Is HR relevant anymore or is it a “dead” functional area walking?

By | September 1, 2016

HR is not relevant anymore; not as it currently stands and operates. To paraphrase a quote by Winston Churchill, “HR is a riddle, wrapped in incompetence, inside a dysfunction; but perhaps there is a key. The key is the self interests of the C-suite executives.” HR has lost its touch, the human-touch. Therefore, to regain its lost importance and rise as a Phoenix, HR needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps, break free off the cocoon of lackadaisical attitude and become people-oriented, rather than resources-oriented. And, until that happens, it is a “dead” functional area walking.

During my working days, I worked for many companies, switched many roles and interacted with various people in different departments. There was one department, though, that my peers and I loathed to interact with, and it was the organization’s Human Resources department. It didn’t matter which company it was, the story was almost the same, I hated interacting with anybody from that department, rest of the managers hated interacting with anybody from that department and, from what I hear from my erstwhile colleagues, it seems, many employees, managers and senior executives still cringe at the thought of interacting with people from that department. In many companies, across industries and sectors, the Human Resources department, it appears, is chock-full of inept practitioners. In my case, it was so painful to work with them that I had come up with a special quote to describe the functioning of the department.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet“, and Human Resources department by any other name would still be dysfunctional as sloths on acid.

Where does human resources fit in an organization?

HR has an administrative/transactional role in managing employee affairs in an organization. Every employee’s gateway to an organization meanders through the corridors of the entity’s human resources department. And, so do their exit. Every employee’s corporate love affair begins and ends in HR. Human resources practitioners are involved during the hiring process, and they complete the exit process, too, when an employee leaves the organization, willingly or unwillingly.


A panopticon enables a guard to watch your every move without you realizing that (s)he is watching you. By I, Friman, CC BY-SA 3.0

In an organization, HR practitioners acts like guards in a panopticon. Behind the scenes, concealed in a “panopticon”, they act as an arbiter of your career in an organization. They maintain a record of your corporate life; a record that is used to determine your worth and value to a corporation. Furthermore, matters pertaining to employee relations program are handled by the human resources department, and, by the way, they do a terrible job at fulfilling that responsibility. In addition, anything that might have an effect on your corporate tenure has to have the sign off from the department, and, often times, their decision are biased, inconsistent, influenced by the C-suite executives and detrimental to a team’s well being.

Do know that your entire career history and your background are known by HR practitioners, and should you piss one of them off, there will be a critical leak of information, that may destroy your career with the company and even force you out? Consequently, in a way, the human resources department has you in their cold embrace, as long as you are employed with a company.

The HR Record

While gainfully employed, every employee has an HR record that contains the history of that employee’s tenure with an organization. Entries in the HR records are sacrosanct and play a cardinal role in the decision making process for promotions, lateral moves, overseas placements, secondments or rehire. You may move on or pass away, but your HR record will remain as long as the organization is operational.

The HR record is the most important data repository for the human resources department of any organization. Therefore, as long as you are a corporate servant ensure that you are in HR’s good books. You will be regretful should you ever lock horns with HR. In addition, please keep this in mind—if there is ever a situation where you are pitted against your boss, your boss will almost always win, even if all pieces of evidence point to the contrary. In any conflict, HR will always side with the boss because (s)he is more likely to have more power, say, influence and reach within the organization. Believe me when I say that it is a myth that HR is about people!

What is the role of the human resources department?

Although I am aware of HR’s role in an organization, I still did some research to determine the complete picture. Most of the sites mentioned that the department’s role included 6 to 20 main functions. I am listing my findings from some of the websites in this blog post.

First of all, according to Linkedin Pulse the six main functions of Human Resources Management (HRM) are:

  • Recruitment
  • Workplace safety
  • Employee relations
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Compliance
  • Training and development

Next, according to Human Resource Excellence, the importance of HRM are

  • Recruitment and training
  • Performance appraisals
  • Maintaining work atmosphere
  • Managing disputes
  • Developing public relations

In addition, according to PurpleLine Consulting, some of the key things that HRM does are:

  • Build and manage relationships with key stakeholders in the business.
  • Train and advise line managers on how to manage people effectively.
  • Communicate what HR does (and doesn’t) do.
  • Use HR metrics to identify trends
  • Develop leadership and managerial capability.

