Sack the HR department?

Scanning the social media airwaves this weekend, a title immediately grabbed my attention, “Sack the HR department!” the title of a white paper from the “Great Place to Work Institute”. You can read the entire paper here but the summary highlighted a number of reasons why staff don’t have high opinions of the HR department.

HR function outsourced so more remote

HR staff seen as ‘whistleblowers’

HR staff not following their own rules about recruitment and promotion

HR turning a blind eye to managers likewise who don’t play by the rules

Line managers expected to carry out HR role with little or no training

HR seen as out of touch with the rest of staff

I’m not a great fan of “research” papers that are essentially there to sell a service. But the summary points resonated with a number of arguments I’ve made in the past.

I struggle to think of an example of an outsourced HR solution that has added long term value to the organisation and improved the service for employees. I’ve heard the arguments, sure, but the evidence? Last April I wrote a piece about the “Sausage Machine”. The outsourcing process, however, is the sausage machine on steroids, supposed efficiency drives and incentivises the dehumanisation process. It is as simple as that.

Trust is a theme that I’ve come back to time and time again. Most HR departments aren’t trusted and this makes any sort of intervention or improvement in the employee experience almost impossible. If you’re not trusted, your work won’t be trusted. If you can’t deal with confidentiality, you won’t be confided in.

And a lot of this is underpinned by the relentless desire by HR to be seen as “commercial”. Which so many read as, “doing whatever I’m told by the big bosses” and which, of course, in many cases is exactly the opposite. Sometimes saying “no” well is the most commercial thing you can do. If you want evidence just look at the role of HR in most of the corporate failures in the last ten years.

But perhaps the biggest warning light to the profession, is being out of touch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Most HR departments don’t have a clue what is going on in their organisations. And sadly, most think they’ll solve this by learning to read a P&L. In the same way that there are no answers at the bottom of an empty glass, nor is their organisational insight at the bottom of a balance sheet. Well, certainly not the sort we’re looking for.

So does this tell us anything new? Not really. Does it tell us anything we don’t know? Probably not? Will we pay attention? I guess the good will but the bad won’t.

And that is the fundamental problem with the profession.


  1. Mitch Sullivan · November 25, 2013

    Couldn’t some of these problems be solved by HR departments hiring actual business managers and retraining them, rather than hiring vocationally trained HR people who’ve never experienced anything other than HR generalism?

    • Neil · December 1, 2013

      I’ve never actually understood what an, “actual business manager” is? Someone with no specialism at all?

      • Mitch Sullivan (@mitchsullivan) · December 1, 2013

        A manager from one of the business functions.

      • Neil · December 2, 2013

        Can you give me an example of a “business function”?

      • Mitch Sullivan (@mitchsullivan) · December 2, 2013

        An example of a business function?! Are you serious?

        Sales, Marketing, Corporate Affairs, Finance, Manufacturing, IT, Supply Chain, etc..

      • Neil · December 2, 2013

        No I’m just trying to understand which functions you think might be better placed to drive the people agenda within the organisation. I didn’t want to assume.

      • Mitch Sullivan (@mitchsullivan) · December 2, 2013

        Ah, OK. I don’t think it should make any difference what part of the business they come from, if they have the right people management skills.

  2. interimity · November 25, 2013

    ‘Sack the HR department’ was the title of a chapter in ‘Up the Organisation’ written by Robert Townsend in the 1970s. Great book (and he called it ‘personnel’).

    There is no doubt that HR is broken and I agree wholeheartedly about outsourcing (particularly recruitment) and about the lack of backbone in HR (Lucy Adams being a recent egregious example). I blogged about the CIPD’s definition of HR’s purpose (better working lives) which inevitably will lead to the HRD saying no to zero hours, minimum wage, internships, wacky senior reward strategies. Even Peter Cheese agreed these are fair cops – but what does the CIPD actually mean us to do?

    And as to how we recruit into HR, organise ourselves and align with the business – are we convinced about shared service, HRBPs, SMEs etc? Where do we grow our talent pool for the future? And how could we have got Ulrich’s intention so wrong that he has recently revised it? Why were we not more sceptical? After all, it’s the academics who gave us ‘shareholder value’ (hollow larf) and much of recent economic policy.

    Looking forward to senior level HR resignations as they say NO to the business. And looking forward to a share price going up because a great HRD has been appointed. Good people practices mean better business. Otherwise why is anyone bothered about ‘talent’ and ‘engagement’?

    • Flora Marriott · November 25, 2013

      Excellent comment, Intermity. Actually I do know of a recent resignation due to an HRD saying no to the business. But I think that’s as rare as hens teeth.

      It takes guts to say no and to stand back and think about what really is best for the business. It takes determination to create the time to actually talk to the employees in your business, and to spend time away from your desk and actually get in touch with your business. It is so much easier to be a busy fool. As an HR/L&D person it does make you different from the mainstream, when you challenge the normal ways of doing things. And the mainstream is very persuasive. The recruitment roundabout is very persuasive – people feel like they need to implement x,y and z fad and fashion in order to have all the buzzwords on their CVs.
      But we do have people around us to inspire us to do something different, to have courage, guts, determination, independence of thought. Neil is one of them – so thanks for this post.

