HR has a poor image and takes a lot of stick, but rarely have I heard any
criticism of its professionalism. And this could be at the root of its image
Like most of HR, I have often berated line managers for being too
operationally focused and task-driven – at the expense of finding time for
When HR asks them to carry out performance reviews or development plans it
is viewed as a chore. They do it to satisfy the bureaucratic necessities of the
organisation’s procedure but their hearts and souls never buy into the true
spirit and intent of the process. After all, it is something we have forced on
It is easy for HR to forget that the primary role of an operational manager
is to ensure the organisation operates effectively – not tomorrow but today.
They are the ones who carry the heavy burden of ensuring food gets delivered,
products leave the factory, customers get served, patients treated and
Whatever we may say from an HR perspective about strategic thinking and
longer-term needs, operational managers quite rightly have their own priorities
that should be matched by an equally urgent HR service.
Anyone who has ever worked with engineers will know they are a curious mix
of the professional and the pragmatic. As professionals they try to have
excellent machinery that works smoothly round the clock with minimal planned
maintenance, but they know this will rarely happen. Their pragmatism tells them
they have to do whatever it takes to produce enough products by the end of the
shift. And if quick and dirty methods are the way to get there, then that’s
fine with them.
Perhaps we in HR need to redefine professionalism in terms of the extent to
which we understand, empathise with and tailor our solutions to the real needs
of our internal customers.
For too long ‘professionalism’ has been a euphemism for laborious HR
policies and procedures. Asking a line manager to read through a dictionary of
competence definitions may look like best practice and appear professional but
it is a long way from a pragmatic solution to an operational need.
Why can’t our reward schemes allow a manager to pay an employee something
out of the ordinary for extraordinary performance? What is wrong with short,
intensive, just-in-time bursts of training activity that don’t show up on the
personal development plan?
Quick and dirty HR is what fills in the gaps left by the textbooks and we
should be happy to admit that it is a critical part of professional HR.
By Paul Kearns, Senior partner, Personnel Works