Finally, here is something interesting from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). In order to better understand HR practitioners’ role within an organization, the SHRM had conducted a survey, titled HR’s Evolving Role in Organizations and Its Impact on Business Strategy, circa 2008. Yes, the survey information is a bit dated, but possibly quite relevant even today. The survey was sent out to 2,744 HR practitioners, out of which 589 practitioners, or 21%, responded. Most of the survey respondents were from small- and medium-staff-sized companies and less from large-staff-sized companies. Furthermore, most responders were from small teams—1 to 4 employees. Some of the key findings from the survey are listed below (copied verbatim from the report):

  1. The top three critical HR functional areas that contributed to organizations’ current business strategies were 1) staffing, employment and recruitment, 2) training and development, and 3) employee benefits.
  2. Among HR professionals who indicated that staffing, employment and recruitment was one of their organizations’ top three critical HR functional areas, more than one-half reported that it was their first priority
  3. Slightly less than one-half of HR professionals reported that their organizations had formal (i .e ., documented and established) systems and processes in place for collecting HR metrics and/or measurement data. Among these, slightly more than one-half reported formally calculating the impact of HR activities on measurable aspects of business performance.
  4. The largest percentages of HR professionals reported that HR’s effectiveness was limited by the budget and headcount available for HR initiatives.

Here is a table, copied from the survey report, listing various roles of HR within an organization.

Which HR Functional Areas are most critical to contributing to the organization's current business strategy?

Which HR Functional Areas are most critical to contributing to the organization’s current business strategy?

Yet again, we learn that HR’s primarily role is staffing, employment and recruitment; training and development and employee benefits.

If we collate the information provided, we come up with the following common HR roles that have been identified by the four different sources above.

Main functions of HR My observations based on my experience
Recruitment/Recruitment and training/Staffing, employment and recruitment HR’s footprint in recruitment activities was limited. Mostly, each team handled almost 70-80% of the recruitment activities.

Responsibilities handled by each team:

  • Define job requirements
  • Review resume and shortlist candidates
  • Communicate date, time and venue of the interview to HR
  • Conduct interviews
  • Select candidates

Responsibilities handled by HR:

  • Post job requirement
  • Communicate with shortlisted candidate (which they messed up in many cases).
  • Make the offer
  • Salary negotiations
  • On-boarding

The activities that HR handled could very well have been taken care of by the team.

Workplace safety/Maintaining work atmosphere/Health, safety, security Workplace safety: Was handled by Operations, which was never under HR in many companies. Operations is mostly a separate OU.

Maintaining work atmosphere: Clean and safety part of the workplace was always handled by Operations. Individual team members and their leadership created the prevalent working environment—friendly or hostile. HR really never played any role in maintaining the work atmosphere.

Employee relations/Managing disputes Not really! HR was always reactive, rarely proactive. It never really had the pulse of the employees of the organization. It said it did, but it never did. HR used to get involved only when the excrement hit the rotating device in the ceiling. Until then it was missing in action and nowhere to be found.
Compensations and benefits/Employee benefits/Compensation Yep. Not rocket science, though. Could be handled at the department level or by a third party service provider.

Most benefits are uniform across the company, the variance in benefit structure is a function of an employee’s designation.

Compensation is dependent on financial well-being of the organization, organizational budgets, market conditions, performance, experience and USP of the employees, and a few other variables.

A bit of number crunching and research, and each department can, potentially, handle compensation related activities. Now, some of you may wonder, but what about the uniformity of the compensation structure vis-a-vis employee levels across departments in a company? In my experience, it was very rarely uniform. The number of issues I had to handle because of this non-uniformity in compensation structure within same grade levels across various departments gave me grey hairs.

Two people performing the same job function, with the same performance rating, years of experience and educational background, but belonging to different teams, were given different raises. Yes, that’s unfair, and once the affected person found out about it, they went to the HR to have this matter addressed. HR did absolutely nothing and a very talented employee left the organization. It is because of this exact reason that HRs have the policy of not allowing employees to discuss their salary details with their colleagues and peers. In India, however, everybody discusses their salary details with their counterparts. Hence, that information is never private, which leads to a lot of heartaches for the managers.

