Devil’s advocate – Oomph heroes or zeros? Women must put themselves in the front-line

It’s time to make your mind up. Is HR ever going to take the lead in changing the way we work? Tony Pettengell argues that we need more than just oomph and men at the top.

More oomph…

As you settle into your ergonomically designed executive posterior advantage device (chair to you and me), and adjust the levers and pulleys that constitute HR’s most vital piece of equipment, spare a thought for the hardworking ‘worker’ of the world or the sad manager who has no need to indulge in such self-indulgent self-inspection.

The fearless, the feckless and the downright foolish who will surely rise to the top without noticing the trail of bodies he leaves in his wake. Those, in short, who have little time for such introspection and self assessment. Those not working in HR.

For navel-gazing and self-doubt seem to have become a national obsession in the HR community. Why am I here? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Does the company need me? Does the company want me?

To misquote Luigi Pirandello, it’s like 125,000 HR professionals (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimate) in search of a role.

When in Greece

So does HR have enough oomph? And if it has got it, is it being used wisely? HR and oomph? Naturally, the ancient Greeks had a word for the relationship between HR and oomph – oxymoron.

In addition to creating what we now know as civil society, the Greeks also had a whole heap of gods, including: Ares, the god of war Aphrodite, the goddess of love Hades, the god of the underworld and top god and all-round serial adulterer Zeus, who was so scary his dad ate him and who ended up as god of law and justice and was allowed to get away with it. One of his sons, Apollo, was the god of music, prophecy, poetry, painting, animal welfare and plagues, and Ponos was the god of hard labour, but it was Hard with a capital H – strictly for the eternal kind of endeavour favoured by Sisyphus (he of the rolling rock lifestyle).

There was also a god of doctors and nurses (Achelois), and then there was Atlas, the god of great burdens, who had to hold the cosmos on his back. To prove his similarity with the traditional British worker, Atlas tried to get out of this job by lending the cosmos to eternal chum Hercules. Being the god of the union movement, Hercules thought: “This is not my job, mate” and duped him into taking it back by feigning an itchy back.

Tellingly, there was no god of personnel, despite the fact that our ways of trading, working and our legal system are largely derived from the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. We know all this from the writings of Plato and Homer (author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, not author of his own destruction in The Simpsons). Of equal importance, although glossed over for the past 2,000 years, is the fact that all the really top roles went to men. But that was then…

Leaping philosophically to a more en-lightened age, HR’s mantra could be ‘I doubt, therefore I am’, making HR truly the existentialist profession of the modern age. But could things work better without HR? Does HR have a role to play? After all, smaller firms get by without it, don’t they?

Well, no. They don’t, they just don’t call it HR. And does your organisation really, really want you? Of course it does. It has an HR department (or at least role) and it pays your wages – ie, it passes valuable financial resource to your pocket. It also would presumably like to see some kind of return on that investment, so spending hours pondering the value of your existence is probably not high on its list of priorities.

On a voyage of discovery

That said, while HR tends to overdo it somewhat on the voyage of self-discovery – with endless books with unlikely titles, such as Sumo your Relationships or Sex, Leadership and Rock ‘n’ Roll – an element of self-examination is essential to maintaining a grasp of reality, as it’s too easy to forget where you came from once you’ve got on to the heady heights of wherever it is you were going.

A quick glance at some of the country’s more celebrated business leaders highlights this point. Just look at Sir Richard ‘Virgin’ Branson, Sir Alan ‘you’re fired’ Sugar, Sir Philip ‘BhS’ Green. They’ve all been there, done that, got the T-shirt. In fact, they had the T-shirt made, their brand name is on it and it was probably made at a knock-down price in some Far East back street.

But are they continuing to learn? Do they still have the hunger for knowledge that got them to their current position? Hopefully, they do, but you wouldn’t know it from their public personas, as ego seems to play a bigger part in their decision-making than business acumen or touchy-feely feelings towards their employees. And in retail in particular, people policies occupy their very own world.

