Dumb acceptance

I’ve written before about the use of the term, “the business” when referring to areas other than HR. To put it mildly, it drives me nuts and normally it arises in one of two contexts,

1) from within HR – “we need someone from the business to look at this”
2) in criticising HR – “they need to spend more time working in the business”

I’m baffled, confused and (I admit) a little bit grumpy. Let’s deal with scenario 1 first as an amuse bouche of perfectly formed stupidity, before we move on to the entrée of down right dumb, stupid acceptance of idiocy that is scenario 2.

If you work in HR and think that you’re not part of the business, then give up now and resign. Go hug a tree, or stare into the sunset, or become a coach. Because you’re wasting organisational oxygen, space on this earth and perhaps most importantly, my time.

There. Done. That was easy, wasn’t it?

So let’s talk about the main event.

I’ve heard a number of people over time espouse the theory that in order to be a good HR professional, you need to have worked in, “the business”. In fact it often features in comments on this blog. Can someone please tell me what “the business” is? Where is this elusive mystical beast? Is it tucked away in the armpit of the Yeti, or squeezed between the tightly closed thighs of the Loch Ness Monster? If anyone sees “the business” running free, give me a call, we need to talk….

I work for a publisher, does that mean I need to do an editorial role in order to be able to do my job as a HR director well? If I worked in law firm, should I spend time as a solicitor? What about an abattoir? Would time as a meat packer help me?

And do you really think these roles have the same skill set? The same knowledge base and the same competences? Of course not. I’m as qualified to do an editorial role as an editor is to do my role. And I can guarantee they wouldn’t want to go within a million miles of my job – because most of them are sane.

Do we say the same about finance, about marketing, about IT? Of course, not. Once again it is just stupid, shallow, groupthink without really understanding what we’re saying or trying to say.

HR needs to understand the way in which the business that employs it works, it needs to understand how the areas fit together, the commercial model, the brand, the strategic direction and the external economic environment. Anyone arguing this will get my full support and a virtual fist bump (or wrist punch as we call them chez Morrison).

Of course, yes.

Anyone saying that people who move cross functionally can bring different insights and expertise to their business areas will get a note of commendation and a wholly platonic, virtual man hug.


But saying HR people need to spend time in “the business” is like saying that to be a good heart surgeon you have to have had a double bypass. It’s stupid, it’s crass, it’s unhelpful and it’s wrong. And most of all, it detracts from the main issue, which is ensuring HR teams understand and are passionate about their organisations.

That’s where the real story is at. Trust me.

It’s time to dump the cliches and move on.


  1. alex_moyle · May 19, 2014

    I think the “in the business” comment comes from two aspects. 1. Hr often seem to make decisions that demonstrate a lack of understanding of “the business” 2. Very few see HR outside their offices and when the do demonstrate little understanding for realities of running a business.

    The second point encourages the perception outlined in the first point.

    “the business” I believe refers to understanding of the challenges and pressures that sales and operations teams face day to day.

    Enjoyed the blog.
    (this is not isolated to HR. See L&D, finance, legal and many other support functions. )

  2. dougshaw · May 19, 2014

    This is what it says about the business in my dictionary.

    ‘The business’. A term so vague as to defy any meaningful description. Frequently offered up as an alternative to thinking about what you really want to say.

    Cheers – Doug

  3. Simon Jones · May 19, 2014

    I think the point about people moving across functions is the key here. I’d say that some of my most valuable HR learning was when I spent time managing in non-HR areas of the various organisations I’ve worked for – because I learned to appreciate how HR is perceived by its “customer” and also found out how clueless and out of touch with reality some HR people were.

  4. SteveEllwood · May 19, 2014

    Of course, in some places, they have outsourced their HR. So, truly HR is then part of someone else’s business. “Of course we put *your* businesses interests above our own”.

    Yeah, right.

  5. Sharon Green · May 19, 2014

    I’m with Simon here. It’s probably also short hand for HR being commercial just like you would expect other functions in a business to be. It’s like finance making a recommendation that does not align or contradicts the main function of the the org that might be selling a product, delivering a service to extrenal clients etc.