HR is the grand arbiter when it comes to compensation; hence, they need to be consistent in their decisions. They weren’t and aren’t, and employees blame their managers for selling them short. I have lost count, how many verbal duels I had to fight with HR because of their inconsistencies.

Compliance HR is normally pinged by Legal when there are changes to the employment laws. HR just acts as the conduit of information. Yearly compliance related acknowledgements are/can be automated and completed on a strict schedule.
Training and development We conducted our own training, gave HR the attendance sheet and the Training & Talent development team credited the learning hours. HR practitioners do not have industry/sector knowledge or technical expertise or subject matter expertise to conduct technical or domain specific trainings. All they do is hand over the training requirements to an outside training firm and ask them to conduct the training. Again, this is/can be handled by individual teams.

Even if the training requirement was to develop some soft skills, say, presentation skills or writing skills or conduct a team building activity, the HR practitioners rarely had any original ideas. We scoured the Net, found the right content, created the training materials and conducted the customized training, sans the HR. Again, we handed the attendance sheet and got learning hours credited.

Developing public relations This activity was mostly handled by PR, Marketing or Communications team; HR never played a part in it.
Build and manage relationships with key stakeholders in the business. Stakeholder management was always the responsibility of a Manager/Senior Manager. HR was never in the picture. They were not even aware of who our stakeholders were.
Train and advise line managers on how to manage people effectively. Nope, they did not. Hence, the management world is full of terrible managers and “dealers”, I mean leaders.
Communicate what HR does (and doesn’t) do. Nope, sorry, never! HR never shared with us what their core responsibilities were and what weren’t.
Use HR metrics to identify trends Never got any trend analysis report from them.
Develop leadership and managerial capability/Organizational development Yes, this was one activity that HR and Learning took up. However, it did so only after receiving feedback from the employees that most of the managers sucked. But the result of the training was an abysmal failure, because most managers attended the training to accrue learning hours. Bad managers ignored what the training taught, good managers knew about them already, and HR felt they had met their goals.
Strategic planning Never had HR practitioners/leadership attend any of our planning sessions.
Administrative/transactional Yes, they are involved in this activity, and based on what I observed, it seems they were mostly involved in administrative/transactional work, and were rarely doing anything strategic.
Change management Was mostly handled by PMO.
Legal compliance This was mostly handled by the Legal and Compliance team.
Communications Was mostly handled by Marketing and Communications.
Workplace planning/forecasting HR never worked with us directly on this. We had to make hiring/attrition projections for the year, and send it to our OU head.
Human Resource Information Systems (HR) IT lead the effort; HR was the stakeholder.
Diversity In many organizations, Diversity as a function area does not exist. In some organizations, HR did handle diversity. In others, a separate team, not associated with HR, handled this responsibility.
Labor/Industrial relations Never heard HR performing this activity
HR metrics/measurement data/return on investment HR never provided us with any reports to help us manage the team better. The one analysis we got from HR was the yearly HR survey report. The survey was conducted by an outside vendor. The report was also generated by them. HR just mailed the report to us. Analyzing the report and taking corrective measures were our responsibility.
EEO/Affirmative action Yes, they were involved.
International HRM Yes, Expat management was handled by HR.
Research Never heard HR doing any research. Core research team handled that responsibility.

What is HR, and what it is not? What is its actual role?

My experience has been that HR is not for the employees, its role is to protect the organization and its executives from the employees. HR exists to prevent any potential lawsuits against the company. That’s their primary role. A few lawyers can do what and army of HR personnels do now. I hate to put it this way, but HR is all about protecting their own posteriors and the collective posteriors of the C-suite executives.

Initially, the department used to be called “Personnel”, because organizations had individuals working for them. Then, the name was changed to “Human Resources”, because to organizations humans became another resource that can be tapped into whenever needed, and used, exploited, and eventually discarded when their usefulness is exhausted.

Next, it was called “Human Capital” because employees of an organization had become a physical or financial asset that is “owned”, which can then be used in production of goods and services, or accretion of wealth. If for any reason the asset becomes a liability, then it needs to be jettisoned at the earliest, so that the organizations can cut their losses short.

Nowadays, the department has been christened “Talent”, another abstract term for the employees of the organization. One person’s talent is another person’s run of the mill. What is a hot talent today can become a deadweight or a damp squib tomorrow. Humans are now just objects for many organizations in the marketplace—use, reuse and then discard.

