If you read the professional press, you would be forgiven for thinking the life of an HR professional is that of a proactive strategic thinker, dazzling the business with stunning recruitment techniques and unfeasibly complicated, clever-looking sets of metrics.
But hang on a moment, what is that noise? Is it the sound of thousands of happy feet skipping to work, where they will help the people attached to them to perform a well-rehearsed work-life balancing act? Is it hell. It's the march of a well-drilled battalion of staff off to assert their employment rights. And there is only one thing standing in their way - the personnel department.
This is the reality of HR in the new millennium. It is a department sinking under ever-increasing amounts of employment legislation and corporate regulation.
Mountain of law
It's all very well trying to sort out your performance management metrics, but this only comes after - if at all - you manage to get your head around the mountain of law.
The statistics tell the real story, and in 2005-06, UK employment tribunals accepted 115,039 cases. This was up from 86,181 the year before, and will only get worse as more and more employment rights kick in.
We are living in an ever-more litigious culture. But are more HR people being taken on to deal with this growing concern? Of course not - surveys consistently show HR is considered a 'back-office function' that is high on the list of cuts, or at least outsourcing. At the end of last year, HR consulting firm Hewitt Associates reported that nine out of 10 US firms may outsource HR after standardising and improving their departments.
This all seems to point to one thing: HR exists simply to keep an organisation out of court. And if anyone has a good overview of - and vested interest in - HR's legal woes, it is the lawyers.
Sue Ashtiany, employment partner at law firm Nabarro Nathanson, agrees that HR's primary purpose is trying to run a system that keeps [its employer] right away from compliance issues.
"We do have a more litigious culture - people are more aware of their rights and are less fazed when faced with managers, HR or tribunals," she says.
That said, Ashtiany concedes that HR can be more than a legal firefighter.