Monday, 5 October 2009

HR Departments: what's the point of them

The HR world seems to be buzzing today in response to Sathnam Sanghera's “Human resources departments: I've never understood the point of them” article in The Times online.

Human resources departments: I've never understood the point of them

Sanghera does rather blot his journalist’s copybook early in his frustrating but challenging piece when he admits that “I’ve never dealt with HR myself” thereby reducing his article to the level of a book review written by someone who has not actually read the book in question!

The article does also remind me of those who mutter, “I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like” or, in Sanghera's case, what he doesn’t like. Unfortunately, his claim to be neutral on the merits or otherwise of HR is very easily blown out of the water through a swift peruse of his blog which trumpets that he was HR Journalist of the Year in the 2006 and a Watson Wyatt (a major HR consultancy) Awards for Excellence winner this year. Come on Mr. S! You can't have your cake and eat it! Let's face it, you make your money from rabble-rousing articles written about and also for the HR profession, so to claim that you've never had to deal with HR yourself is simply untrue.

He does rather miss the point when he claims that “HR can’t even decide on what to call itself. "Recent suggestions vary from “personnel” to “human capital management”, “employee resources”, “organisational capability”, “talent management”, “performance management”, “organisational development” and “human relations”” Most would agree that many of these are discrete elements of HR, and are focused on entirely different areas; they are not interchangeable terms for the same activity.

Having said all that, as a member of the demonised group, I do find myself having to agree with some of the points made about the HR profession not being able to adequately explain to others what it actually does

As some of you (especially the teachers) will be aware, I've recently been writing a series of articles for students of A Level Business Studies under the title of "What do HR Managers actually do?" and have been following the framework of the CIPD Profession Map to do this. Some of the areas on the map are clearly explained, but I would have to confess that a bright A Level student would be hard-pressed to read some elements and gain an adequate overview of what we claim to be doing when we're involved in, for example, Employee Engagement. If we can't explain what we do in simple terms, then we need to stop doing it.

Also when the CIPD announces, as it has done today, the launch of "a major research programme which will paint a picture of how the HR function needs to evolve" I suspect that many of us groan inwardly and mutter, "here we go again!" With all the changes that we impose on ourselves as HR professionals, sadly I believe that we're in danger of becoming like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat: slowly fading away until nothing of us is left other than our smile. And perhaps a policy or two.

Oh, and by the way Sathnam: who needs journalists these days either?


  1. Crikey - have you read the comments? Some right loons in there (of course, you Graham, are one of the few voices have sanity).

    Flippant generalisations aside, there seems to be a lack of recognition that as work has become increasingly specialised, organisations will need specialists in employment law, recruitment, mediation, learning etc etc and etc.

    Or would the people making these comments prefer to take on all these tasks themselves?

  2. Alex: Thanks for the comment, and yes, the rabid and often uninformed nature of many of the comments is rather worrying, isn't it!

  3. I wonder who the 'most people' are who think that “human capital management”, “employee resources”, “organisational capability”, “talent management”, “performance management”, “organisational development” and “human relations”” are discrete elements of HR, and are focused on entirely different areas.... performance management vs talent management really, really different Graham?

    A distinction without a difference I would venture.....Smoke and mirrors to justify your existence? Aren't we all responsible for human relations?

    HR Policies can now be bought off the shelf and legal formalities can be drafted by any half competent legal junior of 3 years training. Nearly all organisations I have worked for have outsourced their HR. They were all highly successful! When the tide goes out (or the market goes bust) the naked swimmers (pen pushers) are revealed.. HR is a post Keynesian relic of a concept, proffered by Prof David Guest as a right wing approach to leftist, unionist 'personnel' . It remains however, the same job. The hyperbole at the top of this post, well that's just obsfucation. There are a few more employment directives from Europe, but offsetting that, industrial relations are no longer as big an issue and most legal issues can be resolved by a quick call to any Employment Lawyer. The end is nigh. The worrying thing is that you cannot even articulate what you actually do? (for fear of it being exposed as fundamentally mundane and administrative?!)

    Sick note policy anyone?

  4. Simon, I agree that there may be some organisations where outsourcing the HR function works for them (although that would still suggest that the services are required but are just provided in a different way – slightly contradicting your argument). I agree that as HR professionals we are often guilty of smoke and mirrors (see previous comments made) to protect our position and managers should take responsibility for properly managing their staff. But, as I have said before, what should be common sense isn’t always common practise.

    When the proverbial tide goes out and an organisation needs to down size; change its organisation structure; look at a programme of culture change etc then what do those who have outsourced their HR function often do? Well - they hire in consultants to do the work that the HR team would have done. Oh and then what happens, they make some appointments because wouldn’t it be great to have that expertise in-house. What goes around comes around.

    This world isn’t a one size fits all

    Thought about putting some big words in to make my comment feel important enough – but hey, you know what they say about naked swimmers – small dictionaries!!