HR's role

What is human resources department’s role in a organization? Image ©

My experiences with human resources—additional observations/anecdotes

  • When you need HR the most, they will be missing in action. When minutes matter, HR will be a day late.
  • HR practitioners were always busy doing transactional and administrative tasks. Busy, busy, busy… but never responsive.
  • In an organization, they are everywhere, but nowhere to be found.
  • HR loved a few things—PowerPoint, skip level meetings, surveys, 360 degree feedback, HR surveys, and, did I say, PowerPoint, with a smattering of Excel.
  • The most painful part of dealing with HR is interacting with the recruiting team. Asked for resumes of candidates with JavaScript experience, but got resumes of Java developers. I was then asked the question, “How different could Java be from JavaScript; they, after all, have the common prefix Java?”
  • According to an HR practitioner, HR is mostly staffed with middle-aged women. “This ensured that you did not have to deal with all the pre-menstrual, post-menstrual, pre-conceiving, post-conceiving, pregnancy, maternity, son-has-thrown-up, daughter-is-unwell, husband-is-suicidal leave requests.” According to that person, they are past their “productive” years; hence, their focus will only be work. It seems this particular HR believed in discriminatory hiring practices. How many more such HRs are out there? And these are the people who are in charge of hiring and employee engagement? God save us all!
  • They will never practice what they preach. They will tell you that feedback is given in private and accolades in public. They themselves will, however, do the opposite.
  • For 10 months of the year, HR will be the advisor and you will be the one making the tough decisions. For those 10 months, you will never get a straight answer from them. All you will hear from them are platitudes.

Case 1:

If you were to ask them, “What do you recommend us doing with an employee who is not performing even after repeated reminders and written feedback?
HR: “Well, there are many options available to us, but we cannot tell you what exactly needs to be done; that’ll be your call. We are here only as advisors.”

Case 2:

Me:How do we discipline a tardy employee, a passively aggressive team member, a team member whose attitude and behaviour is antithesis of the team’s mission, vision and goals?
HR:Hmmm! Let’s see. Firstly, you can take them aside and gently remind them about the core principles of our organization. Secondly, blah, blah, blah…. yadda, yadda, yadda. Now, having said that, mind you, we cannot tell you what exactly needs to be done here; that’ll be your call, we’re here only as advisors.

However, when it is the year-end appraisal time, you, the manager, will only act in the capacity of an advisor, and they are the ones who will make the big decisionsHR decides how the careers of your team members will progress, you don’t. All your appraisal comments about your team members will fall on deaf ears, if the numbers quota are not being met—5% should be rated as excellent, 10% as very good; 65% as good; 15% as average and 5% as below average, or something along those lines. You may give a top rating to a team member, only to have it challenged and changed by HR.

HR acts like a dictator during appraisals, while they are a deserter for the rest of the year. When decisions can make or break careers and teams, they will always play the numbers game—“We want the best for your team members, but our hands are tied,” is a common excuse you will often hear from them.

  • If attrition is two high, you are in trouble. If attrition is too low then, too, you are in trouble. You can promote only so many people before you start hitting a ceiling. If you ask HR for their opinion, you will hear them say “it depends” and “we have to get creative”. Here are a few other responses you may get from HR.
    Is there a way we can push someone to a “below average” performance rating and have them booted out of the organization.
    We don’t see too many promotions in your team. What’s going on?”
    Why is that person in the same grade for these many years—either promote them or fire them.

Well, some people are happy at what they are doing and want to continue in that role. Is there something wrong with that? They are the best and the happiest in that role. They are not interested in taking more responsibilities, they are the best in their domain, are SMEs, they keep their skills up-to-date, they enhance their reach horizontally rather than vertically, and are quite content at delivering top-notch results in the role they are in. This argument will never satisfy HR, they want to see career progression or the person should be out the door, also known as the up-or-out mentality.

