In an Octopus’s garden

We all know that, in the view of the general public, HR has a bad reputation. Those of us that work in the profession are either aware of this and battling against it every day, or hopelessly unaware and therefore probably part of the problem. We get reminded on a regular basis by polls, tweets and of course newspaper articles. The normal form of attack is, “there is no need for HR”.

Having worked in the profession for the last 25 years, it does beg a couple of questions:

  • Why am I still employed?
  • Are the people that employ me, therefore, entirely stupid?

Last week, the BBC ran an interview with CEO of Octopus Energy, Greg Jackson entitled, “My billion pound company has no HR department”. I’ve got a lot of respect for Octopus Energy, from what I’ve seen they’ve got a great culture, and whilst I don’t know Greg, every CEO is entitled to run their organisation in the way that they think best delivers their outcomes. I do, however, take issue with the sloppy reporting from the BBC that was clearly more about driving clicks than any sort of quality journalism. Unsurprisingly, this was then picked up by the Daily Mail and you only have to read the comments to get the general sense – interestingly whilst he said that he didn’t have an HR or IT department, you can see which one is used for both headlines and gets the kicking.

Now whilst I’m the first person to point the finger at bad and sloppy HR practice (you can read the last ten years of writing if you don’t believe me) I like to think we should base our arguments on data and evidence rather than silly, pointless articles which are far from the levels of journalistic quality we’d expect from the license fee. A quick search through Linkedin shows that there are “HR” people in Octopus Energy, they are currently advertising for someone to join their Learning and Development team and Octopus Group, the overall holding company has a Head of People. They’ve also recently clarified that they do have learning and development and recruiters (and presumably payroll and reward) but just no “HR Department”. Although that does beg the question what HR is, if it isn’t recruiting, training and rewarding people?

In essence, the discussion is about how much HR responsibility is devolved to the line and how much of it is centralised – which in experience works very differently for different companies, sectors and industries. And Octopus Energy look like they’ve found a balance that works for them – which is brilliant. It probably wouldn’t work for every other company and, who knows, it may not even work for them in the longer term. But that is all it is, one CEO explaining how he runs a specific company – yet the coverage (and many idiot commentators) seem to want to make it into a larger debate.

Why does it matter? It doesn’t really. It is silly and nonsensical to try to extrapolate. Most will shake their heads at another pointless article and go back to their day job figuring out what works best for their organisation and how to improve performance through people. But in a year when people in the profession, across industry have been thrown into more emotion, complexity, challenge and difficulty, where the profession has had to stand up and lead more than ever. Well, some people will feel this is an unnecessary and untimely kick in the teeth from people with too much time on their hands and who’ve never walked in their shoes. And to be honest, in the context, I’d forgive them for thinking this way.