“… if your organization is still treating HR like a compliance function…”

“… you’re missing the power that is available to you when you hire human beings to work on your team.”

That quote is from an article by Liz Ryan on Forbes, also summarized here.

I couldn’t agree more and I’ve been saying this for much of the duration of having this blog; I have an entire category around the topic of Human Resources, for example.

I’d agree that Human Resources isn’t always the people or the area of the company that you want working with people — because, in a chicken/egg scenario, they can seem more compliance-focused and less people-focused — but then I think you’re getting to a bigger problem of, “Well, what are we trying to really accomplish with Human Resources?”

If you truly have no idea — which honestly, I think many organizations don’t — then you should take the responsibilities you think go with Human Resources and divide them up among 3-4 different places. That might be easier and make more sense in terms of who reports where and who does what (and I think those are very important things for people to understand within an organization before anything can get done).

I wonder a lot about why it’s so hard for organizations to change the functionality of their HR department. Here are my best guesses:

1. HR isn’t revenue-facing on surface. (It is highly revenue-facing if it really deals with talent strategy, because without good people, eventually you won’t make money, or the money will start to dry up somewhat.) Things that aren’t tied directly to money tend to get less attention. That’s just standard humans-processing-relevant-information stuff.

2. HR has been viewed as compliance / personnel for years, and many of the people (mostly men) in senior leadership at companies now-a-days still view it as that. HR can clamor for a seat at the table, but … until its role can be re-contextualized around talent or data or something that has a tie back to money, it won’t get that seat at the table.

3. It’s hard to make big changes unless you start with a smaller version of the change; I wrote a little about that yesterday.

4. If you moved HR away from being a compliance function, who would do compliance? Legal? If legal is out-sourced at some huge hourly fee, that’s not sustainable.

5. There’s a part of me that wonders if senior / middle management people like having HR as the “bad cop” in an organization. Think about this in terms of the old boy’s network. Let’s say someone fucks up at work and needs to be fired, right? HR can handle all the dirty parts of that, but the middle manager upstairs can still claim “… well, it’s an HR thing…” and maintain a drinking / networking relationship with the fired employee in pursuit of leads or whatever else he’s chasing. In sum, by making HR the ‘bad guy,’ schlubs in the middle don’t have to sacrifice their relationships. I think there’s some validity to that.

6. I do think people love to hide behind HR. I was applying for this job at Harvard a couple of months ago — maybe about a year now. I was a good fit for the job, and I knew a few people who had ties to the office the job came out of. I got e-mails put in on my behalf and I eventually connected with a hiring manager. Let me just re-state, not to be an asshole, but:

  • I had all the right qualifications.
  • People who knew the hiring people had vouched for me.
  • I was willing to move.
  • I even had proposed a couple of different ideas in line with the responsibilities of the job.

The first thing I got from the hiring manager was, “Well, this is a process that needs to be managed by HR, you know…” Instantly, I knew I wasn’t getting that job. I didn’t get that job. But in reality, here’s what happened: the hiring manager probably didn’t like something about my background, or had his own person set up, or whatever the case may be. I was doomed. But rather than coming out and saying, “Look, this isn’t the best fit…”, he hid behind HR. People love doing that.

That makes HR into an eunuch of sorts. You can’t talk about “talent strategy” if the real strategy is “chase your own people, but let HR be the bad guy who doesn’t respond to anything or give any context.”

Point being: stop keeping HR where it was in the 1970s and before; let it have some real visibility and responsibility in terms of how the people within the company act and interact. If you’re not at least thinking HR could be strategic, you have your head up your ass. 

Ted Bauer