  • If your team is too good, then, you are in trouble—“…too many talented individuals in your team, how are you going to promote them all. You should check if anybody from your team would like to move to another team to enhance the performance level of that team.
    You: “But what about attrition, you will throw me under the bus if attrition is above a certain threshold.”
    HR:Yes, but, don’t you see the challenge here. Other teams are feeling threatened …”. On the other hand, if your team is bad, then, obviously you are in BIG trouble.
  • A few more exchanges with HR…

    Case 1:

Me: “Hey, the company policy specifies that internet usage should be work related, and not for watching Youtube videos, news, sports, movies or playing online games, Facebooking, Twittering, or buying lingeries online (yes, people do that and then step away from their workstation without locking their screen). How do you recommend we discipline the errant team members?”

HR:Well, you see, if we are too strict with our policies, we will lose talented employees as they will feel stifled at the workplace, because of the restrictive policies we have. Let’s give them some wiggle room.

Me: “But you had come up with the policies. You mentioned them during orientation. Why are you not implementing them?”

HR:Well, yes, that’s true, but, as an organization we need to hire and retain talented employees, which means we have to be a little flexible …

Me: “I understand, but the team’s productivity is being affected. Taking cue from one another, team members are spending an inordinate time surfing at work. I am answerable to my clients and to my leadership.”

Me:Yes, true, but, as I have said before, we need to take into account the various hygiene factors, which might cause dissatisfaction at work …

You: Mumbling to yourself “Oh God! Please end my misery.

Case 2:

Me: “Hey, you remember the discussion we had about “Facebooking” at work. Well, it seems, somebody was having a bad day at home and posted the following message on Facebook— ‘, I am so angry with my wife… I could kill someone‘. This person has a top leader in the US in his friends’ list. Now, that leader has contacted me wondering if there is a chance that this person might “go postal” at work. He is very worried about the possibility of workplace violence. Can you be present when I talk to him about this issue?”

HR:That’s not good; no worries, though, we will look into it and talk to that person. We will take care of it; you don’t have to talk to him.
Next, after not getting an update from them for a couple of days…

Me: “Were you able to connect with the person about his Facebook message and explain to him what is appropriate and not appropriate to post on Facebook?”

HR:Oh, shucks! Bummer! Totally dropped the ball on that one. Why don’t you go ahead and talk to that person yourself?

Me: “You held me up for two days, only to tell me to talk to that person myself?”

HR:Yeah, I know. My bad! Sorry!

Me: “What about your advice about hygiene factors and everything else…”

HR:Hmmm, yeah! About that, yeah! Well, you see…

Me: Click!

Case 3:

Me: “I want to discuss a couple of things about the dress code policy.”

HR:Sure thing…

Me: “The dress code specifies business casual, but people are coming to working wearing sandals, tank tops, torn jeans, T-Shirts with slogans such as ‘Chocolates make my T-Shirt shrink’ or ‘Chocolates make me take off my clothes’. Isn’t it being unprofessional?”

HR:Yes, but millennials have a different dressing sense and we have to respect that…

Me: “You know what, never mind, I should have known. Gotta go, bye!”

  • According to HR, a rocket scientist getting a rating of 1—the best rating—is the same as a junior developer getting a rating of 1.
  • Appraisals are always fun, you will be asked to be very thorough with your presentation, but will be given just 1 minute/per team member.
  • Heaven forbid, if one of your employees was struggling to perform and was, therefore, put in a Performance Action Plan or a Performance Improvement Plan on HR’s recommendation. I empathize(d) with the manager who has/had to facilitate that process. It involved emails, approval, documentation, documentation, documentation and more documentation. Next it was action plan, documentation, review, documentation, meeting, documentation, action plan appraisal, documentation, meeting and more meetings, wrap-up, documentation, sign-off and, finally, documentation.

One of the worst experiences a person can go through while being employed is being inducted into the PAP/PIP hall of fame. You might, as well, fire the person than make them go through that exercise. It is a colossal waste of time, effort, energy and disk space. The elaborate process is undertaken only to prevent a lawsuit, should the non-performing employee be eventually fired and the person decides to fire back. And, to prevent a lawsuit, the lives of the employee, his/her lead, supervisor or manager are turned upside down.

Common roles of Human Resources department

Human resources department’s contribution to organizational strategy. Image ©

What do employees think about HR?

