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Poor old HR….it seems barely a week goes by these days without someone writing an article to question HR’s existence, let alone value! Was it something they said, or didn’t say!! The latest example is analysis from the Great Place to Work Survey, which headlines ‘sack the HR department’ and draws out accounts where HR is failing to engage with its workforce, live by its own rules, build trust and perhaps most significantly be in touch with the organisation. So why after a decade or more of demonstrating the value HR brings to the health of an organisation does there seem to be a backlash against HR? There must be times that HR professionals feel they are stuck between a rock and a hard place – to offer the empathy and understanding and assurance of fair play, or to do ‘right’ by the business, who after all pay them precisely for that purpose.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. In some ways it’s a sign of how far HR has come that there is a real expectation now that HR should be delivering, and if it’s not, quite rightly it needs to be picked up on. Interestingly whether its calls for the HR department to be outsourced (see article – a particularly ill-considered piece!) or sacked, neither seems to suggest there is no need for strategic HR – perhaps quite the opposite. Outsourcing by default still acknowledges the need for a HR service simply that the transactional processes be slicker and more cost effective (in theory I hasten to add!). The outburst to sack HR went on to ask they be replaced with a better team, not disbanded all together.

The modern HR professional does have a challenge on their hands though, made up by the dichotomy of stakeholders it has to engage with, spanning the entire organisation. Employees do need to feel that they can take legitimate concerns or issues to HR without risk of recourse. At the same time HR needs to manage organisational risk, and the two don’t always align. HR should aim to be ‘in touch’ with the masses of the workforce, but it also tune into and act on the demands of the few and work with the leadership to drive the business agenda. The key ingredients that can make an effective HR professional these days may start to sound like the long list of a Michelin starred recipe – start with a base of subject matter expertise, add lashings of common sense, a generous dollop of commercial acumen, a heaped tablespoon of emotional intelligence, add empathy, resilience, organisational skills, rationality, principle, pragmatism and ability to influence to taste, simmer to allow the elements to combine in the perfect balance, and then probably serve with a nice glass of wine to de-stress from the rigours of the day!

HR, like all functions though, will be culpable for failures however, and perhaps they are an easy or obvious target for employees to direct venom at. Several things could help them to ensure they either avoid negative PR in their companies, or even ensure any negative PR that comes their way is in fact unfair and unfounded.

1.To make sure the HR strategy and operational practise actually does meet and impact the business agenda. What is the business outcome you’d intend from the HR intervention (not the HR outcome), and how would you expect that to impact the business positively. If the business rationale isn’t clear, don’t be surprised if the business doesn’t see the merit of HR’s efforts.

2.To make sure the HR strategy is properly communicated to the business. The strategy could be sound, but if the workforce, and perhaps most importantly the managers/leadership isn’t bought in through effective communication , roll out and follow up, then in many ways it’s wasted effort and will probably lead to negative perceptions of HR.
As an example of the latter, and using GPTW as a case in point – as someone who’s been involved as a manager and champion of a company undertaking this survey, I was left feeling like the entire exercise had been a waste of time, would lead to minimal positive action, and perhaps most damning, felt the entire thing had been a window dressing exercise that reflected badly on HR and the business leadership – largely because it was not communicated effectively. As a principle I see the value on such things, but what could and should have been a positive experience of my HR department, turned out to be negative.

The whitepaper in the GPTW article does offer constructive advice for the HR profession to turn such situations around. It is important HR realises that its actions could be in the spotlight if they act in a ‘do as I say, and not as I do’ manner – and this damages their credibility. Also engaging with the business in the right way for the specific organisation is key. But the success of HR is in many ways dependent on the ability to work with and through people, so if there are chinks in the armour of the leadership and management team, be it capability, culture or mindset, then perhaps the wider question could be yes, sack the HR department (or parts of it), but maybe look for problems elsewhere as well. HR doesn’t need to be loved to be effective, respect will do!