Why We Hate HR

In a knowledge economy, companies with the best talent win. And finding, nurturing, and developing that talent should be one of the most important tasks in a corporation. So why does human resources do such a bad job -- and how can we fix it?

Well, here's a rockin' party: a gathering of several hundred midlevel human-resources executives in Las Vegas. (Yo, Wayne Newton! How's the 401(k)?) They are here, ensconced for two days at faux-glam Caesars Palace, to confer on "strategic HR leadership," a conceit that sounds, to the lay observer, at once frightening and self-contradictory. If not plain laughable.

Because let's face it: After close to 20 years of hopeful rhetoric about becoming "strategic partners" with a "seat at the table" where the business decisions that matter are made, most human-resources professionals aren't nearly there. They have no seat, and the table is locked inside a conference room to which they have no key. HR people are, for most practical purposes, neither strategic nor leaders.

I don't care for Las Vegas. And if it's not clear already, I don't like HR, either, which is why I'm here. The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil -- and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change. HR is the corporate function with the greatest potential -- the key driver, in theory, of business performance -- and also the one that most consistently underdelivers. And I am here to find out why.

Why are annual performance appraisals so time-consuming -- and so routinely useless? Why is HR so often a henchman for the chief financial officer, finding ever-more ingenious ways to cut benefits and hack at payroll? Why do its communications -- when we can understand them at all -- so often flout reality? Why are so many people processes duplicative and wasteful, creating a forest of paperwork for every minor transaction? And why does HR insist on sameness as a proxy for equity?

It's no wonder that we hate HR. In a 2005 survey by consultancy Hay Group, just 40% of employees commended their companies for retaining high-quality workers. Just 41% agreed that performance evaluations were fair. Only 58% rated their job training as favorable. Most said they had few opportunities for advancement -- and that they didn't know, in any case, what was required to move up. Most telling, only about half of workers below the manager level believed their companies took a genuine interest in their well-being.

None of this is explained immediately in Vegas. These HR folks, from employers across the nation, are neither evil courtiers nor thoughtless automatons. They are mostly smart, engaging people who seem genuinely interested in doing their jobs better. They speak convincingly about employee development and cultural transformation. And, over drinks, they spin some pretty funny yarns of employee weirdness. (Like the one about the guy who threatened to sue his wife's company for "enabling" her affair with a coworker. Then there was the mentally disabled worker and the hooker -- well, no, never mind. . . .)

But then the facade cracks. It happens at an afternoon presentation called "From Technicians to Consultants: How to Transform Your HR Staff into Strategic Business Partners." The speaker, Julie Muckler, is senior vice president of human resources at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. She is an enthusiastic woman with a broad smile and 20 years of experience at companies such as Johnson & Johnson and General Tire. She has degrees in consumer economics and human resources and organizational development.

And I have no idea what she's talking about. There is mention of "internal action learning" and "being more planful in my approach." PowerPoint slides outline Wells Fargo Home Mortgage's initiatives in performance management, organization design, and horizontal-solutions teams. Muckler describes leveraging internal resources and involving external resources -- and she leaves her audience dazed. That evening, even the human-resources pros confide they didn't understand much of it, either.

This, friends, is the trouble with HR. In a knowledge economy, companies that have the best talent win. We all know that. Human resources execs should be making the most of our, well, human resources -- finding the best hires, nurturing the stars, fostering a productive work environment -- just as IT runs the computers and finance minds the capital. HR should be joined to business strategy at the hip.

Instead, most HR organizations have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence. They are competent at the administrivia of pay, benefits, and retirement, but companies increasingly are farming those functions out to contractors who can handle such routine tasks at lower expense. What's left is the more important strategic role of raising the reputational and intellectual capital of the company -- but HR is, it turns out, uniquely unsuited for that.

Here's why.

1. HR people aren't the sharpest tacks in the box. We'll be blunt: If you are an ambitious young thing newly graduated from a top college or B-school with your eye on a rewarding career in business, your first instinct is not to join the human-resources dance. (At the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, which arguably boasts the nation's top faculty for organizational issues, just 1.2% of 2004 grads did so.) Says a management professor at one leading school: "The best and the brightest don't go into HR."

