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Human Resources – HR – along with its ugly siblings ‘Human Capital’  – just don’t mean anything as a title nowadays. In the light of so much change brought about by two years of emergencies, why don’t we now take the opportunity to call it something more to the point, and at the same time finally define the function’s mission?

‘Human Resources’ taken literally could mean either ‘our people are our greatest asset’ or ‘salary costs are our greatest overhead’ depending on what side of the cliched public relations divide you happen to stand.  

Let’s get some things straight:

The only people HR actually manage are HR people, not the workforce at large.

The only people that HR should be recruiting are HR people, not those of other line managers.

The only people that HR should be firing are HR people, not anybody else’s. HR may be involved in redundancy exercises to ensure compliance, but that’s about it.

The only performance that HR is responsible for is that of the HR department, not any other department.

HR is not responsible for levels of sickness in the organisation; they are normally responsible for the procedure. No credit should be claimed for reductions, nor should they get pilloried for a flu epidemic.

HR doesn’t:

set organisational culture; that starts at the very top, and it’s not found on motivational posters.

organise Christmas parties and wrap all the presents. Or handle all the post-Christmas party fall-out.

administer pension funds, medical insurance and car fleets. These are functions that should be driven by the providers. Just because people receive them doesn’t mean HR should be shafted with the paperwork.

I’ll stop there, but by now you have the idea. What with the things people think we do and don’t, and the things we do but shouldn’t, there’s not a lot of space to be effective – or appreciated. Hence the widespread impression that HR give of always being ‘firefighting’.

And, because the mission has always been ‘fuzzy’ and open to interpretation by different organisations, HR has tended to take on every piece of work that no-one else wants, to give the illusion of adding value. And, in a paradoxical way, admin is a ‘comfort zone’ that gives us the feeling we’re doing something useful. A sort of functional inferiority complex, if you will.

No wonder so many HR professionals report being stressed, demotivated and unappreciated; they are operating largely in a vacuum.

Thinking positively, what can HR be doing that can truly make a difference?

For starters, they should be making sure that their organisations have the right technology in place for management reporting and analysis, paying employees, recruitment and learning and development. Automate processes wherever possible; there’s plenty of scope to reduce manual activity. This is truly non-negotiable in today’s business climate.

Here’s an extra: the use of technology to assist employee well-being; make sure that systems detect when excessive working hours are being undertaken, and that employees, wherever located, are able to anonymously flag up where they are under stress, are suffering any form of harassment or need to blow the whistle. The technology exists, it’s out there, and it needs to be used now.

Compliance with legal obligations, contractual and procedural across the spectrum of employee relations, ensuring that employer and employees are fully aware of legal rights and responsibilities. If employment law isn’t their forte, don’t dabble: get professionals in.

Facilitating organisational aspirations, such as DEI, pay gap monitoring and elimination of bias throughout, and make sure the message, reinforced by the Board, goes out loud and clear.

Rolling out development plans for the workforce, enabling all employees – including line management – to perform optimally. If you get the line properly trained, the incidence of complaints will fall dramatically.

Framing compensation packages within the organisational business plan that reward effort and present an attractive proposition to potential recruits.

These are some basic high value activities that we should be engaged on. Have a look at your HR department and see how much of that is being done. And maybe what they shouldn’t be doing.

And a new title for the function? I’ll leave that for others to decide and hope they choose something meaningful this time. My vote would be for Workforce Enablement; I saw that in someone’s job title the other day and rather liked it. WE could be us one day.

©DWB 2022

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