly revenue-generating. It is fair to say there are good and bad performers in every discipline. There are good journalists who research properly and write creatively, there are good accountants, and good leaders. Strong leaders employ strong teams.

A return on investment can be wiped out by having a function that is too large, overly expensive, and nurtures unnecessary bureaucracy. But this is 21st century Britain, and the service sector dominates. The labour market is awash with graduates. The war for talented individuals is fiercer than ever. Targeted reward and recognition initiatives are a key differentiator. In addition, strong leadership and no-nonsense performance management play a major part in building profitable businesses. Add to the mix the jungle of employment legislation, and we quickly build a picture of how HR can add value.

Olivia Parrish, head of HR at business adviser Cooper Parry

Sathnam Sanghera’s argument lacks some substance, but it’s understandable that people who aren’t in HR might not have a level of understanding about it. And I’m quite sure that 90% of HR professionals would welcome a reduction in the number of policies too. I’m sure also that reading a trade publication which isn’t in your area of expertise will mean the articles and comment don’t resonate – they are aimed at those who understand the context. What those in HR do know, is that the majority of policies are required following the implementation of employment legislation, therefore outside of the profession’s control. We should always be looking at more efficient ways of doing things and, in my experience, HR teams work hard to do this despite complex and ever-changing legislation.

Ultimately, the facts speak for themselves – organisations which invest in good teams and systems are the most successful, and I’m quite sure that those having to make redundancies would prefer to have policies to support them, rather than finding themselves involved in costly employment tribunals.

Alan McGillivray, group HR director at housebuilder The Gladedale Group

Many of Sanghera’s observations would not be out of place in an episode of BBC 2’s Mock the Week. However, like all good comedy, there is an underlying degree of uncomfortable truth in what he says.

Some in HR (or whatever we call ourselves) have indeed found themselves exposed as we emerge from one of the longest uninterrupted cycles of economic prosperity. Over the past 10 years some HR departments, especially within larger corporations, have grown to such a size, with such a reach, that in truth many have lost sight of their connection with the bottom line, in the same way that our bankers eventually lost sight of their own balance sheets – and look where that got us.

However, unlike Sanghera, I would suggest that the economic turmoil has had a positive impact on the perception of HR, but only for those HR leaders and teams who have risen to the challenges presented by, and flowing from, the seismic shifts across UK Plc. In my experience, not only has HR been recognised as a vital link in the process of re-sizing and re-engineering businesses, but in doing so effectively, we have demonstrated a deep understanding of the business (yes, facts and figures and all) with the inherent ability to influence leaders (and be leaders ourselves) and communicate and influence effectively right across the businesses we are responsible for supporting. All without hugging even a small sapling. For many companies HR may not be on the board, but we are one of the keys to their success.

So let’s not get too hung up about Sanghera’s comments. Sure, we are an easy target (but so are columnists!). I would much prefer that HR gets back to basics, look at the positives, and reflects hard on what we have achieved and what we need to achieve.

Sacha Romanovitch, head of people and culture at accountants Grant Thornton

In the modern workplace, there has been a fundamental shift in HR which now focuses on business outcomes rather than HR processes as an end in itself. This alignment to business goals ensures that the best people are in place to provide the best service to clients – a necessity for all businesses from SMEs to large corporations.

During the downturn HR departments have had an increasingly important role to play by being open and honest with employees through challenging times, which has been key in maintaining loyalty.

Today’s employers understand that HR’s strategic role needs to be taken seriously, right up to board level. HR policy is a tool for shaping the employee experience, creating an environment where employees can continually develop and which motivates them to perform to the best of their ability.

Employers also need to look to the future. Attracting talent to the firm is a vital part of succession planning and, if neglected, firms will be left with a dearth of candidates for management positions in a few years time. The role of the HR department has developed beyond the necessities of payroll and dispute resolution – it has a commercial value and benefit that should speak for itself.



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