Off message: human resources is too wimpish

Former HR manager Steven Toft makes a guest appearance in this week’s column, arguing that HR lacks the oomph it needs to succeed.

In a suitably gung-ho statement promoting its annual conference, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says: “It’s no longer enough for HR to facilitate what organisations do. Great HR should drive what organisations can achieve and be at the heart of how, and what, an organisation delivers.”

At the same time, Personnel Today reports that 87% of HR executives are unhappy about the strategic impact their functions make on their organisation. There is, it seems, a gap between aspiration and reality.

This is nothing new. HR has always moaned about how the function needs to be more strategic and how few HR directors are represented at board level.

Navel gazing

Personnel Today has also reported that HR managers are the unhappiest workers in the UK, and came up with a seven-point self-help strategy. Commenting on the survey, HR consultant Paul Kearns said: “The profession has always been unhappy. There is too much navel gazing and most of the problems are of HR’s own making.”

Kearns is right on the button – HR is its own worst enemy. His brutal honesty is rare in HR, and it is this lack of straight-talking confidence that hamstrings the profession.

Even the language HR uses betrays this angst. You often hear senior HR executives saying that HR strategy must be aligned with the business strategy, or words to that effect.

While they think this makes them sound business focused, statements like this reveal the profession’s view of itself as a facilitating, rather than a driving, function. The implication is that you wait for the business strategy to be created, then you devise the HR strategy to help make it happen.

But you never hear chief financial officers saying that the finance strategy should be aligned with the business strategy. They just take it as read. Finance directors assume that it is their right to be part of the team that creates the business strategy, even though finance is just as much a support function as HR.

Greatest asset?

If people really are an organisation’s greatest asset, shouldn’t the HR director be involved in these discussions too? When considering moves into new markets, for example, shouldn’t companies be thinking about the talent they have in these areas and who in the firm has relationships that could be exploited?

An organisation’s core skills and relationships should be a building block of business strategy rather than something to look at once it has decided what that strategy is going to be.

HR directors need to be part of executive decision-making teams, rather than facilitators waiting to align their strategies with whatever the board hands down on tablets of stone. Yet the mindset of many HR professionals is still that of people waiting at the bottom of the mountain.

This collective lack of confidence perhaps stems from the work backgrounds of many in HR. In general, HR people come up through milieu where support and non-confrontation is encouraged. Consequently, if they make it to board level, they get eaten alive by their more aggressive colleagues, and the whole function suffers as a result.

HR often has a low status and is politically weak within the company. It is a convenient target for any director seeking to deflect attention away from their own shortcomings.

As the HR director of an IT company recently put it: “Psychotic senior execs will always attack any competing power base, and HR is easy.”

Be more bullish

While HR people may understand the politics in their organisation, they usually lack the skills or temperament to deal with infighting. Like military historians, they are excellent at analysing the causes of the conflicts and the tactics people use to win, but they have no idea how to fight the wars themselves.

HR people need to be more bullish. They know, at least intellectually, that much of what they advocate works. There is plenty of evidence that good people management improves the performance of organisations. Deep down, most other executives understand this too. That is why, despite rumours of its imminent demise, the HR profession is still here.

HR needs to stop apologising for its existence and fight its corner. Here are some of my tips for winning those boardroom battles:

  • Understand what makes you defensive – then you will be ready when someone has a go at you.
  • If you ask a question and someone retaliates with a criticism of the HR profession, persist with your line and don’t let them hijack the agenda.
  • Confront people with the truth. It will get you more respect in the long run.
  • Don’t collude with the HR jokes. Next time someone has a go at HR, and disguises it as humour, call them out on it.

So when the bell goes, HR should come out of its corner fighting. Come on, you wimps, get up off that doormat.

Steven Toft

This article first appeared at

Paul Kearns’ take on HR oomph

Do you agree with Steven? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to [email protected]

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