Who does? Intelligent people, sometimes -- but not businesspeople. "HR doesn't tend to hire a lot of independent thinkers or people who stand up as moral compasses," says Garold L. Markle, a longtime human-resources executive at Exxon and Shell Offshore who now runs his own consultancy. Some are exiles from the corporate mainstream: They've fared poorly in meatier roles -- but not poorly enough to be fired. For them, and for their employers, HR represents a relatively low-risk parking spot.

Others enter the field by choice and with the best of intentions, but for the wrong reasons. They like working with people, and they want to be helpful -- noble motives that thoroughly tick off some HR thinkers. "When people have come to me and said, 'I want to work with people,' I say, 'Good, go be a social worker,' " says Arnold Kanarick, who has headed human resources at the Limited and, until recently, at Bear Stearns. "HR isn't about being a do-gooder. It's about how do you get the best and brightest people and raise the value of the firm."

The really scary news is that the gulf between capabilities and job requirements appears to be widening. As business and legal demands on the function intensify, staffers' educational qualifications haven't kept pace. In fact, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a considerably smaller proportion of HR professionals today have some education beyond a bachelor's degree than in 1990.

And here's one more slice of telling SHRM data: When HR professionals were asked about the worth of various academic courses toward a "successful career in HR," 83% said that classes in interpersonal communications skills had "extremely high value." Employment law and business ethics followed, at 71% and 66%, respectively. Where was change management? At 35%. Strategic management? 32%. Finance? Um, that was just 2%.

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.

Rucci is consistently mentioned by academics, consultants, and other HR leaders as an executive who actually does know business. At Baxter International, he ran both HR and corporate strategy. Before that, at Sears, he led a study of results at 800 stores over five years to assess the connection between employee commitment, customer loyalty, and profitability.

As far as Rucci is concerned, there are three questions that any decent HR person in the world should be able to answer. First, who is your company's core customer? "Have you talked to one lately? Do you know what challenges they face?" Second, who is the competition? "What do they do well and not well?" And most important, who are we? "What is a realistic assessment of what we do well and not so well vis a vis the customer and the competition?"

Does your HR pro know the answers?

2. HR pursues efficiency in lieu of value. Why? Because it's easier -- and easier to measure. Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan, recalls meeting with the chairman and top HR people from a big bank. "The training person said that 80% of employees have done at least 40 hours in classes. The chairman said, 'Congratulations.' I said, 'You're talking about the activities you're doing. The question is, What are you delivering?' "

That sort of stuff drives Ulrich nuts. Over 20 years, he has become the HR trade's best-known guru (see "The Once and Future Consultant," page 48) and a leading proponent of the push to take on more-strategic roles within corporations. But human-resources managers, he acknowledges, typically undermine that effort by investing more importance in activities than in outcomes. "You're only effective if you add value," Ulrich says. "That means you're not measured by what you do but by what you deliver." By that, he refers not just to the value delivered to employees and line managers, but the benefits that accrue to investors and customers, as well.

So here's a true story: A talented young marketing exec accepts a job offer with Time Warner out of business school. She interviews for openings in several departments -- then is told by HR that only one is interested in her. In fact, she learns later, they all had been. She had been railroaded into the job, under the supervision of a widely reviled manager, because no one inside the company would take it.

You make the call: Did HR do its job? On the one hand, it filled the empty slot. "It did what was organizationally expedient," says the woman now. "Getting someone who wouldn't kick and scream about this role probably made sense to them. But I just felt angry." She left Time Warner after just a year. (A Time Warner spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.)

Part of the problem is that Time Warner's metrics likely will never catch the real cost of its HR department's action. Human resources can readily provide the number of people it hired, the percentage of performance evaluations completed, and the extent to which employees are satisfied or not with their benefits. But only rarely does it link any of those metrics to business performance.

John W. Boudreau, a professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations, likens the failing to shortcomings of the finance function before DuPont figured out how to calculate return on investment in 1912. In HR, he says, "we don't have anywhere near that kind of logical sophistication in the way of people or talent. So the decisions that get made about that resource are far less sophisticated, reliable, and consistent."

Cardinal Health's Rucci is trying to fix that. Cardinal regularly asks its employees 12 questions designed to measure engagement. Among them: Do they understand the company's strategy? Do they see the connection between that and their jobs? Are they proud to tell people where they work? Rucci correlates the results to those of a survey of 2,000 customers, as well as monthly sales data and brand-awareness scores.

