Thursday, April 23, 2009

[hr] and the mania for box ticking

There are certain occupations which are intrinsically unpopular.

Below was a typical summary of the prevailing attitude to HR around mid-2007, so I thought it might be time to revisit and see if it has improved any today.

1. They think you are a resource

Petroleum, water, lumber, and humans. One of these things is not like the others—unless, that is, you consult the HR department. They view you as a resource, and they are not shy about it.

2. Talking to them accomplishes nothing

While your meeting with the HR rep may be the closest you get to being heard, the fact of the matter is, he or she is probably someone who can’t change the landscape very much, if at all. The people who could do something about, the ultimate decision-makers, do not want to be bothered by a sea of personal stories.

3. No real understanding of you or your job

With a professed disinterest in the details of your job or your life and the complete lack of ability to do anything about either anyway, it’s not really surprising that the HR department makes little to no effort to really understand what’s going on in the trenches.

4. Inflexible policies and red tape

The policies of the HR department are designed to cover a ridiculously broad range of circumstances with one fell swoop. Making blanket statements about how much of a raise you can give someone, how quickly you can promote someone, and how to move an employee from one role to another laterally is just another step toward oversimplification and homogenization of human dynamics down into human resources.

5. They pretend to be on your team

“Our people are our key asset, everything we do is informed by our constant vision of teamwork and shared opportunity…” Well, it doesn’t take long to realize how far that is from the truth in most cases.

Jacquelyn Thorp Kinworthy, a professor at Cal State-Fullerton and CEO/founder of HR-Coach Products and Services found, in 2006:

1) Companies hire inexperienced and unqualified people to handle HR, but expect them to perform at higher levels than they are qualified.

2) Companies do not invest in HR as they do in other departments.

3) Many small to medium size companies have HR people that are strategic partners.

Comments included:

When looking for a top-notch program that would prepare me to be an HR leader, I found that there weren't many programs that were forward-looking. [Bob Filipczak]

Many HR people I know (and I am an HR person so I know a lot of them) have a very narrow perspective - they know HR but they do not know business. I believe HR people are better off with a business degree than an HR degree.

If HR can demonstrate and take ownership for the aggregate human capital investment of the business and show how the productivity and ROI of the investment can be improved...they'll have a lot of influence in the management of the company and be "at the table." [mahendrakumardash]

The majority of people in HR are so wrapped up in politics and diversity programs they have no interest or time for activities that add value to the company's bottom line. They are "policemen" and view employees with contempt … I follow the works of Jeff Pfeffer, Dr. John Sullivan and David Ulrich, but I see no evidence of their theories in practice in Canadian business. [Frank DiBernardino]

That was then, so has it improved? In the UK, with the Rise of the NVQ, requiring you to have a specialist qualification to even clean the floor or sweep the street, certain jobseekers I know have complained that HR is a closed club of box tickers.

This is understandable, as every guild in history has tried to guard its esoteric language and list of prerequisites for admission; in one of my own fields of work, education, Special Needs teachers are the most open manifestation of that little game. I don’t know about HR and can only go on what I read.

What this post needs is some input from the HR professionals themselves, putting us straight about the current state of play. Most people I know in the corporate world continue to undervalue this department, even seeing it as obstructionist and irrelevant, so it would be nice to read the other side of the story.


  1. Isn't Flipchart Fairytales in that line?

    Box-ticking - see teaching for a bad example. Seen the related cartoon in the latest Private Eye?

  2. When they changed from personnel to HR in the early 80s the mindset and type changed as well. Before they were seen as the human interface to the management now they are seen as the managements attack dogs.

  3. Our HR people seem to have one answer to everything, to wit "that's your job, not ours"

  4. When I started in the Civil Service Establishments looked after one's career progress with regular changes of job. It turned into Personnel and then HR and delegated career progression onto the member of staff. Hence the rise up the ranks of people who achieved little in their jobs but could stretch their job descriptions around the "competences" (introduced when ability and experience were deemed by the PC to be racist and sexist) in vacancy adverts.

  5. Lord T "now they are seen as the managements attack dogs."

    Too true!

    Stitched my job grade up a treat HR did. £2000 per annum per capita down across the office.

    OK, we're in the bloated bureaucracy, so technically we deserve it, but still..And they won't even tell us how we are graded. A pay cut, plus the inescapable conclusion that the management wanted us taking down a pay grade or two, so all the testing was a cover for that.

    Of course, the original idea of HR was good; to acknowledge that human capital was the only kind of wealth creator, but the box tickers got to it as in all the other ministries and organizations.

  6. I used to work in the personnel department some time ago. The times have changed so much since then...

  7. Lord T, you are bang on, and I have recently made the same point myself. The moment that power began to flow away from the private citizen to the corporation was when their personnel departments began using the expression 'Human Resources'; as if those who work for them are their property, an indignity which no private citizens should suffer. This arrogance should never have been permitted. However, the majority of the population have so internalised the concept that they think nothing of it.

  8. CherryPie, that inspires me and you've settled it.

    The whole deal of a Department of Humans is like the Mafia:

    'It's not business; it's personnel...'

  9. HR - affectionately known as Human Remains

  10. Establishments? Now that is not a term I have heard in years!

  11. 'teamwork and shared opportunity'Buzz words for reduced pay and perks in exchange for a facade of personal achievement or importance.

  12. Faces of Parish Church Clocks spring to mind

  13. jams: usually abbrev'ted to Estabs and how I miss (not) doing the monthly staff complement return - there were three grades of Paperkeeper, for example. And an outstation of the Agency had Sluice Operator as a job grade.