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Let’s blow up HR

This is actually the message on the front page of the latest Harvard Business Review. Front page. Again.

Since this is my current profession, I feel compelled to speak a bit on the subject: The authors are right, but not in the manner promoted in the three articles on the subject.

The magazine pieces boiled down to complaining that the human resources function is only appreciated when there are people problems a business needs to face, and considered wasted overhead when things are running smoothly.

The articles state that human resources needs to show how it contributes to hard business metrics, the good old ROI. The articles say that human resources professionals need to step up and claim their rightful places at the highest level of leadership.

Over the decades, it’s often occurred to me that human resources is the only organizational function that feels a need to justify its existence. It’s the only professional field that collectively and continually feels excluded from strategic business decisions.

You don’t find Harvard Business Review articles lamenting that sales is unappreciated in a company. Finance executives seldom claim they need a “seat at the table” in their organizations.

Every few years it seems there’s another call for human resources to gain its rightful place among the movers and shakers at the top of the organization.

Human resources has made repeated efforts to raise the stature of the field, through the use of language. “Personnel” changed to “Human Resources.” “Human Resources” was challenged by “Human Capital,” which so far has thankfully failed to take hold. The word “capital” was supposed to provide parity to financial professionals.

Titles have changed, too. The human resources professional associations and academicians have begun using the term “chief human resources officer” to mean the top level HR position, usually reporting to a CEO. The addition of the “chief” is meant to indicate equivalent importance with the CEO, the CFO and the COO, three other “chiefs” that have longer tenure in the business lexicon.

Certification programs were introduced to give legitimacy to the profession, like other professional designations in use. Personally, I haven’t seen much of a correlation between human resources certification and professional competency.

Certification courses are very useful, but not sufficient to indicate proficiency. Fundamental knowledge of the principles of human behavior, statistics and law are more valuable than memorizing terms or completing multiple-choice tests.

The point here is that the field of human resources has been seeking to raise its self-esteem almost since its inception. It thinks other leaders and professionals don’t consider it a serious contributor to the organization’s success.

Part of the reason, I believe, for this half-century of existential angst in human resources is that HR practitioners fail to realize that they are advisers in 95 percent or more of the activities in which they engage.

HR is a consultancy. Done well, it’s a very valuable consultancy that will create repeat customers throughout the organization. Expert advice that helps leaders be better leaders is precious. But the “line” decisions are made by the people who are accountable for performance results.

Too often, the field thinks that it should be involved in business decisions outside the usual range of skills, knowledge and abilities of the HR professional. Very few HR people have had experience in sales, manufacturing, supply chain, accounting, quality assurance or other business functions.

It’s not uncommon to hear HR managers complain about having to deal in numbers. And facilitating a strategic planning discussion is not the same as actually coming up with novel strategies to achieve competitive advantage in an industry.

My experience is that if you have something to contribute to solving a problem, any problem, and that contribution actually works, you will be invited to participate “at the table.”

“Make yourself valuable to others if you want to have a long and satisfying career,” I once heard from an early mentor. This advice holds true for the entire field of human resources. If you can uniquely contribute to helping others solve difficult, critical business problems, you won’t be merely invited to the strategic table.

You’ll be dragged to it.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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