So, what do you do? I work in HR. Oh.
Cue the eye roll and the humorous comments like ‘so how many people have you sacked this week?’ I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years seeing a similar response from people when I say what I do.
Most often, this is shaped by people not having a positive experience of HR in their own places of work. But why does HR get such a bad press, and is it deserved?
Here are the principal reasons I believe why HR attracts such negative stereotypes.
- People are not sure who or what HR is there for
HR often professes to be the voice of the employee, whilst simultaneously doing the bidding of senior management. Often these tensions are contradictory and can lead to crises of conscience for those doing HR work. Employees can often see HR as a mouthpiece for senior management and therefore not trusted to openly confide in.
- Some people work in HR without fundamental people skills
It’s been infuriating to see people representing HR, who lack basic decency, and emotional intelligence in sensitive situations.
There are, without doubt, vast numbers of people working in HR with superb people skills. They do unbelievable work and deliver amazing outcomes, often in difficult circumstances. In a 20-year+ HR career, I’ve also experienced many people working in HR who, shall we say, lack the core people skills that most observers feel should be essential for doing such work. It’s been infuriating to see people representing HR, who lack basic decency, and emotional intelligence in sensitive situations. I know all professions will suffer similar issues, but I’m always puzzled at how such people manoeuvre their way into HR roles without the basic humanity and approach to people. It is frustrating how much damage these incidents do to the reputation of HR as a profession.
- HR is reactive, rather than proactive.
So often, HR gets involved at the point of relationships breaking down or some other form of dispute. Often this means adherence to formal procedures, whether it’s performance, discipline, grievance, or health capability. These procedures, often overseen by an HR ‘gatekeeper’, are stressful as they are so formal. Sometimes they become very lengthy and complex. It’s difficult to come away with a positive experience of such procedures. Often the first time an employee will encounter someone within the HR team is during a formal procedure when they are under a lot of pressure.
- HR is so process driven
One of the biggest frustrations from managers is HR related paperwork. HR IT platforms are improving the situation, but nonetheless the internal compliance and control model requires managers to complete a multitude of forms and people-related processes on an ongoing basis including [this list is by no means exhaustive]
- Often lengthy and cumbersome annual appraisal documents
- Supervision one to one document completion
- KPI evaluation and metrics analysis
- Return to work interviews after absences
- Sickness capability review meetings [sometimes triggered by certain thresholds of days being taken off]
- Holiday authorisation forms
- Performance Improvement Plans
- Shortlisting and interview assessment forms
- Pay and benefit evaluation forms
- Exit interview documentation
- Training and development authorisation forms
- Annual staff survey completion
I don’t believe safety is created by paperwork it’s created by open, honest conversations within a culture of care.
Despite generating a huge amount of bureaucracy and process, there is often a void when it comes to meaningful actions as a result of this. I’ve often wondered if we just did away with all the paperwork and process, and simply went back to basic human conversations and interactions at the team level, what the overall result would be? As a society, we create systems to prove and disprove things with the illusion this is keeping the organisation safe. I don’t believe safety is created by paperwork it’s created by open, honest conversations within a culture of care. It is created within an environment of psychological safety, and not fear. Creating such environments should be a major focus for leaders, and HR in my view.
- HR is often associated with dismissal and difficult decisions
Whether it is due to conduct, capability, redundancy, or some other reason, when it gets to a point of parting company, HR is often a key stakeholder. How these sensitive and challenging conversations are handled can have a major impact on a whole team or even organisation. HR can have an influential role in how such situations are resolved. If the HR input lacks compassion or thoughtfulness, it can reinforce any negative stereotypes further.
I believe HR needs to change in fundamental ways to be of value in the modern world. It will be the deeds of those working in HR, which will make the major difference in shaping the perception of the wider profession.
I don’t suspect the eye rolls and comments will stop anytime soon, it’s something I’ve become used to over the years. I think by doing HR in a true people-centred and humanistic way, we can all start to create some small ripples in our own organisations.
Being consistent over time creates even wider-ranging ripples and can then start to become a truly powerful movement for change. There are enough amazing people within the profession to make this happen. If we can attract more brilliant people with high emotional intelligence into our profession, we’ll turn those ripples into a tidal wave.