HR skills aren’t transferable

In the coverage of the BBC redundancy payment enquiry, something stood out for me. It wasn’t about the importance of HR being the moral compass of the organisation, I’ve written about that before. It wasn’t about the fact that behaviour not words drives culture, I’ve covered that too.

It was a question that Justin Tomlinson MP raised regarding a statement made by Lucy Adams, the HR Director, in an interview that she gave back in 2010. The exchange went something like this:

Q183 Justin Tomlinson: Lucy, going forward, how important do you think human resources skills will be in ensuring that licence fee payers get value to money?

Lucy Adams: In relation to severance arrangements?

Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Lucy Adams: What Tony and I have done in the last few months is put in place a range of governance arrangements, policy changes and communication to make sure that things are better understood. So in many ways, because room for exceptional payments has been closed down, room for payment in lieu of notice has been closed down, and room for anything above the cap has been closed down, it will be an easier role for managers because there will be very little room for manoeuvre. 

Q184 Justin Tomlinson: But you have had to use your HR expertise and skills to ensure that those systems are watertight.

Lucy Adams: Yes. 

Q185 Justin Tomlinson: Do you remember your interview with the CIPD-an organisation “leading HR into the future”-in 2010, when you were quoted as saying that you are not an HR person and you do not have a traditional HR background? Do you have the skills to put those systems in place? 

Lucy Adams: I have been a senior HR director for over 10 years now. What I was referring to in that interview was that, first and foremost, I am not somebody who is isolated from the business that I am in. I believe the remainder of the quote was, “I’m first and foremost a business person”, and that was to point out that you can have people who understand policy and best practice, but who do not get engaged in the business. I am very keen to be involved in all aspects of the BBC. 

Q186 Justin Tomlinson: Have you ever run a business? 

Lucy Adams: I have not run my own business, no. 

Q187 Justin Tomlinson: You are not a business person. [and then continues questioning]

Now I wasn’t there and these notes, albeit official, are still uncorrected. But they raise a really interesting point about “business skills” and “HR skills”. It also comes back to a favourite topic of mine, “commercial HR”.

When I interviewed for my current role 5 years ago, I described myself as “a business person who understands HR”. I was wrong. I’m actually a “HR person who understands business”. It isn’t semantics, it is an important yet subtle shift in emphasis.

It isn’t possible to just “do” HR without any skills or experience, you can’t just learn it, there is no other complete transferable skill set from any other profession. Organisations are systems, and the HR interventions that are properly needed to support them are systemic in their nature. You need to understand the range and complexity, the feasible, the impossible. Too many times Adams refered to “custom and practice”, the last vestige of the lazy or unskilled, as if that somehow explained everything.

As I get further into my career, I appreciate more the experience that I’ve had – both good and bad – and how it helps me to see different things in an organisational context that other parts of the organisation don’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, see. The best part of two decades worth of experience can’t be absorbed overnight.

The problem with positioning yourself as a “business person” or arguing that we need more “business people” in HR, is that we belittle the skills and experience that organisations desperately need to run effectively. And these are the skills and experience that only those who are genuinely interested in building their personal competence in HR can provide.

You don’t understand how to build successful compensation systems, how to develop organisations, the hard wiring of recruitment to talent to performance to results, the importance of a good employee relations agenda or how to successfully develop leadership cultures by watching from afar. You’ve got to be in and amongst it.

Of course everything exists in context and we need to understand the other areas of business too, so does everyone who works in an organization. But we are HR people, not business people. And that is something we should celebrate, not shy away from.


  1. Simon Jones (@ariadneassoc) · July 15, 2013

    That’s a really interesting viewpoint though it does beg various other questions (to which I don’t necessarily know the answer), such as
    – At what point do you become an “HR person”? – for example I think that 10 years senior HR experience would qualify Lucy Adams, but it’s unclear whether she thinks it does
    – Is this just another example of the lack of confidence HR has a profession – a defensive reaction to the mistaken perception of what HR is or does (something HR Gem explored in her recent blog on negativity)?
    – Where’s the dividing line? After running my own HR consultancy business for nearly 15 years, am I “a business person who understands HR” or “an HR person who understands business”? And what is a business person anyway? Is Bill Gates a computer geek who understands business, or a business person who understands computers? I understand the distinction you’re trying to make but it seems to be a definition that only fits those HR (or equally marketing, finance etc) people who’ve spent a career in large organisations.

    • Neil · July 15, 2013

      I guess the point I’m making is about mindset, rather than specifics. And yes something about confidence too.

  2. ethicalcompanies · July 15, 2013

    I’m glad HR skills are non transferable, I’d love nothing more than to see a bunch of pompous overbearing prejudiced discriminatory a **holes find themselves out of work so they can be on the receiving end for a change. Same goes for recruiters, who on the social “scale” are a lower life than estate agents.

    • Neil · July 15, 2013

      What everyone? All of them?

      • ethicalcompanies · July 15, 2013

        I haven’t come across one yet who doesn’t deserve some karma.

      • Neil · July 15, 2013

        You hang out with the wrong crowd….

  3. Why can’t we be both an HR person and a business person? One aspect is about technical or functional expertise the other is how you deploy it. Would we ever have this discussion about a finance person? For goodness sake lets stop arguing and go make a difference by deploying our HR and business expertise!

    • Neil · July 16, 2013

      You can be Jan, that’s my point but we shouldn’t shy away from being HR people at heart as if it is some sort of weakness. And yes I have had this conversation about finance people, there are good “bean counters” and there are good “big picture” finance people.

      The other point is that you can’t just suddenly become an HR person, that is like saying because I cook I’m a chef, or because I count I’m an accountant, the depth of skills required is greater than just understanding business.

      So yes, we should deploy technical expertise in a business context.

      I’m not sure who is arguing…….? Unless you disagree with that?

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