Time for HR to reflect on its image problem

by 28 Nov 2006

Take a long, hard look at yourself. According to exclusive research from the UKs Personnel Today, HR and its stakeholders have very different ideas about the value HR adds to the business. Rob Willock reports

Have you ever subjected yourself to, or taken part in, a 360-degree appraisal? One sales manager notoriously did, and received back the anonymous comment from one of his direct reports: “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire”.

It was not immediately clear what positive actions the sales manager could take from this feedback but, thankfully, most insights from 360-degree research offer more useful pointers to help participants to improve their performance and their reputation.

With this in mind, Personnel Today decided to give the HR profession, as a whole, a 360-degree appraisal. First, in our 360-degree appraisal of HR survey, we asked our readers to rate the knowledge, performance, priorities and effectiveness of themselves and their HR department.

Then we went into the workplace and questioned directors, heads of department and line managers across eight different vertical sectors, including construction, transport, IT and social care, about their views on HR. The results make for compelling reading.

This research constitutes real feedback from real HR stakeholders, with 835 HR professionals and 1,958 directors and managers from other parts of business responding. Whatever you, as an HR professional, think of the value and contribution of HR, it is secondary to what our respondents believe. Their perceptions, whether justified or not, form the most important half of the reality of your relationships with them.

As with most 360-degree appraisals, many of the results make for uncomfortable reading. In almost every area, line managers are more critical of HR than HR people are themselves prepared to be. Respondents were asked to score on a scale of one to five, where five is for ‘extremely’, 4 for ‘very’, 3 for ‘fairly’, 2 for ‘not very’, and 1 for ‘not at all’. Any difference in score between HR professionals and managers of 0.5 or more identified a clear difference of opinion.

How effective is HR?

We asked: “Overall, how effective is your HR department?”

HR professionals gave themselves a mean score of 3.65 – placing them closest to very effective. Some 59 per cent of them rated their HR department as extremely or very effective. Managers reported a score of 2.71, which is some way below fairly effective. Only 20 per cent said their HR department was extremely or very effective. Another 43 per cent said it was not very or not at all effective.

This leads us to two possible conclusions: either HR is not as effective as it believes it is, or it is not doing a good job at promoting its achievements to the rest of the organisation. To say “operational staff just don’t realise or don’t understand all the vital things we do” is an excuse. If HR wants to be valued and respected, it must promote its good work.

Does HR create more work for managers?

We asked: “Does your HR department produce unnecessary ‘red tape’?”

Some 34 per cent of HR professionals admitted that it does. But 46 per cent of managers said they experienced unnecessary red tape from HR. Challenge the need for form-filling, for additional levels of authorisation at every stage. When making every choice think ‘help’ not ‘hinder’. How many of your processes exist simply because they do?

What is HR good/bad at?

We asked HR professionals and managers to rate HR on 13 disciplines that typically fall under HR’s remit.

HR rates itself as less than fairly good in two areas: employer branding and succession planning. Managers’ bottom two scores are for change management and succession planning. The latter averages little more than not very good.

It was not all bad news for HR, though. When respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed with a list of statements, managers rated HR more highly on some aspects of the job than HR professionals themselves. Against the statement, “The HR department produces too much paperwork”, HR scored itself 3.65 (tending towards agree slightly), while managers scored 3.22 (nearer neither agree nor disagree). And against the statement, “Managers within the company associate HR with bad news”, HR scored 3.28, while managers scored 3.08.

How is HR perceived?

We asked: “How well do you think your HR department is perceived in your organisation?”

HR professionals scored 3.38 and managers scored 2.62, proving there are some rose-tinted spectacles on the noses of many HR professionals. We also asked: “How approachable is your HR department?” HR scored itself a more than very approachable 4.29 while line managers reported 3.5 – midway between very and fairly approachable. Ask yourself: what are we doing to make ourselves accessible to staff? How visible are we? How secretive do we appear?

Do you offer value for money?

We asked: “Does your HR department offer good value for money?”

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and HR professionals would not suggest they are a waste of money. A healthy 80 per cent declared their HR department offered good value, and only 10 per cent said no. However, a shockingly low 31 per cent of managers said their HR department offered good value for money, and 48 per cent said it did not. If that view is shared by your chief executive or finance director, it may be worth considering how you pitch the work that HR does. However, a breakdown of this research reveals the more senior a manager is (both inside and outside HR), the more they value the HR function, so it seems HR has friends in high places.

Reflections on building credibility

“Credibility has to be earned. But it’s so simple: build a real partnership by listening and understanding what the business does and the challenges it has, then deliver tailored, practical, quality solutions on time, every time,” says Gill Hibberd, corporate director, Buckingham County Council. “This is what the business has to deliver to clients – if it doesn’t, it fails. The business expects the same from you.

“Understanding also means knowing what the business does for clients, so why not spend a little time with them on the frontline seeing how they work? This would improve your knowledge, build your network, demonstrate your commitment, and would be a great first step to real partnership. HR should also work with the business with confidence,” he says.

“HR serves business’s needs, but that doesn’t mean being treated like a servant. If you act as a servant you will be treated like one, and then you will lack real credibility.”

Richard Humphrey, HR director, L’Oréal UK, says: “HR can build credibility by focusing on business priorities, its own integration into the organisation, and ensuring it has the right balance of skills. We have a crucial role to play in offering sound, strategic advice for business decisions.

“HR directors must ensure that their department’s contribution is not purely focused on policy or administrative functions, but is also proactive in offering advice and opinions to help managers make the right decisions,” he says. “HR representation at every level – from headquarters through to small regional offices – is key to ensuring a two-way dialogue.”

Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com