Why We (Shouldn't) Hate HR

Fast Company #97I spend much of my time giving talks to companies, trade associations, and professional societies from the worlds of marketing, IT, and human resources. And whenever I talk to an HR audience, there's someone after the event who wants to talk to me about an article we published in Fast Company way back in 2005. The essay, designed to stir up discussion, was titled "Why We Hate HR"—and it's left a mark. To this day, human-resource executives want to praise it, denounce it, dissect it, and debate it. I guess that's a sign the essay succeeded—and that many HR leaders remain frustrated with their roles inside their organizations and determined to do more.

So here's a proposal. As this provocative essay approaches its fifth anniversary, perhaps it's time to change the debate. The real problem, I'd submit, isn't that HR executives aren't financially savvy enough, or too focused on delivering programs rather than enhancing value, or unable to conduct themselves as the equals of the traditional power players in the organization—all points the original essay makes. The real problem is that too many organizations aren't as demanding, as rigorous, as creative about the human element in business as they are about finance, marketing, and R&D. If companies and their CEOs aren't serious about the people side of their organizations, how can we expect HR people in those organizations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?

This is a lesson I've learned and relearned from all kinds of companies that are winning big in tough economic circumstances. You can't be special, distinctive, compelling in the marketplace unless you create something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. Your strategy is your culture; your culture is your strategy. The most successful companies I know understand that the most important business decisions they make are not what new products they launch or what new markets they enter. What really matters is what new people they let in the door—who they hire—and how they create an environment in which everyone in the organization can share ideas, solve problems, and develop a psychological and emotional stake in the enterprise.

For example, business strategists rave about Cirque du Soleil and the ideas it has embraced to reinvent the circus and invent a whole new genre of entertainment. But Cirque is every bit as serious about the performers themselves as it is about the logic of the performances. It has developed the most creative and rigorous methodology for recruiting and evaluating new talent I have ever seen, and it is obsessed with making sure its talented recruits understand and embrace how Cirque works. It makes an explicit connection between the people it attracts and the product it delivers, between how it does business and who it invites to become part of the business.

Lyn Heward, Cirque's director of creation, explains it this way: "There are no stars here. The show is the star. That's why our evaluation goes deeper than a talent evaluation. We need to learn about the person behind the artist. How many somersaults you can do is not as important as an open-mindedness to our process, the tough-mindedness to get through the job, and what we call a 'fire to perform.' That's what we're looking for."

Or think about Pixar, the Hollywood hit factory. A few years back, when I first got to know Pixar, what struck me was not the power of its animation technology but the power of its culture—specifically, the mission-critical role played by Pixar University, a one-of-a-kind training complex in which all of the company's people, from security guards to programmers to finance executives, rub shoulders and learn together.

"Most companies eventually come around to the idea that people are the most important thing," says Randy Nelson, who spent 12 years as dean of Pixar University. "It's fine to have wildly talented individuals. But the real trick, the higher degree of difficulty, is to get wildly talented people to make productive partnerships." At Pixar, he concludes, the most urgent question is, "How do you do art as a team sport?"

Or consider the experience of DaVita, the kidney-dialysis provider. This company's remarkable business turnaround was driven almost exclusively by a transformation of how it approached the people side of the business. Under CEO Kent Thiry, one of the core themes of the culture is that "Everything Speaks." That is, even the most trivial issues—what its treatment facilities look like, how colleagues communicate with one another, small gestures of individual kindness or selfishness—send huge signals about the health of the entire organization. Another theme is "No Brag, Just Fact." Thiry and his colleagues know that plenty of companies with toxic workplaces talk a good game about the level of commitment among their people. But the only thing that matters at DaVita are the day-to-day realities of the quality of care it is delivering and the quality of the culture that delivers the care.

"Unless you figure out, together, how people should behave at work, and create the kind of language and rituals and systems you need to reinforce that behavior, you never get there," Thiry told me. "At DaVita, we do a lot to remind people that despite the crushing realities of their day-to-day professional lives, we want to treat each other differently. We want to care about each other with the same intensity that we care for our patients. "

So the next time you, as an employee, get frustrated with HR, or you, as an HR executive, get frustrated with your role inside the company, stop sweating the small stuff and start asking the big questions: Why would great people want to be part of your organization in the first place? Do you know a great person when you see one? Are you great at teaching people how your organizations works and wins? Does your organization work as distinctively as it competes?

If your company and its leaders can answer those questions, then you'll have an organization that is capable of winning—and an HR organization that everyone can love.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.

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4 Comments

  • Ron Ulrich


    I like the piece but it would also help readers in leadership to have a map to help them move (even) incremenatally toward improving outcomes..

    In most companies, HR is run by well intentioned individuals but many who came up the ranks administering benefits and payroll.

    The vast majority of "HR Professionals" are clerical workers by nature. They do not understand how closely linked recruitment, employee development and retention are to the brand and health of the company..

    Whether they "get it" or not, in most companies, HR does not directly feel the pain (financial or otherwise) when key employee's leave, hiring cycles are drawn out or fail altogether..They also have little if any tangible incentive to improve outcomes..

    If in product development marketing and sales, anyone consistently fail to deliver, leadership notices and one is let go.

    Benefits and payroll aside, if in HR, if the recruitment methodology is sub standard and it takes months to fill a requirement (or it's not filled at all), HR may have an upset hiring manager but HR's job is almost more secure no matter how poorly it performs..

    In most companies, executive leadership may have some understanding of the total cost per hire as related to them by HR.

    The key metric that is missing in the decision making process at the leardership level is how extended or failed recruitment/hiring cycles will increase top line expenses to internal initiatives due to missed revenue opportunities, milestones, deadlines or the need to hire high cost contract labor to achieve them..

    HR in most companies has a one size fits all process, no matter what the cost to the company or project initiative they serve.

    Executive leadership ignores or is unaware of the opportunity for significant cost savings through transformation.

    Consistantly attracting and retaining top level talent requires consistant planning and careful, dedicated execution of the plan.

    We've been very fortunate to be able to work with clients that have and enjoy the benfits a well defined plan that extends their brand and to help clients craft them.

    http://bit.ly/ctrHr7

  • Johan Reinhoudt

    Thank you for sharing your valuable insights in this article. 
Your article reminded me of a discussion of some time ago about the value of HR and the role of a CEO in effectively “leading”, not “delegating” HR. This led to the development of a two-piece article “Leader or Lagger? The Hidden Power of HR” [Part 1] http://tw0.us/6U6 and [Part 2] http://tw0.us/6U5.

    To me it all starts with a CEO’s leadership - including leading HR.
    I agree with your assessment we shouldn’t hate HR, nor any one for that matter. Indeed, “If companies and their CEOs aren't serious about the people side of their organizations, how can we expect HR people in those organizations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?” they will continue to find themselves in chasing this ‘re-invention conundrum’, constantly looking for exterior ways to solve their business problems beyond their own resources. 
I am voting for an increasing number of governing boards, executives and HR leaders to 'step up to the plate' and avoid some incremental changes, leading to a true ‘revolution’ in how this vital HR work is being valued, planned and executed in their respective organizations.

    What will be next? Indeed, for leaders and organizations to start liking HR, principally for the “business value” they can represent. When CEOs stop ‘delegating’ all of HR to HR and start viewing HR as another strategic piece in their portfolio and as part of their all encompassing accountability in leading the organization, - then and only then we’ll start seeing true enterprise changes. I sincerely hope this will become the case - every one will benefit. http://www.cplsconsulting.com