HR Doctor: Hair shirtysm

Personnel Today’s HR doctor Nick Holley diagnoses some diseases common to HR and suggests the cures that might restore it to health.

Hair shirtysm


  • HR people who suffer from this final disease are some of the most pitiful patients. They spend their whole time asking why they don’t have a seat at the table rather than actually doing things that add value; establishing their credibility so no one doubts their place.
  • They endlessly gaze at their own navel wondering why no one respects them, rather than getting out there and listening to their customers – what are their challenges, what are the people implications, what do they need from HR and how does this match with what they are currently delivering?
  • The problem is they become delusional – thinking it’s more fun to whinge about it than actually do something about it. This can lead to a mental disorder known as projection where the patient projects his or her own shortcomings onto the business. Often they blame the business because it ‘doesn’t get HR’ and go off to another organisation where their lack of credibility manifests itself in the same way.
  • One of the key symptoms is the patient becomes increasingly frustrated by their lack of credibility. They become impatient: if they keep it to themselves that’s fine, but often they show their impatience and frustration to others evoking the same reaction in them.
  • One word of warning; this is a highly contagious disease. Patients can often be found roaming HR conferences in large groups winding each other up and spreading their infection to young vulnerable (but healthy) HR professionals undermining not only themselves but also HR in general.


  • Of all the diseases I have diagnosed, I would argue this one leads to the most professional suicides. People who suffer from hair shirtysm develop a reputation for being whingers. At best people avoid them, at worst they offer them the chance to carry on their whinging somewhere else.


1 I once worked in a partnership in an HR role. A lot of high potentials asked me how they could make partner. My answer was ‘be one’: we never took a risk promoting someone to partnership unless they had been consistently displaying the skills and behaviours of a partner for several years.


  • To get a seat at the table means behaving as a member of the top leadership team, focusing on the business issues not only from an HR perspective but also from a broader commercial perspective. In talking about his business partners one line manager said: “I invite their opinion outside their domain, then it really clicks, they’re a well rounded business professional whose opinion I value on all things”.
  • Recognise that the more you ask for a seat at the table the less likely it is that you’ll get one. If you want a seat, take your hair shirt off and focus on building your personal credibility.
  • Work with the organisation to understand its needs. Drive your agenda out of their agenda. In the short term it might mean compromising, but remember that the long game is usually the quickest way to get somewhere.
  • Very few people are as passionate about HR as you are. Why should they be? The danger is you are drawn to the ones that do share your passion rather than the ones with the power and the influence. Identify who has the power and impact and recognise they are more concerned with themselves than with you.
  • This all might sound Machiavellian, but we have to recognise that business is populated by Machiavellis not Mother Theresas. Of course HR must be the moral compass for the business, but if you want to play the game you have to understand the rules of the game and engage with it – not sit on the touchlines whinging.

By Nick Holley, director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School. The centre works with members from the private, public and third sectors to change the debate around HR; carrying out applied research aimed at advancing current thinking, and delivering programmes to enhance the quality of business and partnering skills for senior and high-potential HR professionals.

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