Deny everything! HR responds to criticism.

If you work in HR, you’re probably aware of Lucy Adams and her performance in front of the Public Accounts Committee. You may also be aware of the article written by Louisa Peacock for the Daily Telegraph. And if you’re on Twitter, you might have seen the debacle that unfolded on the publication of the article.

So Louisa makes some slightly tenuous points. The final nail in the coffin? I don’t think we will see the demise any time soon. HR is pointless and does little for the bottom line? That hardly reflects well on all those CEOs who clearly turn a blind eye to a huge drain on their profits and their bonuses. HR Directors are becoming the new estate agents? I think we have journalists ahead of us in the queue…..just.

But that isn’t the point, she is writing to provoke a reaction and drive debate, I get that. It shouldn’t detract from the key points of the article that actually ring true. HR doesn’t have a good perception, I’ve written about that before after a piece in the Guardian. And the Lucy Adams fiasco is another high-profile blow to a profession that has only just put their collective teeth back in, ready to once again be kicked.

The thing that really gets my goat, however, is the reaction of people to the article and especially the CIPD. I could almost see the arms and legs flailing in CIPD towers as various people ran to find their smart phones and take to Twitter as Thunderbirds met Derek Faye, the shrieks of “How very dare you!” echoing out across a rainy Wimbledon Broadway.

Amongst other things there were claims of misogyny. Now that is a pretty strong call in my opinion. The article re-reported the use of the nickname “The Wicked Witch” for Adams. It also suggested that women (who form most of the profession) would be better off looking for a career elsewhere in a profession with more respect. Now, I don’t know how either of these points are misogynistic.

If you argued that women should look above the profession of nursing and set their aspirations on being doctors, you’d hardly be accused of misogyny – more likely of supporting women’s rights. And were the people who reported about “Fred the Shred” accused of misandry? It’s just a stupid, over sensitive, over earnest, knee jerk reaction. If anything, you can accuse Louisa of a hatred of HR. I don’t know what the term for that is? Sanity?

For me, that’s just a big fat smoking red herring. I’d prefer my professional body not to adopt the Baldrick defence and “deny everything”. Peacock’s article outlined many of the arguments that you can find in the previous posts on this blog and on many other blogs and in articles by other journalists. They aren’t new, they’re just placed in the context of a particularly embarrassing case that happens to be about a woman. With seventy percent of our profession being women, guess what? 70% of the bad ones are likely to be women too! Whether that includes Adams, well that I’ll just have to leave to you.

But regardless, as a profession we should showcase good performance and role models AND we should hold bad practise to account. It isn’t a weakness to admit that HR is a profession in need of improvement, it’s a strength. And when we do, when we show the critical skills of self-analysis, you know what? We make people take us a whole lot more seriously.


  1. Simon Jones (@ariadneassoc) · September 11, 2013

    As my tweets this afternoon show (I hope) I treated the article with humorous contempt, not really worth the tizz that some in the HR profession got into. It needs to be remembered that Ms Peacock is an ex-Personnel Today reporter, so she does have some insight into the profession, and I could well believe some of the quotes (about being “no good with numbers” etc). For whatever reason, she clearly wants to get back at HR and the Lucy Adams story is a gift in that respect.

    But my main point is that in among the sensationalist reporting and the opinion dressed up as fact, there were some valid criticisms of the profession. HR (and the CIPD) do recognise some of them (why would we have the CIPD/Gary Hamel Hack if we think everything in the garden’s rosy?) and it doesn’t do us any good to become overly defensive.

    I think what I’m saying, in a long winded way, is “I agree with Neil”

    • I agree with Simon and Neil – For many years I sat on CIPD Council and listened to new year’s resolutions about getting better at finance and business. I sense it is still on the agenda. It does not harm to admit the odd weakness. Nor is it subservient to admit that HR strategy must follow business strategy if it is to gain a seat at the boardroom table.

    • Neil · September 29, 2013

      Thanks Simon, I agree with you too!

