Dancing to the devil’s tune

Desperate to be taken seriously as a business function, HR has become
narrow-minded, selfish and has sold its soul

All through the year at conferences and seminars, in reports, surveys, and
magazines such as this one, human resource professionals have been urged to be
more like this and less like that.

The background to the cacophony of advice is that HR is doing very well. Its
star is in the ascendant, with the importance of people management ever more
widely appreciated.

Briefly, I considered that in the final Off Message of the year, I ought to
‘big up’ the under-reported good news. And then I decided against it. Instead,
what I really want to do is add my lonely exhortation to all the
this-and-thats. So here goes: I would like HR to recover its lost soul.

I think the loss occurred in about 1994 – somewhere in the transition from
personnel to human resources. Personnel was gentle, administrative, anxious, a
little do-goody. And it was fundamentally torn in its motivation: was it there
to serve the employer, or to represent the staff? The paralysing doubt
eventually brought about its demise.

Into its place stepped human resources, which had no such qualms. HR was
business-focused, technocratic, heavily into ‘alignment’ and ‘being strategic’
and all types of labour-saving gadgetry; there could be no apologising for the
logic of the market, no hesitation about outsourcing. The new dawn was to be
embraced presto fortissimo.

True, the profession needed to define itself. But what I think has been lost
in the mutation is the ability to see the other side – a degree of empathetic

HR has become narrow-minded. It sees the world from a dogmatic, one-note,
corporate henchman perspective. What it has gained in being taken ‘seriously’
as a business function, it has lost in fellow-feeling and breadth of reference.
Fearful of appearing ‘pro-worker’, HR practitioners now try to block out
difficult thoughts of justice and equity. It has become less about winning
people over, and more about shouting them down.

The tragedy is that people management is a field where you really cannot
think like this. If an organisation’s people are the unique factor of
production, then people management must be an exercise in mutuality – of reconciling,
as far as possible, the interests of employer and employee. Where those
interests part company (pay, for instance), HR must serve the employer.

Yet few seem willing to advance far towards an agenda where competitive
imperatives and organisational justice coincide: designing jobs so that workers
are given maximum scope for discretion, for example; allowing staff to control
the pace of work; promoting participation in decision-making; being brave
enough to remove bad managers quickly; and building mutual commitment.

One illustration concerns Dave Ulrich’s Human Resource Champions of 1998,
with which many readers will be familiar. No recent book has better articulated
the aspirations of the profession. No other book is more name-checked.

Ulrich saw the future for HR as being in four areas: becoming a business
partner; expertise in work organisation; being a ‘change agent’; and, finally,
acting as ’employee champion’. What is interesting is that, in conversation,
everyone remembers the first three, yet no-one ever mentions the ’employee
champion’ bit.

The omission is telling. Contrast the warm way in which HR people speak of
‘change’, with the cold way they speak about those who decline to welcome it.

Some practitioners seem to point to the inevitability of ‘change’, as if it
excused them from making choices about which changes are wise, and how best to
mitigate the negative consequences. Those who see their duty as making explicit
links between improving the quality of working life and organisational
performance are in a small minority.

I had an insight into the new dogmatism last week from the HR director of a
government quango. He was complaining about his staff’s reluctance to move away
from "a culture of entitlement" with annual pay increases, and to
embrace "a culture of performance", with pay based on merit. And fair
enough – annual increases reward people for getting older.

So how was performance to be assessed? The answer was appraisal, conducted
solely by line managers, without right of appeal. Appraisal is a fine thing if
done well – especially 360-degree. But what if you have an incompetent,
untrustworthy manager, which is not so very unusual? Should they wield power
over something as sensitive as pay? I suggested that in these circumstances the
opposition was sensible and the system not exactly rigorous. Naturally, he

Or take the perpetual moans about ‘red tape’. Many HR people trot out this
sad little trope – as if paradise was a land where employers were at liberty to
do exactly as they pleased. Do they really think the world would be a better
place without the Race Relations Act? Or that the state should not enforce an
employer’s duty of care towards staff?

Criticisms about individual laws might be more compelling if HR professionals
started from a position that recognised regulation as contributing to the
standard of living – and that ill-thought-out regulation is harmful to it.
Instead, too many speak from a mean-minded, business interest perspective, as
if employers’ freedom to manage were the only relevant consideration.

I think the root problem is one of subservience. Unsure of its identity
post-transition, HR sees executive machismo as a path to acceptance. As its
confidence grows, I hope employees will come back centre stage, and the humane
will return once more to human resources.

Like I said, it is a lonely exhortation.

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