HR’s obsession with how important it should be brings derision and accentuates insecurity

I have been haunted by an issue of our weekly newspaper that I cannot throw away – beautifully timed to coincide with Harrogate 2006.

Personnel Today (24 October 2006) decided to give the HR profession the benefit of a 360-degree appraisal – and 59% of HR respondents who took part in the survey said we were either very or extremely effective. Alas, our partners in this enterprise – managers – saw things differently: their percentage was 20%. Actually, I think there is a third major partner – employees – but they were not asked, on that occasion.

People really are your most important asset (not all of them, but some incredibly so). The way we treat them and the investment we make in them will seriously affect our success in business. Research proves this – as if it was necessary.

HR professionals are (well, can be) your strategic partners. “We will add value to your operation not sure how I measure it though…”

I am not a trained psychologist, but my professional experience gives me two major causes for concern. The first is the obsession of HR with how important it should be.

How many agonising surveys do we get a year about the percentage of HR directors on FTSE boards? How many letters do we get about HR people feeling they are not properly valued? Is it not HR that teaches (in justifying the importance of feedback and so on) that ‘perception is the real reality’?

The second cause for concern is a pretentiousness that is sometimes embarrassing. The very label of ‘strategic partner’ that HR likes to brandish can elicit line manager amusement at our somewhat sad need to exert such credentials. Yet more and more studies survey the extent to which HR is involved with and even shapes business strategy.

The really sad thing is that all this posturing is quite unnecessary.

We must never forget that – like others – we are primarily a support department. That means we have tasks to do, and need to do them as efficiently as possible. We may somewhat deprecate it as mere administration that is ‘transactional’, but if I am from IT and I come to you in HR and say: “What are your prime expectations of us in IT?” I don’t think your first answer is: “I recognise the strategic contribution you can make to my success.”

However, if you provide me with a great service, you are always responsive and helpful, and you demonstrably care about my problems and objectives – then, yes I will welcome discussions about how IT can make me even more effective. We’ll work together on the ideas you have. You don’t have to relabel yourself I value you for what you do for me. Your credibility as a deliverer first – plus then the ability to see the bigger picture and help me be successful – makes you a partner I want to work with.

The best in the HR profession are honoured, recognised and promoted, because this is what they do. They don’t have to campaign for HR to be taken seriously. They just demonstrate – through a deep concern for their organisation’s success, functional professionalism and creativity – that superior people management and development really are the foundation of building value for stakeholders.

They work with partners at all levels to make this a reality. What more important role could there be?

By Andrew Mayo, director, Mayo Learning International

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