Narcissism is not enough

HR profession loves talking about itself. But does all the self-absorption
alienate the wider world?

megalomaniac and the manic depressive have one thing in common: they cannot
stop talking about themselves. With a boundless appetite for self-absorption,
comparisons with other functions and its vaulting boardroom dreams, I often
think the HR profession tends to be depressive. Too much of what is written and
said about HR are really veiled justifications of its existence. Too many
proclamations of its worth are heavily loaded with a subtext of doubt.

course, a mild dose of melancholy has often prompted great improvements for
human beings, refining all their swagger and indifference to the world. So what
does it do for a profession? In an attempt to answer this question, I shall
call on two witnesses and an exhibit.

up is David Longbottom, HR director of electrical retailer Dixons, who was
recently elevated to the board. He argues that introspection is profoundly detrimental
to any hope of being taken seriously by the wider business community.

obsession with measuring every facet of activity from training to absenteeism
is really symptomatic of the uncertainty about whether HR should exist,"
he says. "I’m a mathematician by background and all this stuff about
measurement does nothing for credibility."

further sign of vulnerability is the distinction so often drawn between
‘strategic’ and ‘administrative’ or ‘transactional’ HR. This separation, says
Longbottom, is "bollocks".

do not sit around all day thinking ‘now, is this a strategic input?’.
Competitive edge is gained just as much through the nuts and bolts of personnel
– paying people properly, recruiting well and so forth."

on the board is handy for ‘airtime’ with the chairman, he concedes, but most
strategic decisions are not taken at board level. Company boards are
increasingly concerned with corporate governance, while executive committees
take many of the critical decisions.

board meetings, finance gives a report and HR gives a report. It crosses
no-one’s mind whether my report is ‘strategic’."

second witness is Denise Kingsmill, head of the Accounting for People
taskforce, among other roles. She has been asked by the Government to examine
which metrics might provide the most useful insight into human capital
management performance – the immediate effect of which is for the HR profession
to enjoy a long, worried soliloquy about itself.

takes a starkly different view to Longbottom. She sees no danger for HR in the
ledger-book mentality, and instead believes insufficient attention to
measurement hampers the management of people.

reticence to commit to a proper assessment of human capital management could be
influenced by many factors," she wrote in this magazine recently.

keepers of human capital information are still regarded as administrators and
are not invited to the boardroom table.

anecdotal evidence suggests that organisations simply do not have the systems
or wherewithal to collate or measure the effects of the way in which they
manage people… If managers collected hard data, they would be in a position
to manage what had been measured," she says.

exhibit is one of IRS Employment Review’s fine temperature checks of the
profession, published in April. The report finds that over the past five years,
the influence of the HR department has swelled in the 85 organisations that
took part, with increasing recognition of its work and growing representation
at board level (IRS claims an amazingly high 65 per cent now have HR on the

employment legislation provides the background, while important personalities
in organisations are driving the agenda forward – an agenda frequently executed
by line managers rather than specialists.

18 per cent of organisations spend 6 per cent of their total budgets on HR. And
while, recruitment takes up most of HR’s time, respondents believe training and
development are the most important activities.

witnesses and the exhibit speak contemporary truths about the HR function that
I think most of us can recognise. The question is whether being so transfixed
by internal concerns is harmful to the profession’s ultimate interests.

we believe IRS, we must broadly conclude that the answer is no.

past five years have seen professional solipsism reach fetishistic new levels –
a period of rising significance for HR. If true, a further bout of
Government-sanctioned self-examination under Kingsmill is likely to be
paradoxically helpful. The very idea of trying to reflect organisational
culture in crude numbers must seem absurdly geeky to outsiders. But to HR
professionals, the goal of having widely accepted and officially approved
measures of their usefulness would be of incalculable value. Investing in HR
would no longer be quite so much a leap of faith.

I reckon Longbottom is right, too. While HR’s depressive streak – let’s call it
thoughtful, instead – can be seen as a sign of the function’s complicated
nature, it should never forget that it alienates a sizeable portion of its
potential audience with all its anxious doodles.

profession might do well to update the distinction between strategic and administrative
HR with one between self-reflection and self-absorption. The aim is not to have
a function that loves talking to itself in a mirror, however entertaining that
may be. The aim is to have an assertive, confident profession, facing outwards.

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