      • interimity · November 25, 2013

        Thanks Flora. I too have resigned on a couple of occasions, which is slightly easier when you are an interim. But if we begin to set an expectation that any of us (not just HR) should stand up and be counted when things are wrong, then we will all ultimately benefit. I do wonder what the CIPD is going to do to put some flesh on the bones to this….

    • Neil · December 1, 2013

      I think you make some great points, but more than external recognition I think some times internal value is overlooked. Employees that see HR leaders become the thing that they are there to try to prevent can only damn the profession.

  3. simonheath1 · November 25, 2013

    I agree wholeheartedly with much that is written here. Neil’s point about the good “getting it” and the bad not, leaves me wondering whether this is one of the points that needs addressing. If there are specific identifiable behaviours that might take HR through this crisis of trust and understanding, might we not also create a framework by which the “bad” are driven out. I take the point that contracts are no guarantor of the right behaviours but a contract, implied or explicit could be put in place as at least a statement of intent and driven up and down the organisation.
    To management: We, as HR, will not tolerate, nor leave un-remarked upon, behaviours or practices that put at risk the reputation or sustainable growth of the business. We will make an understanding of the business our business and objectively report that understanding. We will do this not through faceless surveys but by deeply involving ourselves in the daily life of the organisation and its people. We will explicitly recruit people on the understanding of the culture we wish to see in the business, irrespective of the level at which we are recruiting. And would seek to block hires which we feel are not the subject of the most rigorous of interrogation.
    To employees: We are taking responsibility for making an understanding of this business our business and for ensuring you do too. We will be an objective voice in the business and speak independently of management where we see damaging behaviours and practices. We will make it our responsibility to ensure that a culture is developed that promotes moral, ethical and socially useful behaviours and practices.
    To new hires: We are hiring you on the basis that you will be aligned with a culture in our business that promotes moral, ethical and socially useful behaviours and practices as well as on your competence in the role for which you have been hired. These two are not mutually exclusive and you will be assessed as such throughout your tenure.

    • Neil · December 1, 2013

      I love this comment. I’m going to wait three months and then post it as a blog and claim it as my own. I will of course, at that point, delete this comment too 🙂

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  6. changinghr · November 25, 2013

    Great blog Neil however is being in touch with the organisation and being credible around the ‘top table’ (I do hate the term but you know what I mean) now mutually exclusive for HR ? Remarkable CEOs can do both, why shouldn’t we be able to do it either ?

    Equally, too many businesses have lost trust along the way, why shouldn”t HR take some collatoral damage too ?. For example, as I was there we peddled along with the financial services disaster along with everyone else, and at its height lots of people made a lot of money in exotic products. HRDs built aligned reward processes as they fought for talent but now everyone revises it and believes we should have seen it coming and shouted ‘no’. We don’t possess enough clever folk to make or break corporate failures and at times we are culpable along with the ‘other’ commercial folk. That’s a price for good and bad decision making and we should learn to ride with the punches and stop flagulating ourselves when it goes wrong as it will again. How knows, we might have the medical profession tell us that all those penguin books are ruining the nations’ eyesights sometime soon and who stood up to that 🙂

    I guess, like Julia’s point, the profession is a bit broken and we are still fighting the identity fight as a result however talented HRDs and the like will get the need to blend the two conflicting strands (if I’ve picked up right) to be successful.

    • Neil · December 1, 2013

      The two things are absolutely not mutually exclusive. But I would say one is a lead measure and one is a lag. Too often we chase the lag measure.

  7. Integrity · December 13, 2013

    Today’s HR is crippled by ‘employment law’ and the ‘claim culture’ it’s quite clear that ‘doing the right thing’ or even the moral thing comes a poor second to the tick box attitude.
    It is such a shame because we loose good people and businesses suffer.
    It takes a strong person to stand up and be counted, I hope one day I witness this bravery pay off and things change….

  8. A Kirkfeldt · December 17, 2013

    Hi all
    I came to think of my first encounter with ‘the trusted advisor’ concept, when I read this part “If you’re not trusted, your work won’t be trusted. If you can’t deal with confidentiality, you won’t be confided in”.

    Off course you can ‘sack’ HR, but the ‘HR services’ are still there eventhough the organizational ‘entity’ is not. You can source the deliverables to other functions or suppliers, but the basic HR deliverables must still be perceived as accurate and consistent and valueadding.

    My (borrowed) point is that HR build upon that but is more than those ‘HR services’ – HR is ‘an earned right’ where HR professionals create coherence and add value as an equal partner of the business (freely quoted from a Henley Course).

    I don’t think any HR professional will get there, if you as professional are not perceived as a trust-worthy and confident’ person. It is not just about personal characteristics. It is professional characteristics, and that also makes a difference. Just as effectiveness in delieverables makes the difference.

    The future of the HR department is an organizational designquestion, but the future of the services (and the value added from the service) are a question of strategy and business.

    It hard to disagree with the blog as well as the comments. Maybe a framework (as simonheath states) could state an direction and allignment, and focus effort and energy. I’ll love to hear experiences from an integration of that contract.
    Br A

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