In all the companies I worked for, within and without India, employees are terrified of HR. Most employees loathed, abhorred, hated interacting with HR, because HR was almost always a non-performing entity, very slow to do anything—even provide a yes/no answer; not interested in hearing the angst of the employees, and most issues, anyway, fell on deaf ears. The other critical reason why employees were reticent to talk to HR was the fear that their year-end will suffer. Taking to HR involved having a panic attack. Furthermore, talking to HR meant the possibility of a note being added to their HR record, and nobody wanted that to happen. In addition, they were terrified that HR was incapable of keeping personal information secret. Anything they shared with HR would make it to the general public in a few short days.The consensus among employees was,

  • “What’s the point in talking to them, we will probably get one of the following responses:”
    • “Sorry, we cannot do anything now, as our hands are tied.”
    • “The matter has been reviewed and closed without any further action taken. We couldn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing here.”
    • “We cannot promise anything, but we will try to ensure that your concerns are addressed during the year-end.”
    • “Trust us, we are looking out for you!”

What do industry experts think about HR?

Thus far, I have listed my experiences with the HR. Now, many of you may opine, “Why should we give any credence to what an unknown blogger is writing about HR?” Fair point! Hence, let’s now review the opinions of some of the industry experts.

It’s Time to Split HR by Ram Charan

This article created a lot of controversy when it was published in July-August 2014 issue of HBR. In this article, Mr. Ram Charan argues that it is time to bid adieu to HR, not the role it performs, but the function should be dissolved. He mentions that during his interaction with different CEOs, he has learned that many of them “are disappointed in their HR people.

According to Ram Charan, many of the CEOs would like their chief human resource officers (CHROs) as “sounding boards and trusted partners”. However, he continues, “Most of them are process-oriented generalists who have expertise in personnel benefits, compensation, and labor relations. They are focused on internal matters such as engagement, empowerment, and managing cultural issues. What they can’t do very well is relate HR to real-world business needs. They don’t know how key decisions are made, and they have great difficulty analyzing why people—or whole parts of the organization—aren’t meeting the business’s performance goals.”

Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can DoAbout It by Peter Cappelli

Peter Cappelli is a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business. He wrote an article about the HR function in July-August 2015 issue of HBR. In this issue, Mr. Peter Cappelli mentions that the dissatisfaction expressed by various parties with HR function is nothing new. He says, “They’ve erupted now and in the past because we don’t like being told how to behave —and no other group in organizational life, not even finance, bosses us around as systematically as HR does.” He goes on to mention that, “What’s more, HR makes us perform tasks we dislike, such as documenting problems with employees. And it prevents us from doing what we want, such as hiring someone we “just know” is a good fit. Its directives affect every person in the organization, right up to the top, every single day.”

In his article, Mr. Cappelli states that HR is not beyond reproach and has plenty of room for improvement. He articulates that HR should be proactive and lead the charge, and lists five initiatives that HR leaders can undertake:

  1. Set the agenda.
  2. Focus on issues that matter in the here and now.
  3. Acquire business knowledge.
  4. Highlight financial benefits.
  5. Walk away from the time wasters.

People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO by Ram Charan, Dominic Barton, and Dennis Carey

Business don’t create value; people do.” says Mr. Ram Charan, Mr. Dominic Barton and Mr. Dennis Carey. Can anybody disagree with that statement? I always told my team that “…your success will define my success.” And I am so proud to say that me striving to make my team members successful paid a huge dividend when it came to the overall success of the team. Most of my fellow managers were more interested in their own success than the success of their team.

In this article, the authors make the point that CEOs are unsatisfied with their chief human resources officers (CHROs) and the HR organization. Did you know that, as per a research conducted by McKinsey and the Conference Board, CEOs rank HR as the eight or ninth most important function in an organization? This means most CEOs consider HR to be a non-strategic functional unit. Do I need to say anything more about HR’s importance or non-importance in an organization?

The authors of the article do make recommendations on how to transform the HR. According to them, it is the responsibility of the CEO to elevate the role of the CHRO and empower them to take up three additional responsibilities—“predicting outcomes, diagnosing problem, and prescribing actions on the people side that will add value to the business.

It’s Not HR’s Job to Be Strategic by Sean Graber

Mr. Graber argues in this article that, in its present state, HR should not be a strategic partner to the CEOs. He cites Mr. Ram Charan’s article on splitting the HR and recommends that “companies should dice up the function even more finely. Instead of grouping all the people-related activities together under HR, businesses should organize them according to types of service provided — and move a couple of them to other functions altogether.

