Is HR Doomed?

According to the Harvard Business Review, HR might be headed for the dustbin of history. At least that’s the conclusion I drew from their pages this week.  In a blog that quickly went viral amongst those who care about such things, Craig Mundy, an HR executive with Ingersoll-Rand, suggests that human resources executives, in their zeal to be taken seriously as “business partners” with plenty of complicated charts, processes and metrics (see – just like the finance guys!) are moving farther and farther away from the mainstream of their businesses. Creating friction. He challenges us: “of every action you take as an HR leader, ask this simple question: does it cause friction in the business or does it create flow? Friction is anything that makes it more difficult for people in critical roles to win with the customer. Flow, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to remove barriers and promote better performance.”

Folks, guess what happens when your activities create friction, not flow, as Mundy puts it? “(All) too often, business leaders still wonder aloud why their organizations even have HR departments.” In other words, keep it up and we are doomed.

In many ways, I agree; the dysfunction created by the off-point hyperactivity of most HR departments has been a focus in this column on more than one occasion.

How is another round of Web-based “leadership” training purchased from a vendor going to help sales in the next quarter?

I do believe HR has a place at the table, though, and when it works – usually led by a team of professionals who understand the culture and nuts and bolts of the business better than the rest of the company – it adds tremendous value to the growth of the organization. Too often, however, HR misses the mark.

The best HR person I ever knew was a fellow by the name of Scott Hazen, a grizzled, two-fisted veteran of the steel industry. He was the first head of corporate HR at Coca-Cola Enterprises, a proud “labor hand.” (Note – a “labor hand” is an HR professional who has experience negotiating labor contracts, which in Hazen’s view of the world separated the grown-ups from the kids). The No. 1 rule he taught us was to stay out of the way of the “operators,” the people in sales, delivery and manufacturing who drove profits. Anything we dreamed up in HR in terms of a new program or process (unless it was required by law) that got in the way of the operators would make us a “history” lesson. Fired.

Eric Turpin was a colleague then, a great friend who just happened to be the highest ranking African-American HR executive in the Coke system at the time. We spent many a long night together huddling before suggesting any activity to Hazen, wary of becoming a “history lesson.” As Eric says, “I never worried after working for Hazen about being listened to, or having a seat at the table. When I talked, the management team knew what I had to say would drive the business forward – not get in the way.”

The lesson? The way to become a “business partner” is to quit agonizing over being a “business partner” and trying to force unnecessary activity on the rest of the enterprise. Focus instead on what is important. Here are a few tips:

  • Fire anyone called a “strategic consultant.” Strategy is your job.
  • Rotate people from field operations into HR. They understand the difference between wheat and chaff.
  • Be wary of what you “learn” at an HR conference. Programs du jour help no one.
  • Eliminate every HR activity that doesn’t move the business forward. Ask those people you just promoted from the field.
  • Don’t shy away from saying “No.” Sometimes, it is a newly-minted  CEO who tries to get you to do some irrelevant and stupid thing they heard about at a meeting or from a consultant. Fight back.
  • Listen to your culture. ‘Nuff said.

HR need not go quietly into the night. We can do more than add value – we can be key members of the leadership team, guardians of the culture and make our companies better, more profitable and fun places to work.

But if we don’t, watch out. We’ll be a history lesson.