Self-absorbed HR needs to get back to basics

Personnel professionals would do well to remember their main role, says
Malcolm Finney, or else face being cut out of the equation

HR is “the least understood” profession says Pam Calvert (Personnel Today, 4
April), and it is this which, she believes, lies at the heart of the sector’s

Not so. The problem with the personnel profession is that its members are
far too concerned with their status or lack of it.

Instead what practitioners should be doing is trying to help managers do
their job better.

Whether personnel managers and directors like it or not, their prime role is
to support front-line management. Unfortunately, however, they often see
themselves as free-standing from management, with their own agendas. All this
does is breed antagonism between the personnel function and general management,
making the former’s job impossible.

Having their own agenda also leads to the production of information
important to the personnel department but of irrelevance to management.

Just as management has to meet the needs of its customers, if a company is
to survive and prosper, the personnel department should seek to serve its
customers – that is, the in-house managers.

Failure to do so will mean the department will quite simply remain unused
and its staff unwanted.

Navel contemplation also often seems high on the personnel agenda. The
current debate in the profession about whether to call itself
"personnel" or "HR" is a prime example. All that this type
of debate does is reconfirm that the profession is far too concerned with its
own ego than offering a much needed service.

Achieving chartered status, while not unhelpful, will not result in
immediate and automatic equality with their accountancy or legal colleagues.
Such equality has to be earned the hard way.

And what about the "break away" training group? This group now
seems to want its own separate profession, no longer wanting to be part of the
IPD which it seems has "failed" them.

Perhaps much can be learned from the insurance industry. Many years ago insurance
was perceived as a "cost" to companies. The in-house insurance
manager and their department were seen as cost centres.

Enter the risk manager. Agreed, same person different label. However, much
more importantly the name change also heralded a new and proactive approach.
The result was that insurance came under the control of management, turning
what had hitherto been perceived as an uncontrollable cost into a directly
controllable profit opportunity.

By delivering to management something that was seen as of direct benefit a
significant improvement in the perception of in-house insurance departments and
its people resulted.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that if personnel
practitioners wish to be given due status and achieve board-level
representation then they must stand in the trenches with management, providing
the constructive support management needs.

This requires them to:

• Recognise that the in-house personnel department is there to serve
management. It can do this by simply asking management what it wants.

• Become more integrated with management, not more distant and isolated from
it. Walk the floor. Being locked away on a self-contained floor away from
internal customers is hopeless.

• Attend departmental meetings of all descriptions even when there appears
to be no personnel input required. This way you will get to know what is really
happening at the grass roots. It is important, however, to do this in a way
which is not perceived as spying. Trust, of course, between parties is

• Try to become a bit more user friendly. A start would be to stop referring
to employees as "human capital" or "human resources".

• Abandon the use of voice-mail. Personnel is about people, their needs,
wants and aspirations. When a call is made to personnel a human response is

• Reduce the number of internal meetings at which only personnel specialists
attend. Your in-house clients need you.

Malcolm Finney is founder of organisational behaviour management
consultancy Management Dynamics

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