HR is at a crossroads. For many years now the profession has existed with a fundamental dichotomy between employee advocate (functioning as a fair/impartial third-party ombudsman) vs. business leader (serving the needs of the company and executing initiatives such as RIFs or outplacements that seem to clash directly with the employee advocacy role). To borrow from (and paraphrase) Abraham Lincoln, a department divided against itself cannot stand. If that is indeed the case, then what will become of HR? Will its competing responsibilities somehow be reconciled? Will it cease to exist or will it change as it has throughout its history to become something new entirely? Perhaps, as Richard Vosburgh theorizes in his article on the subject, HR will “develop the organizational capability to be a relevant and respected internal consulting organization focused on talent.”
A Brief History
The role of an HR department has been constantly evolving over the past 100+ years, beginning in the industrial revolution as a cold and calculating arm of ownership with a focus on coordinating and (at times) controlling workers who were largely seen as replaceable cogs. With the onset of WWI and the advent of a dedicated civil service, what constituted HR morphed into more of a referee and go-between concerned with managing relations with increasingly unionized workforces. After WWII came another leap forward with a new emphasis on “personnel administration” and a focus on efficiency.
The Civil Rights era brought yet another change for HR leadership – this one involving compliance, reporting, and the enforcement of policies to protect minorities and women in the workplace. Throughout the 1980s, the idea of “human relations” gained a foothold and attention was centered on a fast-changing world with various motivation and management theories being tested and proven or disproven. The current occupational environment sees HR in a state of flux with competing paths for the profession that can be summed up as art vs. science, enforcement vs. advocacy, boardroom vs. department influence, and transactional vs. transformational in scope.
Art vs. Science
There continues to be a great deal of variation within the HR field depending upon the type of business or company an HR department resides within. This creates a feeling that there is currently more “art” than “science” to HR management and the occupation in general does not have the same foundation on legally mandated processes as an accounting department might. This is due to inconsistency in the level of dedication a company or HR leader has to compliance. There are plenty of regulations that guide HR personnel (EEOC, ADA, federal healthcare regulations, and anti-discrimination laws as well as state and local requirements); the only difference is the commitment to enforcement and adherence that exists within departments and enterprises. For this reason, as Vosburgh points out, “there continues to be more ‘art’ than ‘science’ and much greater variability in the quality and completeness of how the work is defined and delivered.”
Policy Enforcer vs. Personnel Advocate
Putting policies into action and ensuring employees adhere to those policies is a key component of HR’s mandate within an organization; however, being the “rules police” is not all an HR department does. This duty may be a larger or smaller part of an HR group’s responsibilities depending upon their specific industry, but all must be concerned with compliance to a certain degree. If you were to believe pop culture references regarding HR representatives, you would think they were nothing but grown-up hall monitors who abuse their power, look to “bust” even the smallest infraction, and make it their goal to stifle creativity and free expression within the office by blindly enforcing a set of rules without context or common sense.
This is far from the case, as many HR professionals will tell you, and it is directly at odds with another primary responsibility of HR departments: to advocate on behalf of an enterprise’s workforce. Nowadays, the best HR representatives unabashedly serve the staff of their company or area of responsibility as well as the business itself because they are acutely aware that their core role is to attract and retain the talent that makes that company successful. This focus on enhancing staffing and talent management, maintaining positive personnel relations, creating a beneficial company culture, and developing top-performing employees and leaders, while a rather recent occurrence, has been gathering steam for a number of years. So while policy enforcement will always be an aspect of HR’s responsibilities, it becomes easier for rules to be applied if the relationship between the workforce and HR department is a constructive one to begin with.
Influence – Boardroom vs. Department
It is an unfortunate truth that HR’s seat at the boardroom table has not been fully accepted by all organizations. A 2003 survey by CFO Research Services found that the number of HR heads who reported directly to the CEO amounted to approximately 52%. 10 years later that number had grown to 55.1%, which is simply not a whole lot of progress. Part of this may lie in the fact that many business leaders don’t have a lot of faith in HR as a reliable business partner. In “Gaining Their Trust,” by Andrew McIlvaine, the author interviewed Scott Olsen, US leader of PwC’s HR services practice:
“We do an annual CEO survey, and our latest one finds that 34 percent of CEOs believe HR is well prepared to capitalize on transformational trends” Olsen said. “That’s a pretty weak endorsement.”
Weak indeed. It’s no wonder, then, that you have people like Ram Charan who recently floated the idea of destroying HR as we know it. He argued that HR groups should be split in half, with one section focused on transactional processes such as payroll and benefits administration while the other component would be staffed not by HR professionals but by employees whose expertise lies in operations. This second unit would be focused on improving the organization’s talent capabilities and planning for the future. Take a guess which faction would report to, and work directly with, the CEO and which would be reporting to someone else on the senior leadership team.
Until members of HR departments across the country can prove to their executives that they are worthy of a seat at the boardroom table, we will continue to have this gray area in which HR exists somewhere between the C-suite and the department level. This will severely hamper HR’s ability to grow past the transactional responsibilities it has held for so long and graduate to the transformational work many HR leaders aspire to, as we will see in the next section.
Scope – Transactional vs. Transformational
The clash between transactional and transformational duties is the key conflict that drives the current stage of HR’s evolution. Forward-thinking HR leaders are embracing the outsourcing of their transactional responsibilities so that they will have more time for the transformational work that will be the future of the department. Conversely, those professionals that fear the removal of such tasks from their area of responsibility aren’t seeing the big picture. It’s impossible for a department to become the “internal consulting organization” Vosburgh references if a majority of time is spent processing payroll, wrangling with insurance providers, and managing HRIS applications.
The ultimate goal for HR departments at this point is to achieve status as a fully vested member of every company’s executive team, a true business partner and change agent focused on high-level strategic planning, organizational design, talent and performance management, staff training, and leadership development. When that happens, the days of rank and file employees complaining about the incompetence of HR personnel will be a thing of the past and the department will no longer find itself the butt of jokes in Dilbert cartoons or episodes of office sitcoms.
Richard M. Vosburgh – The Evolution of HR: Developing HR as an Internal Consulting Organization
Liz Ryan – Why HR Gets No Respect
Andrew R. McIlvaine – Gaining Their Trust