Whose side is HR on?

Wearing more hats than a quick change artist, is it any wonder that HR often has something of an identity crisis? A policeman, hatchet man, lawyer, coach, a spy in the staff canteen, or a cuckoo in the nest in the boardroom; wherever the fearless HR manager dares to tread, people mutter under their breath: ‘Just whose side is HR on?’

In the monochrome 1970s, it was clear enough to see that industrial relations was a euphemism for conflict, and HR sat square across the table, arm-wrestling against workers’ demands, defending management’s resolve ‘not to be blackmailed.’ You can almost feel nostalgic for the simplicity of it all. But in a modern organisation with blurred edges and invisible sides, whose interests does HR now serve, and must a choice be made?

Size matters; as a business grows from a one-man band to a small orchestra, systems are needed, and there comes a point where the director’s PA can’t handle the payroll as well as the boss’ diary. I’ve come across organisations with as many as 300 employees and no HR function, not to mention disciplinary and grievance procedures and basic policies. If only outsourced, they need HR to save them from themselves, but in a larger entity, the perception is different.

HR becomes the thought police, dastardly fiends created by Orwell and Kafka, creating ever-more complex systems that will sooner or later find all of us guilty. It gets worse, for when times get hard, cuts are made, and when the grim reaper commeth, the HR manager is the one with blood on his hands. He claims he’s just the piano player, and has no say in the choice of music, but need you ask whose side he’s on when he’s playing Chopin’s Funeral March?

Of course, it’s a misunderstanding to view HR as the enemy within. HR people are humanists and philanthropists at heart, just trying to make the internal world a better place to live in. An honest broker, an educator, a liberator, an enabler; empowering people to maximise their potential while contributing to business goals and fulfilling our company mission. We are on everybody’s side – that’s how good we are.

Sadly, the many hats of HR are just costumes, providing role play opportunities, escapist fantasies and respite from the reality of our three, strict, uncompromising masters. The first of these is the law and we have a duty to make sure that no-one ends up in jail, gets sacked or killed through error, ignorance or negligence.

After that, HR owes it to the profession and fellow human beings to act ethically, not bending rules to the limit, but demonstrating social responsibility and care. Finally, it has to ensure that the business survives, so that investors continue to invest, taking their pound of flesh, and employees stay employed. Quite whose side that’s on, I’m not sure, but I do miss arm wrestling.

by George Sandford, author, management developer and HR consultant

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