Career Advice, Watercooler

The Downfall of HR; Can HR Be Saved?

I’ve been a Human Resources person since Cyndi Lauper ruled the airwaves, when HR was just another department. Back then, HR people complained about being assigned to menial things like toting the watermelons to the company picnic. HR folks were the Party People. HR types would get together and groan about all the party planning we had to do. That was about the worst thing we had to worry about in those days.

We didn’t realize that we’d be looking back, twenty-five years later, and calling the early 1980s the Good Old Days for HR.

Now HR people are besieged. They are embattled. Employees hate them, management hates them, and jobseekers hate them most of all. It’s no fun being an HR person with many, many employers today. HR people are the bad guys. They make the rules and enforce them, they’re forced to take away perks and benefits and they lay people off on a regular basis. HR people still talk about Engaging Employees with the Mission, creating cultural Pixie Dust, and making their organizations Employers of Choice, but they don’t say it with as much force as they used to. If they did, their co-workers would laugh out loud or suck their teeth in disgust.

So what went wrong with HR?

Here’s my take. CEOs loved the rhetoric but they pooh-poohed the substance of what their HR leaders had to say. “Employees are our greatest asset” is much more comfortable as a slogan on the wall than it is as an operating principle.

The HR people I know hated outsourcing function after function, cutting salaries and benefits, tossing out skilled workers to make room for temps and newbies, and generally making terms like Employer of Choice and Great Corporate Culture in-house jokes.  They hated to become the Policy Police, too. They would much rather have spent their working hours creating change in their organizations, helping empowered employees innovate, collaborate and break down barriers. Those are the fun parts of HR, and the parts where HR people can change organizations for the better. I’m not talking about chair massages and lunchtime yoga classes (not that there’s anything wrong with those things). I’m talking about shifting organizations so that they can compete, by attracting and keeping the most talented people in their industries, opening channels for communication, and then stepping aside and letting those talented people move mountains.

One former HR VP friend of mine launched a recruiting firm when the air went out of the corporate-HR tires. “I got tired of explaining to my leadership team that people require at least as much care as photocopiers,” he said. Another former HR exec bought a franchise, and one more became an executive coach. “I can coach one executive at a time to believe in his people,” she said. “As an in-house HR leader, I felt like the guy pushing a rock up a hill, day after day.”

When fear rules the workplace, only toadies thrive, and there are plenty of those in the HR function. Their large numbers make it that much harder for those talented and dedicated HR leaders looking to build great organizations. When a company is comfortable with an HR chief who’s happy reviewing dental-plan enrollments and administering Forced Ranking systems, an HR change agent isn’t welcome.

After all, fear-based management has its advantages. It’s expedient. It doesn’t require a CEO to look in the mirror, or to take responsibility for his or her own hiring and leadership decisions. An HR chief who keeps silent about the emperor’s new clothes doesn’t need to worry too much about job security.

Occasionally a management team decides that it’s time to take employee concerns seriously, and a proactive and strategic new HR leader is sought. Six or twelve months later, you can spot the burnt-out change agent by the arrows in his back (or hers). Out s/he goes, and life returns to bureaucratic normal.

I look forward to the economic uptick that will lower unemployment and remind CEOs why they ever hired forward-looking HR people.  I can’t wait for the day when employers are fighting over talent, when sharp and human-focused HR leaders don’t despair for their profession. I’m eager to hear how innovative HR managers will spur collaboration, non-linear thinking and team-and-individual greatness in their shops.

That day can’t come soon enough! I just hope it comes soon enough for the exhausted employees who’ve had their fill of the can’t-help-you, fill-out-this-form, sorry-that’s-not-our-policy HR culture so much in evidence today.