Sean also makes a couple of other points that I found interesting.

  1. In a PwC study, only 34% said that HR is well prepared to capitalize on transformational trends (compared with 56% for finance).
  2. In its “State of Human Capital” report, McKinsey found that people in HR still largely havea support-function mindset, a low tolerance for risk, and a limited sense of strategic ‘authorship’” — all of which has led to “low status among executive peers, no budget for innovation, and a ‘zero-defects’ mentality.

Tell me about it! My team and I wanted to automate some of the HR processes, but did we hit a brick wall or what? Taking initiative, we presented an idea to HR, and, after getting their buy-in, developed an application for them that would have cut the processing time from weeks to mere hours. The application was tested, staged but never moved to production. Would you like to know why? Nobody in HR wanted to take the “risk” of owning that application; they were worried about too many emails from the system, even though we promised to send the approvers an email digest, and they did not have the “time” to get the sign-off from the HR head. Go figure!

The application did more than what they originally asked for, yet they were happy with the way things were—happy to manually feed the data into an MS Excel spreadsheet, which took them oodles of time, generate the report manually, send it to the leadership for approval, collate the approval information, generate another report to be disseminated to the managers. Even though the manual process was fraught with data entry errors, they still continued with the old way of doing things, rather than use the app that made their job so much more easier. Talk about being caught in the rut! I am sure that the app is still “rotting” somewhere in a staging server.

Re-engaging with engagement by Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)

It is generally accepted in the corporate world that a company with a highly committed workforce will outclass a company with a noncommittal workforce. EIU with sponsorship from Hay Group had conducted a survey of senior executives in Europe and the ME about how much the present-day knowledge workers are committed to their jobs, what makes them committed and what steps can be taken to enhance their commitment.

The survey uncovers some key findings, which can be perused in the linked provided; however, there is one finding that reveals a lot about C-suite executives’ perception of HR. According to the survey results, “Some 63% of CEOs and other members of the top team reckon that they themselves are “chiefly responsible for staff engagement”, but only 38% of the remainder agree that the top tier is responsible (see fig. 1). Not a single C-suite respondent selected “Human Resources” as being chiefly responsible, suggesting that this function is held in low regard by many in the top echelons in respect of this vital human resources issue.

Can there be a more brutal testament to the failure of HR, when it comes to people management and empowerment? This in my opinion destroys the myth that HR is strategic and people oriented. They aren’t, they weren’t and probably will never be.

CEOs from the human resources department… the long list

In my many candid conversations with HR practitioners, when I was being critical of the HR function, I often heard a recurring theme in their response to me—“the function has a strategic purpose, is critical to the efficient running of the organization, as we have the pulse of the employees, and HR leaders are the best candidates for a CEO.

I disagree with the above statement. However, for argument’s sake, let’s agree that the HR function is indeed important to an organization and agree that the role of the CHRO is very strategic. Furthermore, let’s also agree that HR is all about people, and the function, in general, and the CHRO, in particular, have the pulse of the entire organization. Now, it is a fact that the most valuable asset of any organization is its people, and the degree of employee engagement or their disengagement can make or break a corporation.

Therefore, wouldn’t it make sense for most organizations to promote a function lead, who has the pulse of the organization, the CHRO, as its CEO? Hence, the next obvious question is, how many executives with just HR experience have held the office of the CEO in a Fortune 100 or 500 company? In my search for the answer, I haven’t been able to find a single one.

Well, but…

Yes, some of you will instantly retort and say, “But, what about Mary Barra, the current CEO of GM and a former HR lead, or Samuel R. Allen, the CEO of John Deere or James C. Smith, the CEO of Thomson Reuters or Steven L. Newman, the CEO of Transocean?” Yes, true, but they were not in HR their entire life, they had a wide-ranging managerial experience, often with P&L responsibilities, and had various technical and financial skills in their repertoire, too.

In the case of Mary Barra, she has a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering, is an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of business. In GM, in addition to her stint in HR, Mary Barra served as the chief of product development, senior vice president of global product development and executive vice president of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain. She was not an HR lifer.

