HR: A 10 point agenda for change

If you ever wanted proof of how dismally most people view the HR profession, then you need go no further than this piece from the Guardian online on Friday. What started as a question about working hours, turned in to a free for all regarding the standing of the HR profession. And by far the majority of comments were negative. Here are just some examples,

“…in my company, it’s often the victims of HR that have to stay late to fill in even more paper work, to generate the paperwork that HR needs to dispel the rumor that they have nothing to do all day but generate pointless paper work.”

“Everyone else in your building hates HR for the ludicrous and pointless self-assessments we’re put through each year.

“HR is the weak link in every company; an industry whose only purpose is to justify its own pointless existence. 

Get out while you still can, or face an entire career of being sniggered at behind your back by your co-workers.”

“We all hate our HR department, they send out pointless memos about equality and diversity, and reminders to complete your appraisal/quarterly review etc, just so it looks like their jobs are essential.”

“People in HR departments exist to preserve their pointless jobs by creating work for others to do !
Does anyone know anything worthwhile that HR has done ?”

“my experiences with Human Resources were neither humane nor resourceable. [sic]”

I could go on, but you get the gist. Everybody hates HR.

Now I could put up a stream of arguments that would point out the value of HR, indeed I and a few others did tentatively point this out, but in reality that is an utter waste of time and completely misses the point. It doesn’t matter what WE think, it matters what THEY think and if we are serious about our profession, then we need to take that in to account.

I admit that, in common with a number of other functions, we are in a situation where people don’t understand the value until they really need it and we are often associated with “bad things” that happen in companies. But that is the fact of the matter, we can’t get away from that. We cannot deny reality, we need to tackle it face on.

  1. We need to be resourceful in bringing the right mindset into the profession. We are not a policing function, we are not an administrative function, we are here to provide solutions and facilitate not provide problems and barriers. This mindset is more important that technical skills. If people don’t have it then don’t hire them.
  2. We need to de-clutter our processes and procedures. Enough of the forms, the polices, the bureaucracy. 90% of it isn’t needed and 100% of it is hated, resented and not understood by employees and managers alike.
  3. We need to stop saying “no”. Our language, our communication to the business needs to be positive, not negative. We need to be owners of good news. Deal with problems individually, not by memo. Stop sending out dumb emails, if it isn’t positive, don’t send it.
  4. We need to accept that you don’t get influence through control, you get influence through other people’s positive experience of you. Get influence through people wanting you involved not by telling them you have to be.
  5. We need to cut down the initiatives. Every time we look at something we should clearly be able to articulate why we are doing it and why our organization (not our HR department) wants it. If we can’t, we shouldn’t be doing it.
  6. We need to listen to our employees and our managers. We need to stop seeing them as being “the problem” and start seeing them as being the people that we are here to help. They are the reason we have jobs, so stop moaning about them and start listening.
  7. We need to stop focusing on alleged best practice and start focusing on “best fit” solutions. If our organizations only need a simple solution, then just give it to them. This isn’t about winning prizes at the CIPD awards, or standing up at conferences, this is about making your organization better.
  8. We need to be more human. We need to get out and talk, interact, spend time with people, we need to be empathetic and understanding, we need to feel. Sitting in the HR department bitching is not going to change anything.
  9. We need to stop focusing on cost and start focusing on value. These two things are not the same. Even if cost reduction is on the agenda, look at the value you can get from the budget, the resources. Cheaper and faster do not equate to better.
  10. We need to tell people who do not believe in this agenda that they have no place in the profession. They should find another career voluntarily or we should help them to find one involuntarily. There isn’t a choice to stay the same, there is only the choice to change.

Every single one of us has a responsibility for raising standards and calling others to account when they do not meet high enough standards. Those of us in leadership positions need to set the example. We need to be all over and we need to start now.

62 comments

  1. Sara · January 7, 2013

    Excellent response to another HR bashing report. This is why I work in HR and I love being reminded of the potential joys rather than just the negatives… its tough enough to get back to work after the Christmas/New Year break!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Yup…and we are all capable of making a difference.

  2. provisitaceo · January 7, 2013

    I have to say, in a global business environment where global talent is the number one issue on the minds of virtually every CEO’s in every multinational company – HR is slowly emerging not as the villain but the hero!

