HR’s Role: Do We Need To Get Over Ourselves Sometimes?

Image credit: jamesteohart/

In our rush for influence could we lose sight of our true value proposition?

More than a decade ago I was a speaker at an HR conference. My session was late in the day, so I enjoyed the other sessions while quietly thinking about what I would present later. Around mid morning a presenter gave an impassioned presentation on how HR needed to ‘have a seat at the table’ and be raised in importance in organisational life. It was impressive. Around the room you could feel the injection of encouragement to a profession that can feel a bit marginalised or de-valued in some organisations – the ‘soft skills’ or the ‘Department of No..’. You’ve heard all the various descriptors like that of course.

But then the presenter said that HR has to get out of this situation by refusing anymore to be considered ‘just an enabler of business’.

And at that point two things occurred to me:

1. How can HR be anything but an enabler of business? Business does not exist just to do its internal HR. It exists to provide a service or product to clients; and
2. What is intrinsically wrong with being an enabler anyway? Enabling something is a value add. Indeed it’s a crucial one – it helps make sure something is achieved. It’s a good and worthy thing in itself.

By the time I gave my presentation my thoughts had distilled and I made an aside with a slightly different argument to my fellow presenter’s one. While I agreed with her sentiment and aims, I argued that HR to an organisation is like petrol to a car. A car does not exist to give petrol something to do, any more than an organisation exists to give HR a purpose. But the better the petrol – the better the enabler – the better the performance of the car/organisation. We should, I said, not reject being an enabling force. Rather we should embrace and celebrate it.

Fast forward many years and I was talking with a group of managers in a business undergoing significant organisational change. They had been told by ‘HR’ that they should design their roles to reflect a pre-determined generic set of role descriptions rather than to describe what the role actually did or required with any specificity. They were struggling to work out how to fill these roles so broadly described, but they felt they would fail as people managers if they questioned this requirement.

In a way, they were captured by an HR meme. The same way I suspect the HR advisors – who were no doubt in earnest and with the best of all possible intentions – were caught. A common enough HR meme that implied that

1. Mobility is helped by commonality between roles
2. Commonality in roles can be identified by generic role descriptions
3. Mobility is good, therefore:

Generic role descriptions = good
Specialist role descriptions = bad.

But in this business there were a range of specialist roles which couldn’t be filled appropriately without recognising their technical nature. And more than this, you could arguably take a better and different route and solve the problem by creating a sub set of technical generic roles in the business that reflected the business better. In that way you’d get some of the expected mobility benefits of ‘generic’ roles – without risking not attracting the right talent.

But at that stage the meme had over-ridden that option. They had been convinced that being good HR/people managers came from accepting an uncomfortable shoe-horning of the business needs into that centralised set. It felt counter-intuitive, but somehow this was good HR and so was for the best.

When I made the suggestion that they existed to perform a service, not to be HR exemplars, and that in any case there was a middle road, the managers were shocked.

That’s when it occurred to me there’s another risk of HR seeking an overall dominance – as some form of virtue based leadership – if/when divorced from core business needs. An organisation could lose its performance advantages by trying to fit some broader ‘best practice’ HR framework. And if so, the HR department that was seeking to support the agency – while genuine in its aims – could create the exact opposite effect.

Now don’t get me wrong here – I’m not claiming some form of greater clarity or omniscience in all this – like I’m the only one noticing this. I know I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t ever fall into similar traps without even realising it – particularly if I don’t focus on the risk. So this post is my first step in thinking it through. I’ll do a second part looking at some other examples and offering a possible start to a solution, then a third suggesting how we might all help each other avoid such inadvertent pitfalls.

In the meantime, what do you think?

Is this a fundamental risk in the effort to raise HR’s profile? Is it a blind spot for us that we need to acknowledge? Do we risk being Icarus, flying too close to the sun, born on a combination of enthusiasm and ambition?

And if it is a risk, how do we avoid something that is often unconscious? How much does the initial framing of our role contribute to this tendency? Do we first need to get over ourselves to truly begin to realise our potential?

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