While discussing Mary Barra’s achievements, Kris Dunn, a contributing editor at Workforce and a CHRO at Kinetix writes that, “If you’re an HR leader with a dream, here are five things the Barra profile tells us you need to do to become CEO:

  1. Get the hell out of HR soon.
  2. Deep subject matter expertise in an area core to the business is desired.
  3. Depending on the company’s focus, you need to decide which rotational path is best.
  4. Top tier MBAs still rule.
  5. Get the hell out of HR.

What more?

In the December 2014 issue of HBR, an article was published titled, “Why Chief Human Resources Officers Make Great CEOs”. Actually, the title should have been “ Why Chief Human Resources Officers Would Make Great CEOs”, because the article did not mention a single HR lifer who made it to the office of the CEO. In this article, Ellie Filler, a senior client partner, Korn Ferry, Switzerland, worked with Dave Ulrich, a professor with the University of Michigan, to ascertain the role of the CHRO within the C-suite. Their study looked at 14 aspects of leadership and found that CEOs and CHROs shared similar character traits. This led the researchers to proclaim that “More companies should consider CHROs when looking to fill the CEO position.”; however, with some caveats.

According to them, “They don’t see a path to the top job among people who have spent their careers in HR; instead, they are touting the prospects of executives who have had broad managerial experience (and P&L responsibility) that includes a developmental stint running the HR department. They emphasize that any CHRO who aspires to become a CEO must demonstrate capabilities in a host of skills required of top leaders. “The challenge for CHROs is to…acquire sufficient technical and financial skills, in early education and in career steps along the way, if succession to CEO is a desired outcome,” they write in a white paper about their research.

What about India?

Let’s focus specifically on India. In an opinion poll of 71 HR heads by People Matters, it was found that only 27 percent had any interest in taking up a role related to the business they support; 50 percent of the respondents wanted to continue in HR and only 29 percent had more than five years of experience outside of HR. More interestingly, 50% of the CHROs had no interest in becoming the CEO.

Need I say more?

Is HR obsolete, a vestige of the past? Do organizations even need the department anymore?

In smaller organizations, HR’s role is minimal; hence, they can probably live without an HR. In larger organizations, HR has to be redefined, rebooted and retooled, to gain relevance again. HR hasn’t evolved. They are still caught in the rut. HR in many organizations are stuck in the 19th century, overseeing a feudal system.

In order to bring HR to the 21st century, a complete overhaul of the organization is required. In my opinion, HR should:

  • Start leading from the front. Human resources practitioners cannot see the forest from the trees. They have a template response to everything. They should strive to get original and creative, and most importantly, get nimble.
  • Get out of the comfort zone. Some of the senior executives at the human resources department have reached a plateau. Their modus operandi is simple—do the bare minimums to keep their jobs and, eventually, retire. They are very happy with the huge salary they draw and move around doing their day-to-day activities like a giant sloth running a marathon.
  • Take action against managers who suck. You know who they are. Every employee survey identifies them, yet you sit on your derrière, let them run amok and when they become too difficult to handle, you promote them. How about just firing them?
  • Learn to take some risks; you folks are way too cautious.
  • Understand the difference between price and value. You all know the price but hardly ever calculate the value. As a result, you will lay off people in order to meet some financial numbers, but you will never analyze the effects of those lay off. You let go of value to meet a price. Stop doing that!
  • Understand that some of your best investments will go south; hence, you will have to cut your losses short. Let go of people who over-promise and under-deliver. Organizations are full of them.
  • Stand up for the little guys. I have seen brilliant people being laid off because the CEO has to show to the investors that the company is cutting cost to improve its balance sheet. Furthermore, I have also seen senior executives sabotaging careers, while you stood by and watched, and in some cases helped and applauded. Stand up for the little guys!
  • Get out of the rut.
  • Get tech savvy, please. Have a basic understanding of tech and IT. No, operating a smartphone and taking selfies do not mean you are tech savvy. At least know that pressing Alt + F4 on Windows will close the active window. You’re welcome!
  • Stop being the gatekeeper of the C-suite executives. Employees hate you because of this. Win over the trust of your most valuable asset—your people.
  • Develop some people skills or hire people who have people skills. No, many of you don’t have any. Some of your practitioners are downright rude, uncouth, boorish and condescending. Consequently, train your practitioners first, before training other.
  • Stop recommending “Treasure Hunt” as a team building activity. Please!


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