The fallacy of commerciality

I’ve written before about my unease with the term “commercial HR” and I was expressing this at an event last week, when I was asked a question along the following lines,

“That’s fine for you to say, but when we’re going for jobs, when we are at interview, all we hear is ‘commercial this, commercial that’ and that’s the reality of the profession. So what should we do?”

And of course this is a completely fair and reasonable question. It IS ok being in my position and making bold statements about the ins and the outs of HR.

But more so, it got me thinking about why we talk about “commerciality” and how we can effectively challenge it as a meaningless concept within the profession.

It strikes me that when leaders and managers talk about commercial HR they normally mean one of three things,

1)  I want you to understand the numbers and the financial performance of the organisation. (OK, so I get this, I really do. We need to understand the key performance measures of our organisation, whether they are financial or otherwise. We need to understand how our organisation is measuring it’s performance. But is this what people really want? Because it’s dead easy to achieve and I’m not sure in itself it adds any value whatsoever).

I think the reality is, that it boils down to one of two other other positions,

2)  I want you to stop saying no to “the business” and start doing what we need. Stop being so focussed on people and start being more focussed on profit. That under performer over there? Why do we have to spend three months managing their performance, just get rid of them. Why are you think of health and wellbeing problems? The problem we have is that those lazy bastards are taken a lunch break when they could easily work through it. I need HR to step up and sort these things out.

3)  I want you to stop doing stupid HR initiatives that no-one understands, to think more about the business and to land the initiatives that you do effectively. I want you to disrupt employees as little as you can, to help them to perform better and to drive the organisation, but without creating an infrastructure that is so complicated that only Alan Turing could work it out. I want you to be effective in dealing with issues that arise and to deliver the basics quickly and efficiently.

If it is 2, then this is not the sort of organisation that you want to work in, unless you think you are big and strong enough to change the organisational culture, that the CEO and the HRD are aligned in wanting to improve things. You might learn something in the short-term, but unless the powers that be are willing to change, you won’t be happy and you’ll become a worse practitioner from it.

If it is 3, then this is the biggest lesson that you’ll learn in your career. If you can focus on meeting these challenges, if you can become the sort of HR practitioner that is seen to add value through well designed and organisationally focussed interventions that are implemented to perfection.

The use of “commercial” in describing the HR that we want is lazy and lacking in precision. So my advice to anyone asked about this in interview, or a recruiter taking a brief is to ask the following questions in order:

–  What do you mean by commercial?
–  What would you expect to see me (them) do differently?
–  How would the business be better by me (them) acting that way?
–  How would you measure success?

And if they can’t answer this comfortably, you’ve got to ask yourself who has the credibility issue, who is lacking in commerciality and whether you’d want to work in that company in the first place.


  1. Ian Perry · September 29, 2014

    I think your term “lazy” sums it up really. My impression is that people don’t expect HR to know the numbers, but they do want people that can explore the reasons behind the numbers and the impact on performance, so people use words like commercial because often they actually can’t define what they want or actually what good might look like. Even possibly that might be beyond the commercial and HR people to do what is required.

    What I loved in your blog was the questions to ask at the end, and maybe thats the key. Maybe commercial is just about asking thoughtful and insightful questions to get to the issue?

    • Neil · October 5, 2014

      I think it is a laziness to actually examine what “good” HR practice looks like. Much easier to use generic terms that don’t actually mean anything.

  2. Clive Lafferty · September 29, 2014

    This is great. I pride myself on being commercial, but this to me is more than paying lip service to “understanding” the figures. (in inverted commas, as I’ve seen colleagues in the past quote figures, without truly understanding them. And they think they’re commercial because of this).

    I work in HR and my expertise is People in organisations. I need to be able to negotiate a good deal on services I buy. I need a strong understanding and awareness of salary markets. etc etc. But my expertise is not commerciality. If it was – I’d be a Buyer or a Merchandiser, or in Sales and Marketing. Or a shop keeper.

    But I can deliver a “commercial” HR service by having an interest and an understanding of the business that I work in. This way I can communicate on a level with my key stakeholders. I understand what they do, the challenges they might face, the pressure they might feel, the passion they have. And I can support them, challenge them, encourage them, advise them. This way I strengthen the relationship with those I am working with. These strong relationships ensure I can deliver a commercial service to the business.

    The overall aim is a mutual respect for a each other. Not always possible – but when I acheive these successful relationships, my “HR initatives” are valued. When I advise best practice on managing performance, it is welcomed. It’s about delivering the best value through people in our organisations. It may not be the cheapest way, or the quickets route – but in the longer term, it can still be commercial.

    What I always love about your blog is that it always brings me back to why I work in HR in the first place. I am not the king of commerciality, but I can apply a commercial approach to my work. That for me is through my business relationships – and it’s because of these relationships, that I love what I do.

    • Neil · October 5, 2014

      Thanks Clive, that’s a very kind comment. I think you define exactly what quality HR work is. It is about understanding and mutual respect and bringing a unique view point to the organisation that no other function provides. That’s where we add value.

  3. Pingback: My HR Careers | September: Is great HR about insight or intuition….?
  4. Doug Shaw · October 5, 2014

    Love the set of four questions – and Clive’s feedback to you about the blog is spot on.

  5. dougshaw · October 5, 2014

    The four questions are great – and Clive’s feedback to you about the blog is spot on.

    • Neil · October 5, 2014

      Either I have a memory problem, you have a stutter, or something didn’t go right with the posting of the first comment!

  6. George karseras · October 6, 2014

    I agree with some posts here and I don’t see commerciality as simply one or all of these 3 things. I’m not advocating HR selling out and losing its core purpose – to maximise human resources through valuing, enabling and growing excellence in people- but I am advocating a commercial mindset where HR professionals know the strategy inside out and articulate their contributions and challenges using more strategic language, I am advocating more influence and assertiveness at the top table and all other management tables – through stronger, more courageous and more compelling contributions, I am also advocating a better appreciation of the bottom line in all that HR do and say. I am advocating HR use words more synonymous with strategic execution, I am also advocating they show more courage in how they stand up for their principles and rock the cultural boat but make culture and indeed engagement a more strategic issue. I am also advocating that they recruit people who have teeth and stomach for conflict in order to equip them to deal with the stereotyping and disrespectful behaviour HR end up getting. There’s a dance going on here and HR have to take more responsibility to fix it. Who else, apart from a more ‘Commercial’ HR function as defined along these lines, will really change the perception, inherent in many businesses that HR are just not that respected? Your 4 questions are great but could appear too defensive – I would prefer any one in HR at interview or at brief to have a strong viewpoint for each of these questions and to be very upfront in answering them regardless of answers or definitions given by others.

    • Neil · October 6, 2014

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree with many of your points, but I don’t think asking questions is ever defensive. Not if you are genuinely seeking to understand and clarify.

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