    In fact, this whole idea of HR possibly now being put in a far greater position of influence than ever before – in a positive way! – is reflected in the Winter 2012/13 Issue of International HR Adviser – available to read online here:
    http://www.internationalhradviser.co.uk/?p=view.magazine.online

    Quite possibly, 2013 could be the year HR’s reputation is irrevocably transformed for the better…

    Happy 2013!
    Nichole
    @provisita

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      You’re more optimistic than me! But let’s keep fighting.

  3. TalentHayley · January 7, 2013

    Totally agree, people talk about HR needing a rebrand, I disagree. We don’t need a plastic new brand we just need to cut the BS and adopt a different attitude as you describe above; this type of attitude permeates and shines from the inside out. Point 3 particularly resonates with me, let’s start thinking in outcomes instead of processes!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      No more rebrands….no more. Please.

      • Merlinonline · March 10, 2015

        Isn’t that the problem though? Personnel just rebranded itself as HR without knowing what HR actually was! Whilst HR people have spent fruitless years navel gazing about purpose and recognition, the ground has rapidly moved under their feet. According to Josh Bersin we are now seeing a move by organisations to “People Management” which is not HR, also if you consider the impact and role of HCM then we are in a totally different place to five years ago and are likely to be in an equally different place in five years time.

  4. Simon Jones (@ariadneassoc) · January 7, 2013

    An excellent blog, totally agree.I do think that Point 1 is the absolute key – it’s the mindset that matters. I meet loads of hr people who although technically competent just don’t “get it” and others who are not necessarily as skilled who have the right attitude. However, because many companies want HR to be their “protection” they recruit the former. So we not only need to change the mindset of HR but also employers

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      We have to show organisations a different way. Yes.

  5. Mitch Sullivan (@mitchsullivan) · January 7, 2013

    I think HR should recruit more of its HR managers from other business functions instead of just lazily hiring vocational HR people who have little understanding of business.

    • dougshaw · January 9, 2013

      I think there’s something in the first part of your comment. I didn’t do any HR work until I’d first done a whole bunch of sales and marketing, then set up and ran a team focused on corporate responsibility and sustainability. Mind you – after 2 years of fast and furious action on people transformation stuff – I left! 🙂

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I don’t think you have to do either. You could just hire and develop good HR people.

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  7. Meg Peppin · January 7, 2013

    HR is – what?

    Employment law expert, policy guardian (just look at the CIPD communities to see some of the stuff that HR takes on or is dumped on, diversity champion (?), administrator and holder of records relating to employees, advisor, strategist, insurance scheme owner/procurer, facilities management, pensions trustee, management coach, recruiter, enabler, enforcer, policeman, liberator. The list can go on. It’s why it’s so fascinating.

    There are some fundamental conflicts that get in the way of what you are advocating Neil. HR can be all the things you have said, but when it comes to it, and someone with influence and power wants to get rid of someone via re structure, compromise etc, often because they have not effectively managed an individual or aren’t confident, courageous, brave enough to have the conversation then HR is the instrument. Because of this, HR will never be trusted, YOU the individual practitioner may be, but HR as a function won’t be. All the good work gets undermined by the one role. The comments on that article are reflecting that lack of trust I think.

    I don’t think it’s about making HR better, I think it’s about doing something different.

    Ask your staff and managers “what if we weren’t here?”. Off in a puff of smoke overnight. What would people have to do, get good at, take responsibility for. What would they outsource, quickly and efficiently, transparently, what would they buy in in terms of solutions. Where would the gap be? What would people be asking for?

    • Hilary Jeanes · January 9, 2013

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. What is the role of HR, except hire and fire?

      Most people base their ‘knowledge’ on their own personal experience of dealing with HR as an applicant, an employee or a manager and think that anyone and everyone can do it (well, definitely better than it’s being done).

      Why does HR lack the clarity of other support functions such as IT, Legal or Finance?

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I disagree…what you’re talking about is corporate culture. You get “get rid of people” in different ways. How about treating them as an adult and explaining?