Going for a killing

Clearly, they’ve taken lessons from the gods, for if something doesn’t go their way, they lash out and cast thunderbolts (or more likely PR-generated spin) in the direction of their detractors/competition.

However, these knights are only doing what knights have done for centuries – steaming in, cutting through the fat and making a killing. But while the crusades of the past were carried out in the name of God – the pantheon of Greek gods having been subjected to a downsizing exercise resulting in the deployment of a single deity (at least in the West) – in the modern world we worship at the high altar of the bank­note. These modern-day knights are businessmen with oomph, running businesses with oomph. This approach is called commercial reality and this is often where HR becomes sidelined.

Many would argue that oomph has no part to play in HR. That HR is there to provide the stability to be the constant in the business firmament, helping other stars burn more brightly. Yet no matter how great your latest HR initiative is, it will come to nothing if the organisation you work for lacks oomph. And the sad reality is that most organisations lack oomph. Oomph is not a common commodity in any walk of life. Where the gods used to use and abuse people, often for nothing more than mild amusement, commercial businesses – especially in high-staff turnover industries such as retail and catering – still like to play God. And while our aforementioned knights in shining armour of the modern era may not be the cowboys of the Western world, some of their peers leave a lot to be desired.

Reality kicks in

Most organisations would not beat themselves up about this in the same way as the HR community. But HR’s latest bout of doubting has its roots in reality, as many of the mundane HR functions that make HR such a safe haven have been outsourced, leaving the HR practitioner even more confused.

Yet where there’s muck, there’s brass. For while the business of business is no longer about lopping off heads and arms, but about making money, as large companies brazenly cut a swathe through the commercial landscape, there will inevitably be casualties. In any merger or major reorganisation there will be job losses, with all-too human consequences for the all-too-human workforces being affected. Being higher beings, managers wouldn’t want to sully their hands by getting rid of people themselves, and that’s where skilled HR practitioners are plying their trade, carrying out what is undeniably a thankless task.

And ask anyone outside HR what they think its main function is and they’ll say: “They fire people, don’t they?”. Which is true. Their other response – “They do the fluffy stuff” – is equally revealing.

It’s true that HR deals with the dirt and the fluff. Hardly the stuff of oomph. Yet a dose of the right fluff at your fingertips can make all the difference between a failing company and a survivor, between a mediocre organisation and a world leader – as a glance at some of the other features in this issue of Personnel Today demonstrates.

Women’s influence

Two of HR’s key skills are its ability to empathise and to influence. Yet given the fact that only half the senior roles in HR are occupied by women – despite more than 70% of CIPD-registered professionals being women (according to the Women and Work Commission’s 2006 report Shaping a Fairer Future) – there’s a long way to go before women’s influence is felt in the workplace.

The fact that women are paid 17% less than men and that so few women occupy senior roles in all other business sectors, demonstrates that HR’s influence is being used only sparingly, if at all. And there’s the rub. For unless HR women get their own house in order, how can they hope to influence the male-dominated bastions of business?

HR will never have oomph until the glass ceiling has been breached and women have an equal say in the boardrooms of the nation. For until women are ensconced in the world of business, business will plod on the same as it ever has.

A mischievous god might say: “For every glass ceiling, there’s a glass floor. And do you really want people seeing your underwear?” But unless women break through that ceiling, it is unlikely that HR will ever get close to gaining any respect, let alone having oomph.

So the time has come to stop all this navel-gazing. After all, you want your finger to be on the pulse, not buried in a disgusting blend of stomach juice, fluff and goo.

And while overturning more than 2,000 years of a ‘male, pale, stale’ work ethic will be a real Herculean task, there are signs that HR’s women are showing the confidence to change the way we work forever.

As one of the HR GRRRLs putting her head above the parapet – Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, Buckinghamshire County Council – told Personnel Today last year: “HR serves business’s needs, but that doesn’t mean being treated like a servant. If you act as a servant you will be treated like one, and then you will lack real credibility.”

