Is HR’s ‘survival mentality’ slowing down its evolution?

The news that Henley has ‘canned’ its new human resources- (HR)-based MSc due to a perceived lack of interest raises questions regarding development of expertise in HR. Reading some of the related comments leads me to conclude that sometimes it is too easy to provide one reason where the situation is actually more complex.

There’s a scene from the film A Few Good Men, where lawyer Lionel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) is goading a high-ranking marine, colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), into admitting subversive behaviour (‘code reds’) that is part of the military set-up.

The colonel eventually snaps, while in his outburst he uses the term ‘grotesque’ – going on to say “but it saves lives”, to explain the behaviour/existence and the underlying ‘code’ and ‘honour’ that drives it. The scene is often remembered for Jessep’s famous retort: “You can’t handle the truth.”

Parallel universe

I have often felt that the script has some parallels in HR. There are many roles in HR that are front-line tasks and very busily ensconced in firefighting. Though it is not readily admitted, many of these roles are geared towards sorting out poor management/employee relations. HR, in many instances, is still expected to pick up the pieces for management as opposed to being a more proactive function dealing with the good stuff and thus having overtones of the ‘grotesque’ from a developmental perspective. At ground level, many HR practitioners would perhaps describe it as ‘trench warfare’.

However, one of the problems with this position is that it implies acceptance of less-than-adequate leadership/management, and the expectation that HR’s existence is owed to compensating for this. In reality, this relationship is a system that reaches uneasy equilibrium, which demands courage from those in HR to change.

The problem for many HR practitioners is that it can lead to a feeling of comfort in justifying their existence, and by the same token cause fear that changing this role may mean the deletion of their own existence (erroneously in my view).

Development in this scenario becomes a ‘nice to have’ (when time allows). HR is really displaying a survival mentality. HR practitioners can get caught with the ‘say-do’ gap (saying one thing – doing another). It is a tactical part of a survival strategy learned over time in the ‘trenches’.

Trench mentality

When attending HR conferences, I am often left aghast at what I would term the overly enthusiastic reaction to a bland or ephemeral presentation given by a ‘trench practitioner’ that provides no real learning. But learning isn’t the point. I would surmise that it is actually the acknowledgement of the trench scenario/experience – the ‘good news scenarios’ – that provide relief. For many in HR this is OK because that’s the day job we are talking about. But what we should do is ask ourselves: is this enough?

It is a question that I continually ask. My cause is to get organisations to adopt good management practice as a matter of course and to ensure they are ably supported by an operationally excellent ‘expert’ HR function that is more proactive and seen as core to the business for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons.

If we can get past the rhetoric, look at what we do, acknowledge the say-do gap, start to ask the hard questions, and if we can become more scientifically orientated, then maybe real HR practitioner development will kick in as the function repositions itself.

As a profession we need to acknowledge the practical, basic stuff we get involved with much of the time. And there are many who naturally wear their practitioner badge with honour, and quite rightly so.

But the HR profession needs to decide whether it is the ‘honour’ it seeks or whether there is in fact more opportunity out there to enhance its expertise, its impact and, consequently, its collective reputation.

Can you handle the truth?

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