"So I don't know if our HR processes are having an impact" per se, Rucci says. "But I know absolutely that employee-engagement scores have an impact on our business," accounting for between 1% and 10% of earnings, depending on the business and the employee's role. "Cardinal may not anytime soon get invited by the Conference Board to explain our world-class best practices in any area of HR -- and I couldn't care less. The real question is, Is the business effective and successful?"

3. HR isn't working for you. Want to know why you go through that asinine performance appraisal every year, really? Markle, who admits to having administered countless numbers of them over the years, is pleased to confirm your suspicions. Companies, he says "are doing it to protect themselves against their own employees," he says. "They put a piece of paper between you and employees, so if you ever have a confrontation, you can go to the file and say, 'Here, I've documented this problem.' "

There's a good reason for this defensive stance, of course. In the last two generations, government has created an immense thicket of labor regulations. Equal Employment Opportunity; Fair Labor Standards; Occupational Safety and Health; Family and Medical Leave; and the ever-popular ERISA. These are complex, serious issues requiring technical expertise, and HR has to apply reasonable caution.

But "it's easy to get sucked down into that," says Mark Royal, a senior consultant with Hay Group. "There's a tension created by HR's role as protector of corporate assets -- making sure it doesn't run afoul of the rules. That puts you in the position of saying no a lot, of playing the bad cop. You have to step out of that, see the broad possibilities, and take a more open-minded approach. You need to understand where the exceptions to broad policies can be made."

Typically, HR people can't, or won't. Instead, they pursue standardization and uniformity in the face of a workforce that is heterogeneous and complex. A manager at a large capital leasing company complains that corporate HR is trying to eliminate most vice-president titles there -- even though veeps are a dime a dozen in the finance industry. Why? Because in the company's commercial business, vice president is a rank reserved for the top officers. In its drive for bureaucratic "fairness," HR is actually threatening the reputation, and so the effectiveness, of the company's finance professionals.

The urge for one-size-fits-all, says one professor who studies the field, "is partly about compliance, but mostly because it's just easier." Bureaucrats everywhere abhor exceptions -- not just because they open up the company to charges of bias but because they require more than rote solutions. They're time-consuming and expensive to manage. Make one exception, HR fears, and the floodgates will open.

There's a contradiction here, of course: Making exceptions should be exactly what human resources does, all the time -- not because it's nice for employees, but because it drives the business. Employers keep their best people by acknowledging and rewarding their distinctive performance, not by treating them the same as everyone else. "If I'm running a business, I can tell you who's really helping to drive the business forward," says Dennis Ackley, an employee communication consultant. "HR should have the same view. We should send the message that we value our high-performing employees and we're focused on rewarding and retaining them."

Instead, human-resources departments benchmark salaries, function by function and job by job, against industry standards, keeping pay -- even that of the stars -- within a narrow band determined by competitors. They bounce performance appraisals back to managers who rate their employees too highly, unwilling to acknowledge accomplishments that would merit much more than the 4% companywide increase.

Human resources, in other words, forfeits long-term value for short-term cost efficiency. A simple test: Who does your company's vice president of human resources report to? If it's the CFO -- and chances are good it is -- then HR is headed in the wrong direction. "That's a model that cannot work," says one top HR exec who has been there. "A financial person is concerned with taking money out of the organization. HR should be concerned with putting investments in."

4. The corner office doesn't get HR (and vice versa). I'm at another rockin' party: a few dozen midlevel human-resources managers at a hotel restaurant in Mahwah, New Jersey. It is not glam in any way. (I've got to get a better travel agent.) But it is telling, in a hopeful way. Hunter Douglas, a $2.1 billion manufacturer of window coverings, has brought its HR staff here from across the United States to celebrate their accomplishments.

The company's top brass is on hand. Marvin B. Hopkins, president and CEO of North American operations, lays on the praise: "I feel fantastic about your achievements," he says. "Our business is about people. Hiring, training, and empathizing with employees is extremely important. When someone is fired or leaves, we've failed in some way. People have to feel they have a place at the company, a sense of ownership."

So, yeah, it's corporate-speak in a drab exurban office park. But you know what? The human-resources managers from Tupelo and Dallas are totally pumped up. They've been flown into headquarters, they've had their picture taken with the boss, and they're seeing Mamma Mia on Broadway that afternoon on the company's dime.