    I think a good HR person can have a number of possible backgrounds. They might have experience outside of an HR function or have worked purely in HR. At the end of the day, I would make a judgement based on their ability to deliver strong, commercial advice (strategy, product etc) rather than their ‘business’ background. Sadly, I have worked with many people who don’t seem to bother to learn about the environment they are working in and think all HR (and the subset of specialisms) can be easily transfered around the place without taking the time to understand what the business does to make money, generate reserves etc. That’s poor.

  6. hrmannz · May 19, 2014

    I’m with Simon here too. I think I am a better HR person for having been a line manager, advisor, administrator outside of HR in my previous life. But that’s just me. One size doesn’t fit all. I agree, “the business” is as meaningless a term as those who used to say they were “doing the business” to illustrate they were achieving something. The challenge for HR is to be a cliche-free zone.

  7. Henry · May 21, 2014

    I’m hugging trees

  8. rickanderson2 · May 21, 2014

    Yes, “The business” is a curious term. I have been poacher and gamekeeper and worked on both sides of the IT fence namely user and supplier of business intelligence. And a supplier of HR services and a consumer. Sometimes just using the term creates barriers doesn’t it because it makes the assumption that we in IT or HR are somehow not part of the business, and also assumes “the business” are all knowing all powerful, but actually they have their uncertainties and worries just like us. They are real people, not just a generic body. Generally I guess its used to separate the revenue generators (the business) from the cost consumers (the service providers) but there again we have to be confident that as service providers we do genuinely add value.

  9. interimity · May 23, 2014

    I agree with Sharon and Simon. And I’m one of those guilty of seeing HR as separate from the business and am an advocate of an HR professional having put in time on the coalface (another lazy cliche but it is a bank holiday weekend).

    The non HR part of the organisation is HR’s client. So knowing your client’s perspective is going to have a significant impact on how well you deliver your service. A nice anecdote is from a very senior CPO that I met recently (client base of 100,000 employees). He moved into a CEO role for part of his business. And told me that 50% of the HR initiatives and processes etc were pretty good. And 50% were absolutely dreadful and irrelevant. It was the first time he had been a client and it was an eye-opener. He’s moved back to HR and he’s going for simplicity and much more connection with his client. And he was already pretty highly thought of before the damascene conversion.

    What I have seen over many years in HR is death by initiative, over-complication, intellectualisation and the ultimate – death by Transformation. HR is becoming more rarified when there is the greatest need for it to be hands on and pragmatic. But this rarely happens.
    The fundamental stuff we have known and espoused for years, but not embedded, is repackaged by academia, then consultancies, and then HR and inflicted on the organisation.

    I honestly believe that excellent HR practice is the essential component of healthy organisations with highly motivated and skilled staff. It is out there – and it is incredibly simple and light touch. Quite often it is the CEO/Owner who is driving it. And not one of these great organisations EVER calls their employees ‘Human Capital’.

  10. interimity · May 23, 2014

    @Neil – the heart surgeon analogy. Not sure. Increasingly they are being encouraged to be better holistic practitioners by becoming far more engaged with their patients/clients and operate in a more patient led way. There is some very interesting research on improved patient outcomes where this happens. And there are umpteen crusading stories about medical staff who have dramatically improved the way they perform, for the better, after becoming a patient themselves.

    Why would HR people NOT want to do work in line roles? We’re often very keen on job enrichment/rotation for our clients, particularly graduate intakes.

  11. Anthony Allinson · May 26, 2014

    I spent >20 years in IT. We referred to “the business” in the same cretinous way.

    A CTO I once worked for spent months trying to get us to say, “the rest of the business”. Worthy, an attempt at accepting we were we but still part of the whole.

    In the end we dumped the idea in favour of a push for accountability and not so much demanding equal status as being responsible and therefore being equal.

    More recently I’ve led Customer Service teams , guess what, I have to fight the same cowardly, unaccountable abrogation. I counter it by insisting we turn up and lead as equals.

    The semantics don’t get you far. What you do, does the trick.

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