  2. Robert Blevin · September 11, 2013

    I also largely agree with Neil on the substantive points. Where I differ is that I think Louisa’s stonkingly transparent, cliche ridden efforts to get a reaction did detract from the point. Massively. You don’t get a sensible discussion about where the profession needs to improve, do better, move faster by covering the whole damn lot, every last one, with the steaming great piles of hyperbole generated by yesterday’s BBC hating press. I know little of what actually went on inside the BBC over the last couple of years. From what’s surfaced, it sounds like a lot of it wasn’t pretty. But I certainly don’t know enough to point fingers at any named individuals for it. And I suspect many of our friends from the fourth estate pointing fingers don’t either. One thing I do know is that the most potent charge of “lying” levelled at Lucy Adams conveniently ignores the fact that, as I understand it, she wrote immediately to the Committee after her first appearance, and of her own volition, to correct an error she made based on a misunderstanding of what she was being asked. She wasn’t ‘found out’. She ‘fessed up. But I’ll leave the specifics there, as that is the end of my knowledge on the subject.

    We do, collectively, need to lead and engage in a debate about where and how the profession needs to move faster, create more agile organisations, repair broken cultures etc etc. The CIPD under Peter Cheese is trying to do that – and Simon cites just one example in the Hackathon. But I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by trying to peg the debate to one case, where the facts are far from clear. And I don’t think we drive change or bring people with us by allying ourselves to those who start from a position of cheap abuse. I don’t think we were particularly ‘flailing arms and legs’ … that wouldn’t be a pretty sight … but if the starting point is an attack on our entire membership as one, that makes it difficult for us to engage in a respectful and intelligent debate.

    We will continue to look for opportunities to have that respectful and intelligent debate. But I don’t view Louisa’s self-proclaimed witch hunt as fertile territory for that debate. (And, yes, I do think the double reference to the ‘wicked witch’ insult smacked of misogny. If my daughters become professionals, and if they are unfortunate enough to need to defend their professionalism at any point, woe betide anyone who decides to label them ‘witches’).

    I’m sorry if you felt our responses on Twitter were ham fisted. But we felt the tone and nature of the assault left us little choice. I look forward to continuing the serious aspects of this conversation with serious participants such as your good selves.

    • Alison Chisnell · September 13, 2013

      Like Neil, I was also really surprised by the tone and language used in the responses to the article. I think there is always an inherent danger on Twitter that because the response can be made so quickly, it sometimes leads to a type of language and knee-jerk response that we wouldn’t usually employ…and I think that is possibly what happened here.

      I have to be honest, I’m really surprised that you find the article and use of the term ‘wicked witch’ misogynistic. I struggle to see how it really shows hatred of women, or even the more updated definition of entrenched prejudice against women and I do have a concern that when we use these terms too easily, it diminishes from the times they really do occur systematically within organisations or parts of the media. I would agree that it’s not the most respectful way to refer to someone…but then again, I also know that it’s not uncommon for any senior leader in charge of implementing mass restructures to be termed as a ‘wicked witch’ or indeed a ‘grim reaper’ which I guess is the male equivalent.

      More importantly, with power and status and a frankly enormous salary, comes responsibility and it is right and proper that Lucy Adams is held to account. I don’t know the details any more than you do, but it isn’t a surprise that there are some anti-HR articles in the media currently…that doesn’t mean to say that they are defacto anti-women.

      I’m sure you perhaps feel an element of “damned if we defend our membership, damned if we don’t” and its certainly a difficult balance. But a professional body doesn’t need to respond in the same way as a trade union in giving a blanket defence to all of HR. As Neil says, its about showcasing great role models, calling out bad practise…and when it is too early to judge the facts, being able to assure that the case is being followed carefully and that you continue to expect high standards from all of your members.

      I think the CIPD in general do a fantastic job and are a great professional body. The fact that you are willing to listen to the views of your members, engage and take feedback on board is immensely valuable and hugely appreciated by me and many others.

      • Michael Carty · September 14, 2013

        I do wish there was a ‘Like’ button on here! Beautifully expressed, Alison.

      • Neil · September 29, 2013

        Alison, thank you for calling out the “calling wolf” element of the claim of misogyny as I think this is a really important piece and one that I felt my gender wouldn’t let me do justice to….and certainly not as well as you’ve done.

    • Neil · September 29, 2013

      Rob, as you know I’ll always call it as I see it. I’d like to think that’s why the CIPD and I have a decent ongoing relationship. That said, I think most of us are intelligent enough to separate hyperbole from the real arguments. We’re a pretty bright bunch in HR….

