Has HR Had It’s Day?

Having worked in HR roles all my professional life, I feel a strong bond and passion for the profession. No doubt about it, HR work is tough.  It’s emotionally draining, complex and always unpredictable.  You tend to receive very little thanks or recognition for the work you do and need to deal with significant pressure.  However, the ability to positively influence, coach and inspire people means it can be an incredibly fulfilling work as well.

I’ve been privileged to work in some amazing organisations with some exceptional HR people who have made a real difference.  I’ve learnt from some of the very best along the way.    I’ve also seen the ‘not so good’ side of HR.  It never ceases to surprise me how many people work in HR who seem to lack empathy and emotional intelligence.

Like many people in HR, I’ve felt the tension so many times when implementing organisational ‘change work’ such as restructurings and redundancies, dealing with people’s livelihoods and balancing organisational risk, whilst also trying to do the right thing for the same people in the organisation. This is high pressure, high stakes work where you are literally having a potentially huge impact on people’s lives.  Sometimes you just cannot reconcile these tensions.    Difficult decisions do need to be made in business, but they should always be made with compassion, respect and understanding.  That’s the very least that good HR professionals should insist on.    But it doesn’t always happen that way, issues end up getting reduced to a transactional level, there is a pressure to implement change to meet arbitrary deadlines, and we can lose the human element. This is when the Resource element is first and the Human element second.

The Resources component of HR considers people as headcount, costs, and numbers rather than living, sentient human beings.  It’s dehumanising.

I believe HR has become too preoccupied with data and metrics, to the extent humanity has evaporated from the work itself and across many organisations.  Simply taking the time to listen to people at different levels of many organisations reveals that something feels broken about their work.   People feel disconnected from their organisations.  There is an absence of meaning and belonging, the very essence of humanness.

So much emphasis in many HR jobs centres on the hard side of resource planning, management, compliance, and efficiencies.  Although HR work is tough, we don’t need to be tough to do it well.  I’ve always applied a people-first mindset to do the very best I could for the people working in the organisation in an authentic human way.  Often this desire has created tension given the organisation’s demands on the HR team.

I feel this is linked to the important things in life which are not always measurable.  For fellow parents out there, we all love our kids unconditionally, but if I asked you to prove it by stating a number you couldn’t really do that could you?  We just know the love is there, we feel it as an emotion, and we don’t need to quantity it in numeric terms.

In a rapidly changing and dynamic world, adaptability and openness to new ideas and ways of working are hallmarks for success.

In terms of the fundamentals of HR being rooted in compliance, the profession has not changed a great deal in the 20 years I have worked in it.  Admittedly new fads and initiatives arise, some are good, some are not so good.  Different concepts rise and fall with different levels of popularity and uptake, buzz words enter and disappear from the HR lexicon, but the overwhelming sense that HR remains first and foremost a compliance function remains.  HR has too often itself retreated into compliance work and been too rigid and inflexible to change.  The rapid pace of change in society, demographics, technology and people’s working expectations has outstripped HR’s capacity to change and evolve.  This is a worrying situation that could become terminal for HR.

The irony is, despite the time, effort and money expended on seeking compliance, we question whether we’ve ultimately succeeded?  Compliance is rarely secured because of the existence of an HR department enforcing the rules, it is secured because of a desire and intrinsic motivation on the part of every individual to want to do the right things in accordance with stated values.  With each new generation of HR graduates entering the profession this procedural and technical compliance focus still seems to dominate the overall approach.  Demanding adherence to compliance standards can end up suffocating organisations with internal bureaucracy that impedes the requirement for adaptive performance that we should be encouraging in our modern uncertain world.  People yearn for freedom and autonomy in organisations, but the controlling side of HR means we often fear making this happen.  I sometimes wonder if HR has been inadvertently been contributing to suffocating our organisations?

I’m left pondering in this scenario, where I genuinely reflect and question what HR is there to do and who they are there to serve? Whether HR as we know it has had its day?

Within all that lies an inherent contradiction I’ve grappled with for many years in HR.  Humans are simply not Resources.    We need to stop treating people as resources or referring to them as resources. Are these two sides of the Human Resource coin compatible?  The treatment of people as expendable resources in the pursuit of profit is a legacy from the industrial revolution.  It should be obsolete in the modern world, but it persists.  When we think about treating people ‘resources’ it is seriously outdated language, yet it continues to loom large over the HR profession and dominate practice.

But what of the future?  If HR does not grasp the future, the culture-building and people development aspects which are desperately needed will be absorbed elsewhere in organisations.  The HR transactional and compliance work will become automated.  HR’s role was never really about the resource element or securing compliance in my view, it was always about the Human element in workplaces. However difficult to quantify, contributing to making organisations and people’s working experiences more human is hugely valuable work.  It is about stewardship of culture and positively impacting people’s lives.  Progressive organisations really understand this is the dynamic that ultimately helps them win in the marketplace.  This requires a very different skills set from HR traditionalists.

I am not confident that this mindset and skills set is abundant within the HR profession at the current time.  Is there any course for optimism?  Maybe, if HR is brave enough to embrace a major paradigm shift in the way it operates.  An influx of culture-building skills rooted in strong emotional intelligence could shift the pendulum more this way.  Nonetheless, this is the ambitious level of impact that HR should be aiming for.     The pace of change influencing organisations will not wait.   HR’s role was, and always should be, centred on the building and shifting of human-centred work cultures within organisations.


Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller
My 'Why' is to inspire a movement towards truly people-centred organizations. Organizations which see the person first and the employee second. A Coach, facilitator, and catalyst for positive change, I thrive on the challenge of making the world of work better and more humanized for people in organizations. I love networking and collaborating to share fresh ideas, insights and to learn. I have an in-depth knowledge and practical 'hands-on' experience of leading HR and Organizational Development projects. I am a visionary who rethinks what is possible when it comes to HR, leadership and the future of work, igniting positive change in others. Never forgetting the real reason behind my work, I love spending time with my wife Kelly and my children who are the centre of my world and the reason behind my 'Why'.

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  1. “I sometimes wonder if HR has been inadvertently been contributing to suffocating our organisations?” I might say that differently – Leaders have been suffocating our organizations, and have hired compliance-type HR people to keep them out of trouble.

    I get where you’re at and the question you are asking about the viability of the profession. 1997 Dr. Michael Beer asked the same question. 2005 Fast Company repeated it. 2015 Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire volume to “blowing up HR.” Four years later… get my drift.

    After my book was published, I did the SHRM and other book tour things. For three years I stared at blank faces trying to explain the dilemma that HR is in, some ideas to emerge, and what HR “could be.” I stopped – it was painful.

    The elephant in the room, so to speak, is – whether or not the HR person “gets” what HR can be or not – making that shift is fraught with obstacles that are called “leaders.” I do believe HR can make a difference, even when the leaders are not bought in or courageous, but it takes and intentional path of learning to influence.

    Just my $.02. Thanks for the article.