  8. Julia Briggs (@interimity) · January 7, 2013

    It is so dispiriting that we keep needing to remind ourselves what we are really about (and I will refrain from my normal CIPD bashing). I agree with Mitch (a first) that really HR should have line experience as well.

    A lovely story from a very senior HR person – he moved into a line role from being the HRD and responsible for masses of policy and process. As a new CEO in the same company he was really impressed with a lot of his previous work. However, he was bemused, befuddled and downright underwhelmed with the rest of it ……it was complete irrelevant rubbish and hugely complicated.

    We are there to do process (keep it simple and get it right or the line will despise you) and to help the CEO achieve the business objectives through coaching, facilitating and guiding on the right people stuff – OD, reward, leadership etc. We don’t do it, but we ensure best practice (which will be different for each organisation we work for).

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      So I am in HR and have a line role. What does that make me?

  9. Neil

    This is great stuff and echoes what I have been banging on about for years. When I refused to play the policeman at a previous employer (names will be changed to protect the innocent), using the phrase ‘I wasn’t bought in here to be a policeman, and I won’t be’, other members of the HR team looked shocked and appalled. I think I changed some mindsets, but I know I was always considered a maverick after that.

    I still managed to do the tough-stuff, but did it by helping the managers make good decisions rather than being the stick to weild. The Ops guys appreciated my approach long before my HR colleagues.

    You are a bastion of common sense, and no BS, Neil. Keep challenging!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Thanks….shucks….

  10. Kathy Pidgeon (@KathyPidgeon) · January 7, 2013

    One of the reasons HR gets such a bad press is their track record on dealing with whistleblowers and other targets of workplace abuse. I have yet to hear one positive account of HR dealing with workplace abuse -usually referred to as bullying which trivialises the experience. I am in touch with many other targets and HRs role has been to side with the bully,add to the victimisation and intimidation the target is already subjected to.Their main priority is to cover up what is happening to protect the reputation of the company,board members, managers and other individuals involved in the abuse.This is frequently achieved by pushing the target to breaking point and then getting them to sign a compromise agreement with gagging clauses. I am not talking about isolated incidents but something that is affecting people in large numbers in all types of employment from supermarket cashiers to surgeons from cleaners to head teachers. If you want to change the negative image you have I recommend you start by looking at how you deal with work place abuse.

    • dougshaw2012 · January 7, 2013

      Kathy – for what it’s worth I think the ‘isolated incidents’, if such things exist, matter too. Speaking from my own experience, once I got HR to help it transpired that the bullying I was subjected to was being felt by others too.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I agree, we need to be in a place that transcends organisational hierarchy.

  11. Doug Shaw · January 7, 2013

    Happy New Year Neil. I agree with your manifesto and I hope I try to practice much of it where I can. This is a cracking post to start the new year and for sure I will refer to it often. In another life, if I could afford you I’d love to work with you and help change the world. Great stuff, keep on keeping on.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      A collaboration of minds is always possible.

  12. We need to accept that you don’t get influence through control, you get influence through other people’s positive experience of you. Get influence through people wanting you involved not by telling them you have to be.

    This is it. Right here. Thank you for writing this.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I’m hanging up my hat now.

  13. broc.edwards · January 8, 2013

    Yes! So much of the (sometimes well earned) hate aimed at HR comes down to poor customer service. What is called “progressive” “new” “revolutionary” in HR is usually just customer service 101. HR often forgets: How the humans who are your (internal or external) customers FEEL about your products and services is much, much more important than what they THINK.

    • Doug Shaw · January 9, 2013

      That broc edwards – he’s smart!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Feeling…now there is a novel concept for HR!

  14. Flora Marriott · January 8, 2013

    Bang on. What an excellent post, and as Doug said, it’s one that I’ll be sharing with others.
    Only just recently as I struggled to design a better performance management method, it struck me again that we (HR) so often design things for ourselves rather than the end user. I ended up pretending to myself that I had never seen any appraisal system and I started by listing people’s actual needs and desires in terms of their own performance and development. It led me to a method that is totally unlike anything I’ve ever come across. With virtually no paper either. And less time.