  3. changinghr · September 12, 2013

    I’m with Robert on this one. There appeared nothing to suggest that Louisa was prompting debate with her article but all people I spoke to (granted not a scientific exercise) found it a nasty, vindictive piece rather than any useful commentary. Personally, whilst a fairly robust personality myself, I can see a difference between rightful introspection (we are anything but perfect) and defense against a fairly nasty attack on the profession. I’m keen to move to the latter but on the former what’s wrong with closing ranks on generalisations and lazy journalism ?

    • Neil · September 29, 2013

      I think it was a question about how it was done. I personally don’t think that lazy name calling calls out lazy journalism.

  4. Frank Douglas @fdoug23 · September 13, 2013

    I will make this short and to the point: great companies have great HR and poor performing companies typically don’t. In short, CEO’s get the HR they deserve. If ‘you’ want to address the root cause, it is that CEO’s typically don’t understand how to leverage the ‘people’ lever in their strategies (unless something goes wrong). As such, HRD’s are typically hired for operational/back-room expertise and not for ‘courage,’ strategic insights or the ability to progress an unpopular cause.

    • Neil · September 29, 2013

      Thanks for commenting Frank and for making such a valid contribution. I agree, although I think we can make incremental change within our organisations too, we don’t have to just accept our lot.

  5. @ElNickerson · September 13, 2013

    It’s always fun when something exciting happens in HR huh?

    I agree with pretty much everyone here, that Lucy Adams has not helped the perception of HR this week. But she is one individual in one organisation. Sure, there are lots more HR individuals or HR teams in lots more organisations who are probably in a similar or worse situation, but equally, there are many that are not. But generally, a Lucy Adam’s type situation can only flourish when it’s within a culture that allows it to, or that wants it to. And that goes way beyond one individual and way beyond HR. We’re all seen that over and over in recent years.

    I also agree with many people who have been commenting on Louisa Peacock’s article in the Telegraph in the last few days, that underneath the seemingly bitter and personal attack on the HR profession, there are home truths that need to be faced. Personally I think it’s a pity that Louisa wrote it the way she did because it’s kicked up such a fuss that the fundamental points lying under her rhetoric, are being lost. And there’s truth in many of them. HR does need to overhaul itself, including:

    • Figuring out what the role/function of HR is
    • Increasing understanding of HR (impossible without the above?)
    • How to raise standards
    • How to get good people to go into, and stay into HR
    • And about 10,000 other things…….
    But we all know this isn’t just about HR. There are the cultures that enable mismanagement /corruption/ greed/ mediocrity etc to exist, and then there’s change. We have seen so much change in the last few decades and whereas some industries or sectors have nimbly adapted and flourished, others haven’t. In my working lifetime HR has never really quite known who it is, so combine that with rapid change (globalisation, technology, economic change, social change etc.) and of course you get a profession in trouble. But that doesn’t mean it’s an unnecessary function or a waste of time. It means it needs to sort itself out. And that’s where I disagree with Louisa. Because regardless of the state of HR, regardless of whether you call it HR or Human Remains or personnel or “a pointless department”, until they make robots to replace us all, there will always be employees. And employees need to be looked after. And smart companies KNOW, that their business can achieve extraordinary things when they create the right conditions for their employees. On a daily basis I work with senior HR professionals across a wide range of industries and I see them doing amazing things for their people, things that ultimately add to the bottom line. Things that make a difference in the daily lives of their employees.

    And maybe that’s why so many people are so upset with Louisa’s article. Because they actually care. Really care. There are thousands of HR people out there who do good things, who are successful and who are valued by their organisations. So if I was one of them, I’d probably want to stand up and shout “we’re not all pointless”, or “I’m not Lucy Adams!”, or “[insert profanity] you!”.

    However, what do I know? I no longer work in HR.

    • Neil · September 29, 2013

      Or we could let employees step forth and defend the HR departments because of their overwhelmingly positive experience with the profession. Oh wait…….

      • Doug Shaw · September 30, 2013

        There you have it. If you work in HR and you don’t already know why you should be getting up in the morning and making a difference – here’s your answer.

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