Is HR In Trouble? What We Can Do


April 17, 2011

There is one blog I make sure I don’t miss reading.  It’s Jason Lauritsen’s blog Transforming Business Through Talent. He used to call it Practicing HR which does resonate with me since working in human resources is certainly an art to be practiced and not a science.  Why do I listen to Jason?  Jason is the VP of HR at Union Bank and Trust, so he has the credibility to bring his expert opinion to us so that we can learn to be better leaders ourselves.

Jason just wrote a great article called HR Is In Trouble. He wrote it as a way to prepare for a session he’s co-leading with Steve Browne at the upcoming HRevolution.  I encourage you to read the full article.   Jason says that HR has work to do in order to move the organization down the path.  He starts with the following mission statement:

HR exists to try to compensate for and minimize the effect of poor management and a lack of organizational leadership.

This statement touched a nerve in me and my comment on his blog turned quite long so I’ll share it here.

Jason, I am trying to wrap my mind around what you claim our mission statement should be. You say it’s to, “try to compensate for and minimize the effect of poor management and a lack of organizational leadership.”  While that is certainly one goal that can support the overall role and mission of HR, it is not our mission. I believe the reason that HR exists is something like this:

HR exists to provide expertise in hiring, coaching, and advising leadership in managing the people aspect of the business. We also provide the compliance aspects related to people.

Your idea is certainly what reality is for many of us. I do spend a great deal of time trying to compensate for the skills that managers do not have mastered as it relates to people. This is a way that HR minimizes the effect of poor leadership. However, we do have to accept that a major part of the HR role is to ensure that employees are paid properly, documented properly, administered benefits of all kinds, and that we follow the laws related to employees.

It’s not glamorous work. The problem I see, and I include myself in this, is that once we do those compliance pieces for years we want to do glamorous work. So, we set out to create it. We start morphing our work into a hybrid of HR/marketing/financial/communications and that is ok. We just can’t forget that part of the sole purpose of HR has to remain the compliance piece.

HR cannot change organizations on our own. So, what CAN we do?

  • Get more honest. We have to be able to tell leaders straight up when they are deficient in managing their people.
  • We have to have the confidence in our expertise and tell leaders how we can help them improve on their leadership capabilities.
  • We need to OWN the compliance piece proudly. WE need to be BOLD here. The most senior leadership needs to hear us say, “We have the compliance piece all tied up with a ribbon. We’re experiencing 100% accuracy in processing and tracking information.” Since we’re not there yet, it’s hard to be seen as credible in other areas we want to play in.
  • We need to manage our HR departments better. Look around. We have the same people issues that other departments have. Cut loose the poor performers, create a vision that directly leads to success and then execute.

What do you think?  What can we do in order to demonstrate that HR is not in trouble?  Share your ideas on Jason’s blog or here in the comments.


    • Marketing exists to compensate and minimize the effect of managements inability to sell product.

      Finance exists to compensate and minimize the effect of managements inability to count money.

      IT exists to compensate and minimize the effect of managements inability to implement appropriate networks and IT infrastructure.

      Where do you stop?

      Teachers exist because of the inability of parents to educate their children properly?

      Nurses and Doctors exist because of humans inability to treat illness and disease?

      I guess the question is where you think responsibility should lie? Should leaders and managers be omnipotent?

      I’m with you on this one Trish. My leaders and managers CAN manage people, as they can sell and they can understand a P&L, but often they benefit from talking things through, getting another viewpoint from an expert.

      In that HR is no different to any other profession, in my humble opinion.

    • Please pardon the observations of an old 1970s-era HR Director. Perhaps they will provide some historical perspective.

      1. We were having this same debate then, I am interested to see that 40 yrs later, it’s still going on.

      2. We drew a clear distinction between HR and Personnel Administration. The former was focused on organization development, management development, compensation system development, and the like, while the latter handled salary admin, benefits, employee information, compliance, etc. I gather from your remarks that it is now all rolled in under the HR banner.

      That’s probably a good thing, but I think that old distinction made it clear for HR pros that their first priority was to bring about change. We were very engaged in working with line managers to become more self-sufficient managers of their human resources, to change their perception that they could just hand off the people side of their operations to the HR department.

      Some of us fantasized that in some far off, ideal world, there would be no need for us to exist, because every manager would be an “HR Manager.” Of course we were not so naive as to believe that would ever happen, but it was a useful aspiration.

      3. I agree with Jason’s statement that “HR exists to try to compensate for and minimize the effect of poor management and a lack of organizational leadership.”

      It has always been, and shall forever be, thus. It is regrettable and a bit depressing, but in no way does it diminish the HR profession as a noble calling. In fact, it provides the raison d’etre.

    • I love this debate. It would be evading a clear choice to suggest that these opinions are not polar opposites, but it is hard to generalize a best answer.

      In general I disagree that HR exists because of poor management and lack of leadership, but how long has the debate raged that HR should have a seat at the table? Brilliant business managers and strong leaders recognize that they do not have expertise in all areas that contribute to the bottom line. Those who believe that the human resource requires special expertise will support an HR organization that will have meaning and heed their professional advice. Those who do not will ignore that need entirely or surround themselves with weak HR leaders that parrot their ideas rather than accept the challenge to make things right.

      I see a common thread in this logic. In both cases the HR organization exists because company management decrees it…or allows it. Except in the rare case of a company whose product is HR services, HR ambassadors for the cause must constantly and consistently prove the value added by their existence. Competence is key. Current practices in tough economic times indicate a trend toward outsourcing any function that doesn’t pay its own way or contribute to the bottom line. The purpose or function of HR is irrelevant if it can be dismissed by executive whim.

    • If I hear one more time “HR wants, need to be invited, etc. a seat at the table” I will throw up.
      Labor costs make up from 40% of total company costs (manufacturing) to 70% ( for professional services/knowledge workers” companies. It is a huge cost for the company and it is only superficially discussed at company business strategy meetings.

      The fact that “seat at the table” has been discussed for 40 years is that HR talks too much to HR and spends to much time talking to HR consultants who tout the “latest” answer to all HR’s problems. HR needs to talk to business/C levels in their company about COMPANY/BUSINESS needs.

      I have a quote that I firmly believe in:

      “The truth? Most human-resources managers aren’t particularly interested in, or equipped for, doing business. And in a business, that’s sort of a problem. As guardians of a company’s talent, HR has to understand how people serve corporate objectives. Instead, “business acumen is the single biggest factor that HR professionals in the U.S. lack today,” says Anthony J. Rucci, executive vice president at Cardinal Health Inc., a big health-care supply distributor.”

      HR needs to understand the company’s business strategy and then everything they do in HR should flow from there. They need not go into a corner and create HR vision/strategy in a vacuum.

      Some consultants privately say that if HR doesn’t “get it” they will be outsourced and the strategic info that C levels really need will be handed to the CFO or set up in a separate organization that has nothing to do with HR.

      Sorry for the rant.

    Comments are closed.

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    About Trish

    A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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