It’s time for the HR GRRRLs to kick off the shackles and strut their stuff. Unless they do, HR oomph will remain a dream.

What HR oomph isn’t: the bad and the good news


  • HR oomph isn’t what the business wants and that’s the trouble.
  • However warm and fluffy your HR strategy, you can bet your life that it’s not on the same wavelength as the chief executive. Either that or you are working in the public sector. In which case, the system may well be driven by egos and protocol so it will take forever to get anything done.
  • Businesses are run by benevolent dictatorships who provide the illusion of control and influence for their people.
  • Money is the king. And working late is the norm.
  • The public sector should be different – run for the people by the people. Except that the people at the top are often malevolent egotists whose sole aim in life is their own self-aggrandizement.
  • In these situations, HR may feel powerless and feel it can please no-one. So it decides to please itself by doing a good job for the majority of the people – that is, the people, not the bosses.
  • Which is what it does.
  • Which is why it is out of step with the bosses.
  • Which is why HR lacks respect.


  • Yet every benevolent dictator wants a whipping boy – or girl. Which means HR will always have a part to play. (OK that’s not much good news, but it’s a starting point.)

The God-like genius of high staff turnover

If anything was ever designed to keep a consumer-driven business at the leading edge it is the ability to do away with staff at short notice.

The main, not-so-subtle way of doing this is by paying very little in the first place and making the job so easy to do an average teenager could do it. But that’s not such a bad thing, and there’s still a role for HR in persuading the nation’s youngest workers that their Saturday job selling shoes could lead to great things.

Sadly, the truth is that selling goods is a limited profession unless you own the company. Good sales staff move on to better things, while the things – the shoes, or whatever – still need to be sold, making retail a fantastic first stop for any aspiring 16-year-old.

For in the commercial marketplace, the customer is a very fickle thing. Fashions change and people move on, and people expect their retailers to move on. History demonstrates that without high staff and stock turnover, the cool and trendy men’s clothing emporium of today will surely become tomorrow’s gentlemen’s outfitters, complete with orange plastic in the shop window protecting the eternally unsold ‘high-tech’ Dralon slacks from the effects of sunlight.

Footwear fetishists may remember Freeman Hardy and Willis – purveyors of shoes with compasses in the heel (for the aspiring double agent) and court shoes for the ‘smart’ lady about town, since 1875. It was still going strong and in the job-for-life world of the 1960s and 1970s was still seen as cutting-edge.

But where is it now? Sensible shoes, sensible people policies, low staff turnover, a stale brand and declining profits meant the chain of more than 500 stores was dying on its feet. But then US retail giant Sears got interested, kept the viable stores and changed their name and sold the remainder to a man known as ‘the Hinch’. It looked like it had fallen on its feet. Sadly, it had fallen into the wrong hands – the white-gloved hands of a conman – and since 1996 the only place you’ll see a Freeman Hardy and Willis shoe is down the cobblers. The decline of Freeman Hardy and Willis has as much to do with its people policies as its poor choices of stock and failure to keep up with the times. Had it adopted the modern ‘slash and burn’ approach to recruitment employed by the high street successes of the past few decades, it might still be around today.

People are our greatest asset? Not in retail.

Tapping up top talent? Leave it to the Gods

(or the recruitment consultants)

HR can tarnish its reputation by indulging in so-called ‘talent wars’ – fishing for the top talent in a specific pond is a sport best carried out by those with immense patience and a good grasp on the rod of iron – or those who can walk on water.

For while it would be nice to be able to recruit the best person for the job, the finished article can be a dangerous thing. For the reality is that high achievers are often isolationist freaks.

You do not want them in your team and they do not want to be in your team. If they are in your team, they will undermine it to further their own career, thereby undermining your organisation.

And as soon as these over-ambitious monsters get a sniff of business contraction, they’ll be off to line their pockets with some other dope’s cash or be setting up a rival organisation with your top-secret client list.

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