Can your HR department say it has the ear of top management? Probably not. "Sometimes," says Ulrich, "line managers just have this legacy of HR in their minds, and they can't get rid of it. I felt really badly for one HR guy. The chairman wanted someone to plan company picnics and manage the union, and every time this guy tried to be strategic, he got shot down."

Say what? Execs don't think HR matters? What about all that happy talk about employees being their most important asset? Well, that turns out to have been a small misunderstanding. In the 1990s, a group of British academics examined the relationship between what companies (among them, the UK units of Hewlett-Packard and Citibank) said about their human assets and how they actually behaved. The results were, perhaps, inevitable.

In their rhetoric, human-resources organizations embraced the language of a "soft" approach, speaking of training, development, and commitment. But "the underlying principle was invariably restricted to the improvements of bottom-line performance," the authors wrote in the resulting book, Strategic Human Resource Management (Oxford University Press, 1999). "Even if the rhetoric of HRM is soft, the reality is almost always 'hard,' with the interests of the organization prevailing over those of the individual."

In the best of worlds, says London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, one of the study's authors, "the reality should be some combination of hard and soft." That's what's going on at Hunter Douglas. Human resources can address the needs of employees because it has proven its business mettle -- and vice versa. Betty Lou Smith, the company's vice president of corporate HR, began investigating the connection between employee turnover and product quality. Divisions with the highest turnover rates, she found, were also those with damaged-goods rates of 5% or higher. And extraordinarily, 70% of employees were leaving the company within six months of being hired.

Smith's staffers learned that new employees were leaving for a variety of reasons: They didn't feel respected, they didn't have input in decisions, but mostly, they felt a lack of connection when they were first hired. "We gave them a 10-minute orientation, then they were out on the floor," Smith says. She addressed the weakness by creating a mentoring program that matched new hires with experienced workers. The latter were suspicious at first, but eventually, the mentor positions (with spiffy shirts and caps) came to be seen as prestigious. The six-month turnover rate dropped dramatically, to 16%. Attendance and productivity -- and the damaged-goods rate -- improved.

"We don't wait to hear from top management," Smith says. "You can't just sit in the corner and look at benefits. We have to know what the issues in our business are. HR has to step up and assume responsibility, not wait for management to knock on our door."

But most HR people do.

Hunter Douglas gives us a glimmer of hope -- of the possibility that HR can be done right. And surely, even within ineffective human-resources organizations, there are great individual HR managers -- trustworthy, caring people with their ears to the ground, who are sensitive to cultural nuance yet also understand the business and how people fit in. Professionals who move voluntarily into HR from line positions can prove especially adroit, bringing a profit-and-loss sensibility and strong management skills.

At Yahoo, Libby Sartain, chief people officer, is building a group that may prove to be the truly effective human-resources department that employees and executives imagine. In this, Sartain enjoys two advantages. First, she arrived with a reputation as a creative maverick, won in her 13 years running HR at Southwest Airlines. And second, she had license from the top to do whatever it took to create a world-class organization.

Sartain doesn't just have a "seat at the table" at Yahoo; she actually helped build the table, instituting a weekly operations meeting that she coordinates with COO Dan Rosensweig. Talent is always at the top of the agenda -- and at the end of each meeting, the executive team mulls individual development decisions on key staffers.

That meeting, Sartain says, "sends a strong message to everyone at Yahoo that we can't do anything without HR." It also signals to HR staffers that they're responsible for more than shuffling papers and getting in the way. "We view human resources as the caretaker of the largest investment of the company," Sartain says. "If you're not nurturing that investment and watching it grow, you're not doing your job."

Yahoo, say some experts and peers at other organizations, is among a few companies -- among them Cardinal Health, Procter & Gamble, Pitney Bowes, Goldman Sachs, and General Electric -- that truly are bringing human resources into the realm of business strategy. But they are indeed the few. USC professor Edward E. Lawler III says that last year HR professionals reported spending 23% of their time "being a strategic business partner" -- no more than they reported in 1995. And line managers, he found, said HR is far less involved in strategy than HR thinks it is. "Despite great huffing and puffing about strategy," Lawler says, "there's still a long way to go." (Indeed. When I asked one midlevel HR person exactly how she was involved in business strategy for her division, she excitedly described organizing a monthly lunch for her vice president with employees.)

What's driving the strategy disconnect? London Business School's Gratton spends a lot of time training human-resources professionals to create more impact. She sees two problems: Many HR people, she says, bring strong technical expertise to the party but no "point of view about the future and how organizations are going to change." And second, "it's very difficult to align HR strategy to business strategy, because business strategy changes very fast, and it's hard to fiddle around with a compensation strategy or benefits to keep up." More than simply understanding strategy, Gratton says, truly effective executives "need to be operating out of a set of principles and personal values." And few actually do.

In the meantime, economic natural selection is, in a way, taking care of the problem for us. Some 94% of large employers surveyed this year by Hewitt Associates reported they were outsourcing at least one human-resources activity. By 2008, according to the survey, many plan to expand outsourcing to include activities such as learning and development, payroll, recruiting, health and welfare, and global mobility.

Which is to say, they will farm out pretty much everything HR does. The happy rhetoric from the HR world says this is all for the best: Outsourcing the administrative minutiae, after all, would allow human-resources professionals to focus on more important stuff that's central to the business. You know, being strategic partners.

The problem, if you're an HR person, is this: The tasks companies are outsourcing -- the administrivia -- tend to be what you're good at. And what's left isn't exactly your strong suit. Human resources is crippled by what Jay Jamrog, executive director of the Human Resource Institute, calls "educated incapacity: You're smart, and you know the way you're working today isn't going to hold 10 years from now. But you can't move to that level. You're stuck."

That's where human resources is today. Stuck. "This is a unique organization in the company," says USC's Boudreau. "It discovers things about the business through the lens of people and talent. That's an opportunity for competitive advantage." In most companies, that opportunity is utterly wasted.

And that's why I don't like HR.

Keith H. Hammonds is Fast Company's deputy editor.

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80 Comments

  • Brittney Barnhart

    HR is not intended to be the production specialist.

    But they -can- tell you how much turnover you average, how much it's costing you, and what you can do to improve it. Good HR can ensure you don't throw money at your competitors or blow your profits in court fees and backpay for violating laws or miscategorizing your employees. And the right HR leader can speak in the strategy meetings with the rest of the team and explain to the CEO how to align his/her comp/benefits plan to remain competitive in the market according to the company's strategy plan.

    The standard for HR is changing, and it will just take time to catch up.

  • Brittney Barnhart

    If you think about it, it is not very likely that HR was created to assist in the business process. HR was probably created to be the specialist in tracking personnel, personnel requirements, laws and statutes applicable to employing and being employed, etc. As time passed, HR became segregated in its sandbox, but as society evolved, the need and ability for HR to contribute to business strategy in business terms has also evolved.

    There are some in HR "professionals" who do not and will not work to develop their role because of the amount of work it takes to operate on continuous analytics in business terms (AKA, stop "talking HR" in the business meetings) - and to them, I say, "Thank you for your contributions; now, please leave the field." For those who DO intend on "being" that change, they face the challenge of earning credibility in a workplace where many maintain some very close-minded and black-and-white opinions toward HR capabilities. Just to name a couple considerations.

    It's pretty easy to criticize what you don't understand (referring to some of these comments, not the article), but this article does present a lot of good points for us (professionals) to consider. The evolution of HR in business development faces some significant issues, but awareness is spreading, and this too shall pass - faster for some than others. Good luck, everyone.

  • Valerie Iravani

    While I agree with most of the article, I think the real issue is people in general, and especially managers, are not trained, nor do they have a true interest in 'developing' their people. Why? Because measurements of success are all financial - and not related to each individual position or person. My own managers never truly appreciated just how much time and energy I spent in developing my own staff and trying to find career paths for them within the company. I only hired 'smart' people who consistently performed well, but no one was truly interested in helping them learn about other opportunities with the companies we worked for. Most of them found better salaries and opportunities by leaving the company. Not the best results for me or the company. Now that I have a double Masters in Human Resource Management and Organizational Development, no company will give me a chance to "come to the table" because I have never held an HR title - in spite of my valuable experience.

  • Leslie Dawson

    HR is a joke and we all know the reason why. Let's start telling the truth: MANHOOD101. COM

  • Ideanation

    I find that a lot of HR specialists take a very superficial view of business operations, similar to the view that a salesperson would take. Sometimes I think that salespeople and HR specialists both share the same sources of information on how the world should work. Such sources of information would include those junky, faddish business books that cram the shelves at airport bookstores. They all claim to have the latest solutions, but are just the same old drivel. They always stress appearances over substance. No wonder salespeople and HR specialists are grotesquely oblivious to the realities that front-line workers have to struggle against.

