Periodically, we read about why we hate HR, HR is dead, HR is useless, HR should not be saved, or we should fire our HR department. In one recent quote, HR is typecast: “This job is typically taken by an overweight, middle-aged woman who loves gossip.” These critiques often focus on the administrative duties of HR work, the corporate (not employee) advocate, or the demoralising experiences of performance reviews.
These stereotypes are rooted in outdated, narrow-minded, and personal prejudices that need to be replaced with more realistic and forward looking views of HR.
First, these reviews judge the present by the past. When I was young, we had TVs with electromagnetic tubes replaced by solid state electronics to then be updated by high definition television (HDTV). To judge HDTV by the technology of electronic tubes would be naïve. Likewise, HR critiques often judge HR’s work today by what HR did in the past. HR began as an administrative function specifying terms and conditions of work and routines for hiring, paying, and developing people. Today these administrative tasks are delivered through technology through shared services often found today in the cloud. Judging the present by the past discounts progress and displays an acute disconnect from today’s HR.
Second, narrow-minded critiques focus on a subset of the HR world. Normal distributions exist in most parts of our lives: 20 – 60 – 20. In any change, 20% are already on board and early adopters; 20% are laggards who will never change; and 60% can learn and change. HR critiques generally pretend that the bottom 20% represent 100% of HR. Of course, there are lousy HR professionals, practices, and departments. Defining all of HR by these 20% is like defining a columnist by the subsequent comments about the column. Most of the commenters show a narrow mindedness, intolerance, and parochial perspective by only focusing on the bottom 20%.
Finally, I believe that many of the HR naysayers have somewhere had a horrible personal HR experience. They may have been passed over for a job or promotion, had a terrible performance review, or not been paid what they felt they deserved. Their damning an entire profession by their personal encounter is like judging the US by a day in New York City. My psychologist wife encourages me to explore “why”…why is someone doing what they are doing? These naysayers may be based on resolving a negative personal experience or a need for visibility which comes from outrageous statements. In any case, most of these naysayers speak with a prejudice that comes from limited personal experiences.
For HR reflections to move the field forward, we should replace the naysayers with thoughtful observers. Positive psychologists have found that focusing on what is right more than what is wrong creates sustained change. The Losardo ratio of 5:1 positive to negative comments leads to higher performing teams and relationships.
Let me offer a few prescriptions for how to move forward in HR.
- Start with the business. When HR discussions start with business requirements, HR becomes an enabler for delivering business results.
- Define HR outcomes. Business success comes less from aspirational visions, missions, and hopes and more from the outcomes that HR delivers around talent, leadership, and culture.
- Innovate HR work. Like the flat screen HDTV changes our experience with television; HR practices in staffing, training, compensation, and even the hated performance management should be updated and re-invented.
- Align HR work. Increasingly HR work not only matches strategy inside a company, but aligns with external stakeholders and context. Creating a leadership or cultural brand inside that reflects external brand ensure that leaders and cultures sustain the right change.
- Be inquisitive and focus on what’s next. Rather than lament what has been, insightful HR professionals should anticipate and create what can be.
About the Author: Dave Ulrich is Rensis Likert Professor of Business, University of Michigan
Partner, the RBL Group (www.rbl.net)