    Anyway, the HR you describe in your manifesto is the one I aspire to (albeit I work in an L&D role, but the 10 points still apply) and it describes the standards I wish to be judged against.
    Thank you.

    • dougshaw · January 9, 2013

      Never do anything about me – without me. As much as I dislike engagement surveys – I could see more value in them when HR start to ask staff ‘so – what kinda questions do you think we should ask then eh? What matters to you?’

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      HR, L&D….we’re just one family.

  15. Mark Withers · January 9, 2013

    A very good piece and one I will also be sharing with others. Our influence as HR professionals is rooted in the quality of relationships we have with colleagues and the conversations that flow from these relationships. I wholeheartedly agree with all your points but particularly the first about mindset. In my book ‘Transforming HR: Delivering Value Through People’ I talk about three mindsets: a systems mindset (working with the whole organisational system in order to effect change); a process consulting mindset (working with our colleagues to develop solutions to business problems) and a project mindset (organising our work in ways that are transparent and demonstrate value). At the heart of these mindsets is contingent thinking – and I too would like to banish the notion of a best practice. We need to stop being lazy and instead, develop ways of working that make sense to our organisations rather than trying to unhelpfully copy what others are doing. In this way we become relevant and valuable … and that should change the way people see and speak of HR. Let’s hope…. !!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Yes, yes and yes.

  16. Hilary Jeanes · January 9, 2013

    Great list, Neil. Maybe we worry too much and the answer is to carry on and not care what others think (like most IT, Legal and Finance people…)

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Keep calm and carry on. Or something like that.

  17. Wm. Michalak · January 10, 2013

    Let’s get real here. You are talking about changing the strategic direction of a corporate function and you are also talking about changing the behavior and performance of a group of humans. The 10 points don’t really address how to actually affect change in strategy or in human behavior.

    HR knows where it should be, as suggested by the 10 Point article. It has no clue how to get there. That is the problem that no one talks about. Guess what? If the CEO doesn’t care, or doesn’t mandate a change in strategy, none is going to take place. HR and every other corporate function serves at the convenience of the CEO, so that’s where change needs to start.

    In terms of changing what HR does, why would we think the people who represent the problem in so many organizations, have the capacity to correct it? That is one of the fundamental problems here. We are asking the tire to fix the flat. The impetus and the accountability needs to come from outside HR.

    Unless and until HR figures it out, there is not going to be any change to the dismal reputation of the HR function.

    • Sukh Pabial · January 11, 2013

      This is highly intriguing. What is it about the 10 points that scare you? Why are you afraid to change?

      If anything it sounds like these 10 points are exactly what you need to consider.

      There are those in the profession who are willing to make these things happen. We don’t need to be told how. We’re experienced enough, old enough, and ugly enough (I’m being satirical) to find ways to make these happen because we have faith in our own abilities, and the self confidence in making it happen.

      I’m sure the services you provide are very helpful to your clients, and you are able to keep your head above water. I wonder what potential there could be if you tried something progressive and different?

      • Wm. Michalak · January 11, 2013

        Sukh,
        I find it interesting that your response is about me and not about the opinion I offered up for positively changing underperforming HR functions. Your disparaging comments relative to my capacity to try “something progressive and different” say a lot about the kinds of HR practices you employ as well as your character.

        I do agree though with your comment that “There are those in the profession who are willing to make these thing happen”. In my opinion, those professionals have already done what needs to be done in their organizations, so the author was not addressing these people and neither was I.
        The article and the 10 points were directed to the HR functions that are not doing the job right and particularly to the opinions of the employees in specific organizations. The 10 points are objectives or a template for HR departments/professionals that have a bad reputation and/or have not delivered positive employee support in the eyes of the organization’s workforce.

        My point was simply, knowing what you want to become, and implementing a strategy to become what you envision are two very different things. To ask HR departments as dysfunctional as those described in the article to fix themselves is an absurd notion. If the HR community has the capacity as you suggest, and it is as simple as following the 10 points, then explain to me why this isn’t being done in every organization?

    • Mark Withers · January 11, 2013

      I would be interested to know which of the 10 points HR has no control or influence over.
      Some of the points made speak directly to HR activity – don’t over-engineer processes / stop launching more and more initiatives that have no clear business benefit. Other points address how we think about our work and the kinds of conversations we have with colleagues in the business. These all seem pretty spot on for any HR professional to get their heads around. I agree with Sukh – it’s within our gift and down to us.

