The Wall Street Journal (and others) are wrong about human resources

original_dustpan-and-brushEverybody ready? Great. Then it’s time for another round of HR bashing and a tipping point for more existential navel-gazing for everyone’s favourite corporate pantomime villain – the human resources department. Or is it? You can choose your own particular moment at which the crowd boos and hisses at the bad guys in HR, but hot on the heels of the Lucy Adams debacle at the Beeb and a report that finds human resources to be the profession with the most “can’t do” attitude comes an article from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal that looks at what it means to do away with your HR function altogether. The restrictions of the word count being what they are, coupled with the way sweeping generalisations provide the quickest way to guarantee a bump in readership, the WSJ takes the broadest of brushes to add another coat to the painting of HR as an ancillary function that, far from oiling the wheels of commerce, is often a distraction at best and, at worst, an active obstruction.

My network consists of a large number of people from the world of HR, L&D and OD and from the other workplace management functions and, in my former incarnations, I have had occasion to work closely with HR professionals on matters both positive and negative, not least of which was my own redundancy in 2012. What pretty much all of the commentary about HR has in common (along with a great deal that is written about any particular slice of human life) is a tendency to refer to it in the abstract.

The media refer to “banks” or “business” as if they were some kind of sentient organism responsible for many of our woes. Banks don’t award the huge bonuses that so many of us feel are undeserved. People do. Businesses don’t give poor customer service. People do. Businesses don’t want to “attract and retain the best people”. People do. Schools don’t educate our kids. People do. The NHS doesn’t look after our poorly relatives. People do. Businesses don’t have culture. People do. Human beings carry out the messy and thankless task of dealing with all of the other human beings in your business so you don’t have to. Whether outsourced or in-house they handle the fallout from all of the stuff people do whilst at work and are used as a convenient fall guy when the shit hits the fan and sticks.

People in HR get a lot of stick from others who, frankly, wouldn’t be seen dead within 100 metres of an employment tribunal unless they were the subject of one. The fact that people in HR have become associated with policy and the automation of the transactional side of organisational life has not helped those people one bit. But people are messy, complicated, contradictory, contrary and confusing.  Truly talented and progressive thinkers and doers work in HR. But they are people and people are fallible. They cling to orthodoxy and policy through fear. It’s you they are afraid of. Your collective inertia. Your own fearfulness. Of the better way of doing things. The fear that simplicity cannot be a possibility because, surely, business is complicated.

Well, we’ve just had a 7 year lesson in where business complexity gets us and the people who run the biggest businesses, the ones that make the best case studies for leadership keynotes,  have been found wanting. The press and politicians have been through the wringer.

Whether they are formally identified as HR or otherwise, somebody has to deal with all your crap when you haven’t got the time or the balls to deal with it yourself. Up until now, it’s been called HR. Label it how you will but, unless you’re going to start taking responsibility for all the various foibles of your workforce in action the same gutsy folk will step up to the plate and make you look like you know what you’re doing. It used to be said that behind every great man is a great woman. In business, behind every great man or woman is a human being leaning in to pick up the pieces.


Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog