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Put the Humanity Back in Human Resources

Blowing up HR is the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Poor human resources. Every 10 years or so, someone calls for it to be destroyed. Obliterated. Or at least drastically reinvented. In the most recent salvo, some big-name thinkers weighed in by way of a special section in Harvard Business Review. The cover headline? “It’s Time to Blow Up HR and Build Something New.” Unfortunately, the challenges and solutions the authors presented haven’t evolved much since Fast Company ran a story entitled “Why We Hate HR” back in 2005: rewrite the contract with the CEO, discover how to add value, become a strategic partner, align people with capital and business priorities more effectively, and so on.

Of course, the issues are real: HR is saddled with a lot of compliance responsibilities, many of which are not of its own making or liking. It can be process-driven and, often, neither employees nor managers find the processes particularly useful. HR is given problems it alone cannot fix, such as improving an organization’s culture or softening a CEO with low emotional intelligence. (Please let me never see a senior executive scooping ice cream for the “little people” ever again. Those who are good with people don’t need to do it and those who are not simply look silly and uncomfortable.) Worst of all, HR executives can be given the task of maintaining the façade of a benevolent organization when the power rests with people who are focused on cutting costs and minimizing head count in order to boost short-term results.

Given those circumstances, HR doesn’t stand a chance. But obliterating it won’t work either — some other function will inevitably get stuck with the dirty work. It is not about the what; it is about the why.

If you want to look at why workers are disengaged, why managers loathe the cheery emails about performance management, and why HR so often seems to be floundering, look at how dehumanized so many organizations have become over the years. Layoffs — or “reductions in force,” “rightsizing,” or any of a dozen other obfuscations — are a case in point. I heard from a friend at one firm where everyone at a certain level was told to sit in their offices at a designated time. If they didn’t get a call within 90 minutes, they still had a job. At another, no one was allowed to know who had been let go in order to supposedly protect the privacy of those affected. A friend described the discomfort and organizational dysfunction that followed: “When you would call someone and not get an answer, you didn’t know if the person was out at a meeting or simply out, period. We had to stumble in the dark.” Who designed these policies — Kafka or Stalin? Does anyone assess the long-term damage to the people and organization that remain?

I am not an HR expert, though I did get to know quite a number of HR executives when I helped produce some programs in conjunction with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM, formerly the Society of Human Resource Executives). They were generally smart, caring, and enthusiastic people, but they were constantly in pursuit of an elusive “seat at the table” and perceived influence parity with other senior executives.

Also, I have been an employee and supervisor in organizations large and small. I have seen the problem. And as I see it, the solution is deceptively simple, far more radical than organizational detonation, and far more sensible: Make HR the chief advocates of humanity in our organizations. Let’s put the human back in human resources.

What would that look like? Compliance and other routinized tasks would be moved to a department specializing in such things. Instead, HR would become:

Fierce proponents of the value of the human spirit. Motivation, engagement, and the rest arise when the work helps people find meaning. Individuals feel able to bring their whole selves into the organization and go home each day enriched by the contributions they make. If that describes your workplace, you will attract and retain top talent, and they will deliver for you. As educators, internal consultants, and coaches, HR can help the organization understand and demonstrate how treating individuals as human beings, not as FTEs or other acronyms for units of production, can create significant tangible and intangible value for the company, customers, and shareholders — as well as for the associates themselves.                                                                            

Tireless champions of trust and transparency. HR must be trusted by the top team and the rank-and-file. It cannot be seen as a smiley-faced front for a cold corporate machine. This is a demanding role that requires holding the interests of a variety of stakeholders simultaneously. It requires metrics and rewards tied to levels of trust in HR and in the larger organization. Much like ombudsmen at news organizations, it would have an explicit duty (and protections where necessary) to hold the firm to its stated standards and values — speaking truth to power whenever necessary, and demonstrating and fostering social safety at every level.

Fearless eradicators of stupid rules and low-value processes. After establishing enterprise-wide trust and a focus on work as a source of meaning, HR professionals can lead the drive to rid the business of the practices that deflate enthusiasm, waste time, and breed organizational sclerosis. You can’t impose this from the top down without stimulating defensive, fear-based responses; however, the conditions can be created in which people feel safe, motivated, and empowered to consistently add value and improve how the work is accomplished. It is what advocates of lean thinking have been arguing for some time. HR professionals with expertise in psychology, anthropology, and other fields that explore human behavior can be powerful change catalysts.

This framework isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Compelling arguments have been made that companies are evolving toward “self-organization, wholeness, and a greater sense of purpose” — in short, the need is for greater humanity, not closer alignment with soulless management models. Companies as varied as Netflix, Herman Miller, Google, and O’Reilly Media have discovered that human-centric management principles make bottom-line sense. There’s a constant drumbeat for HR to learn more about the business; equally important is charging HR with teaching the business more about people.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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