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.