      • Wm. Michalak · January 11, 2013

        Mark,
        I agree with you that this is all within the HR’s capacity to control and influence – as a function and as individual professionals. The problem as stated in the article, is that HR departments, in many cases, are not following the 10 points. So then the question is how do we change that? My point was simply that implementing the 10 points is far more complex than just understanding them.
        As I asked of Sukh, if the HR community has the capacity as you suggest, and it is as simple as following the 10 points, then explain to me why this isn’t being done in every organization?

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Then let us start with the CEO. I’m not against that.

  18. Meg Peppin · January 12, 2013

    Well I think, referring back to my own comments, it’s because we are trying to solve the wrong problem. We are constantly trying to make HR “better”; Neil’s ten points are achievable and doable but are all entirely reliant upon individual capability, that’s why it’s not being done in every organisation. I sense a blog.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Individual capability and organisational capability.

  19. Di Taylor · January 16, 2013

    Great points made above but I still find I have to go through some laborious processes to meet employment legislation and to protect the organisation – where does this fit?

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Compliance is important, but it shouldn’t be over engineered.

  20. Mel · January 22, 2013

    Yes, yes, yes! As an experienced line manager who moved into HR 10 years ago, I have a “business head”, do not sit in an ivory tower, and “get it”, but, guess what? Most people don’t want to hear it – the HR Director has got to his/her position by playing politics nicely with the big boys, and certainly doesn’t want some uppity person rocking the boat! Of course, the uppity person never gets the ear of the MD, because everything goes through the HR Director, so, even if the MD MIGHT be willing to listen to something different, he/she will never get the chance!

    The people at the top table are too often too interested in their own careers, rather than the interests of the business – look at the banking crisis for a fine example of that! We get a few scraps thrown out to the masses – “people are our biggest asset”, “we want challenge from our people”, etc, BUT it’s meaningless, because the “mavericks” (who challenge the status quo) get sidelined, become the first in line when savings need to be made, and exit the business. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I wrote something about the banking crisis when it happened saying HR should take some of the blame. Interesting that the CIPD are now starting to say the same.

  21. David Hill · January 23, 2013

    Whether you’re an HR professional (and I have been for over 25 years) or any other professional or tradesperson you can only get attention from your customers if you commnicate with them in a language they understand. SMT asked HR team in one business where I worked what the annual sickness absence rate was across the business? I did the analysis and found we were 1.2% above national average. ‘Not a major issue then’ was the SMT response. At the next SMT meeting I invited myself for a slot on the agenda and said 1.2% represented a cost to the business of almost £1.5million per annum. Guess who was project managing a company wide review to reduce sickness absences by the end of that month. The scheme I designed introduced and trained the managers to operate saved the business over £200K in the next 12 months.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Communicate in a common language. Yup. Absolutely.

  22. Jacob Sten Madsen · March 25, 2013

    For what it is worth in a closed and limited forum, fascinating discussion. Whether HR relevant, having a role to play, being considered of value, seen as a strategic and important aspect of a n y organisation. I have been fortunate enough to have worked in two major companies where HR had a very significant role to play were sitting at the top table and were giving due respect and influence. The reason why, the CEO and the entire C suite knew and bought into that HR an absolutely essential part of the entire company, that HR the lynchpin in all that went on, the facilitator and the driver all matters people (and people being what makes up 90% of what a company consist of)
    For that reason if the CEO and the senior management buy into, respect and give HR its due credit then most areas of conflict should be minimal and possible to overcome and HR and senior management able to work together in a very constructive and positive way.
    So back to mind-set, but one that has to start at the very top, as otherwise we are back to the never ending and tiresome discussion of the value and existence of HR
    Shameful in my view as it does not take an Einstein to acknowledge that apart from planet earth, the kingdom of plants, animals and minerals e v e r y y t h I n g is man made, why no human resources/people nothing would exist or be. For that reason human beings behind every single aspect that goes on in a company/organisation why deserving huge respect and strategic influence.

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