Why HR is right on the button

It’s a call we hear often in these pages and elsewhere: why can’t human resources professionals stop the navel-gazing? Why is it that HR is so prone to doubting itself, so keen to ponder its life purpose? Like Hamlet moping around the battlements of Elsinore, there is no profession that wrestles with conflicting impulses quite as heroically.

Well, I think I have an answer as to why this might be. My answer is that there is simply a much bigger and more complicated navel to gaze at than in other comparable functions. HR is more intrinsically interesting than finance or marketing, and the price to pay for this interest is that it is harder to say exactly what HR is about. Far from being a sign of weakness, bouts of introspection are a reflection of a deep and gloriously vexed history that gives HR a complexity and a dignity that other functions lack.

This complexity reaches into the foundations of the HR profession. It may be an embarrassment today, but modern personnel evolved out of the Quaker social conscience. In 1913, Seebohm Rowntree, son of the Quaker chocolate-maker Joseph Rowntree, invited some contacts who shared his interest in ‘industrial betterment’ to York. When the Central Association of Welfare Workers, forefather of our own dear Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, finally formulated what it stood for in 1917, the goal was: “To promote the well-being of workers in securing, in co-operation with employers and the employed, the best possible conditions of work.”

Here we find many themes that still crop up, such as pushing the ‘shared interests’ agenda, improving the experience of work, the sense of knowing what’s best for working people, the noble, if nave, motives, and the promotion of peaceful conflict resolution (or class compromise, as some saw it). And here we also find the roots of a question that has always dogged HR: whose side is it on?

But my point is this: is there another profession which can boast that it was founded on the troubled but utterly fascinating concept of shared interest capitalism?

Of course, today HR professionals like to think they have put all that behind them, and they are humble servants of the bottom line, like every other dreary functionary. When asked what they do all day, they say something like: “My role is to ensure our people have the capacity to deliver the business strategy.” No, I haven’t a clue what it means either. But I know that if anyone thinks this cultish vacuity clarifies anything, they kid themselves.

Press the majority of personnel types on what they are really there for, and what emerges is the sense of the thrill of riding two horses at once: how far productivity improvements can be reconciled with the impulse to improve working life; how far mutual gains for employer and employee are possible within the logic of market capitalism.

This attitude is the cause of much sniping. To one group of cynics, HR people are corporate henchmen and women spouting duplicitous rhetoric. To another group of cynics, they are dangerously neutral bystanders. There may be something to both charges.

And yet recent years have witnessed a definite flourishing within the profession. The ‘progressive’ movement of employers, interested in high-performance work practices, in human capital, and in creativity – those organisations, ironically, which do not treat staff as mere ‘human resources’ – is a real and growing phenomenon. True, it is not as large as it should be. Yet the important point is that despite HR’s identity issues, many more organisations are desperate to join the gang.

This achievement merits due credit. Today, it is common to hear that business is ‘about people’, that employment is a two-way street, and that success principally concerns the deployment of human talent. Even allowing for the painful gap between reality and rhetoric, it is striking that some of the old convictions of personnel have become shared cultural assumptions across organisations.

Indeed, even though there is as yet no sure-fire way of proving the value HR adds in financial terms, many businesses are happy enough to express ‘a faith’ in its value. Some even make ‘a commitment’ to HR. Again, how many professions can boast that their specialism is something approaching a cause? Cynics are unlikely ever to understand that HR is, at heart, a deeply non-cynical, highly idealistic occupation that often gets its idealism mugged by events.

A tribute is apt, here. Of all the authors who have tried to define what HR is about, the most popular is the one who has emphasised the historical complexity of the role. University of Michigan professor, David Ulrich – he of the ‘Ulrich model’ – set out four roles for HR in the late 1990s: ‘strategic partner’, ‘administrative expert’, ‘change agent’, and ’employee champion’. Employee champion was the bit many HR professionals tried to forget. Yet Ulrich himself appears insistent on this point. He has recently modified his categories (in association with Wayne Brockbank, another HR academic), but ’employee advocate’ is still in there. “Employee advocacy is not merely window-dressing,” they wrote recently. “It contributes to building the human infrastructure from which everything else in the organisation flows.”

Quite so. It may muddy the question of what HR is for, but the profession would be so much more thin and miserable without it. It is, at the end of the day, a glorious, paradoxical navel, fully worthy of much intense interest.

What do you think? What topics are currently pulling your gaze in the direction of your navel? E-mail [email protected] with your views.

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