The great HR identity crisis: multifaceted or terminally confused?

THE HR role is complex and multifaceted, but the quality of the gem depends on HR practitioners link the various facets together, writes Steve Rowe

The HR role is complex and multifaceted, but the quality of the gem depends on how HR practitioners link the various facets together, writes Steve Rowe

Picture this. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are standing over the latest grisly corpse pondering the cause of death:

Good grief Holmes, its yet another of those human resources fellows do you think that the villain who preyed upon this poor soul was also responsible for the other deaths?

My dear Watson you really can be incredibly dense sometimes. Surely you can see that these injuries were entirely self-inflicted.

Youre not seriously suggesting that these were suicides Holmes?

No Watson, this isnt a case of suicide or murder. These poor fools suffered from terminal confusion and quite frankly have only themselves to blame. Sadly Watson I think many more are destined to suffer the same fate before too long ultimately they may become extinct altogether.

How ghastly Holmes!

Some may disagree with you Watson

Whether or not the confusion in HR is terminal or not … it’s been an enduring feature of the profession for decades. Too many HR practitioners do themselves a huge disservice in not clearly comprehending and articulating their role for themselves, let alone for their stakeholders. For many there’s a genuine concern that, if put under too much scrutiny, HR will be found to be all smoke and mirrors and their very livelihood may be placed under threat. In such cases there’s a vested interest in not demystifying the HR muddle.

As we know, HR’s beginnings lay in the employee welfare models of the early 20th century when it was discovered that taking a benevolent interest in your workers correlated with higher productivity and, typically, higher long-term profitability.

In the early 21st century, HR professionals aspire to being ‘business aligned’ and ‘agents for change’. In the private sector at least, any reference to the HR practitioner as the guardian of employee welfare may well be met with averted eyes and an abrupt change of topic with as many testosterone-fuelled references to ‘bottom line’ or ‘value add’ as possible.

At first glance the historical and contemporary views of HR appear to be in conflict, but this is not the case. However, the confusion is a convenient construct for HR practitioners to hide behind.

When you ask HR folk how they originally got into the field they often reminisce with glassy eyes about ‘wanting to work with people’ and then quickly add, ‘but in a business environment’. Perhaps this means that they didn’t have the aptitude to be an accountant or go into IT, but didn’t fancy a social worker’s wages?

The more considered will tell you that they entered HR believing that ‘the development of human capital is the primary determinant of success or failure in business’ – or words to that effect. Although I believe this statement to be true, when I hear it (which is increasingly often) I can’t help but feel that I am conversing with a frustrated management consultant and that if I don’t quickly move to another topic, I will fall victim to an assault of butcher’s paper, fat pens and the dreaded two-by-two matrix.

A third category claim to have ‘fallen into HR’, presumably victims of the ‘it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it’ syndrome. Of course sometimes pressgang victims make a better job of things than willing volunteers, but experience tells me that the reverse is usually true.

The original drivers that lead somebody to start a career in HR can often cause what the psychologists would call, ‘cognitive dissonance’ later down the track when they experience a mismatch between personal and organisational values. This is when you see the HR folk turn in on themselves whispering bitterly about how ‘the CEO just doesn’t get it’ or ‘the training budget is always the first to be cut’ or ‘the board just want to see hard numbers and don’t give a fig for culture’.

This either prompts the purchase of a quantity of the aforementioned butcher’s paper and fat pens (because consultants get the ear of management and get paid better) or a grudging decision to carry on regardless in the face of adversity for the greater good. To my mind, this is where many HR practitioners miss the point entirely.

The fact is that HR is, and always will be, a lonely place to be. And the further up the ladder you get, the lonelier it becomes. Get over it or go re-train to become an accountant!

The HR role is complex and multifaceted, but the quality of the gem depends on how you, the HR practitioner, link the various facets together. The myriad roles of HR can and should include ‘value-adding change agent’ and ‘worker’s champion’ but also incorporate ‘expert administrator’, ‘service provider’, ‘corporate conscience’, ‘business partner’ and even ‘garbo’ (because sometimes those dirty jobs just have to get done). The conflict or confusion between the roles is a self-created illusion. The fact is that there is a remarkable and enduring alignment between the interests of employees, managers, shareholders and, of course, those vital end-consumers who buy the products and services that your business has to offer.

But nobody ever said it was easy. Decisions have to be made, positions taken and occasionally principles compromised. The key is to engage in the game. It is better to break a few plates than not to spin them at all.

So this is a call to arms for the HR self-oppressed! Engage, contribute and prosper or remain hamstrung by the limits of your own imagination. As Hamlet said “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so!”

Good grief Holmes, this one appears to be breathing I think he may pull through.

Elementary my dear Watson. Complex beasts these HR folk. They can be surprisingly resilient sometimes.

Steve Rowe is general manager, human resources development, Challenger Financial Services Group

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