    Salespeople and HR specialists are notoriously bad when it comes to understanding businesses systems and processes (outside of their own, that is). They often do not have any administrative talent at all beyond that. All shortcomings in performance are automatically attributed to employees who are "poor fits", even though this may have nothing to do with the poor performance. System breakdowns are the usual culprit, but manage to get ignored as this would require managerial skill to investigate, diagnose, and address. All they care about is pushing their "solution" onto the organization. This would explain why the world's best salespeople often make for the world's worst sales managers...........and why HR specialists make for the world's worst HR managers.

  • Phinn

    I'm four years out of college and have worked for two large enterprise software companies as an engineer. Having seen HR people here and there, I've always wondered what they do on a day-to-day basis. Found this article via google, the article was helpful.

    I get that HR is responsible for all the administrative/bureaucratic stuff, but I had no idea that there are HR people who take an active role in improving business. Most of the things I've seen from our HR department related to engineering are confusing: There are some underwhelming catered events around campus, company-wide initiatives around doing volunteer work (which most engineers are ok with), and lame attempts at appealing to what HR perceives to be "geek culture".

    After reading this article, I'm convinced that software companies should look for HR people with some mix of business/engineering skills. Most of our HR staff couldn't answer any of Rucci's three questions, not necessarily because they don't know who the players are in the enterprise software market, but without a technical background one can't really understand the pros and cons for different offerings in enterprise software.

  • MystiKasT

    All the HR departments I've come across are full of people who are great paper pushers and can smile well, but have no real skills.  HR, is, zero tolerance, one size fits all in my experience; and usually, the employees are 'do-gooders', but with no real SKILL.  Just bureaucrats.

  • Samanthadpatel

    so agree... and I work in HR (well, learning and development to be exact...) in any case I always say that HR people are CEO wannabes!

  • G_fawkes

    HR departments are a defunct concept of a failed ideology of centralized solutions. They create vast amount of waste (in of itself) and have are the last people who should do hiring. Companies I run- employees manage benefits themselves and employees do hiring on their own. I hire people I trust and know are capable and give them the flexibility and resources they need to thrive. In return they don't give me bs and do an excellent job. 

    Don't ever work for a company that has an HR department. It basically means they don't give a F about you. 

  • Brittney Barnhart

    GOOD LUCK. Work for a company without a dedicated HR department, and I guarantee you'll be in court sooner rather than later for one reason or another (or 100).

    Companies need a STRONG HR department, with an HR director who comes to the strategy meetings and speaks in business terms and analytics. A good HR department has the (PROVEN) power to increase profit. But even if your company has a struggling HR department, you need that specialist to keep your nose clean with Title XII, FMLA, HIPAA, OSHA, ADA, ADEA, OWBPA....follow? Your "paper pushers" are the experts on all those fun things that most managers hate to spend time thinking about, and it is a full time job. Putting all that on each of your "trusted" employees is setting them up for failure, and the courts don't care when your mistake is made out of ignorance of the law.

    HR is in the business of PEOPLE. They (should) teach managers how to care about people - A company withOUT an HR department doesn't care about its employees (or doesn't know what it means to care about them).

  • Lara Salazar, SPHR

    I love Fast Company, and of course, as an HR Professional feel frustrated, as you might imagine, when I read this article.  While I think your perspective is is true in many organizations (although your data isn't really scientific or conclusive about the study of the affect of HR representatives in organizations), this article comes across as though the author (even though is the "Fast Company Staff" - the use of the first person is revealing) is bitter about a bad run-in personally with an HR department in the past, or whose presentation proposal was declined at a SHRM conference.  Just as my statement is a generalization, so goes this article.  The title could be HR, CEO, CFO, author, manager or you name it.  There are underqualified, underinspiring all of these positions AND there are excellent folks as well doing amazing, supportive work in service to humans, our economy (specifically toward rates of productivity) healthy work cultures, etc.  As you identified in your article about employees - there is not a one-size fits all of HR professionals.  HR leaders, in particular, are effective in reducing the need for Union involvement by helping the rest of the C Suite, mid-level managers and supervisors, keep the needs of people on their radar (although unions serve an excellent purpose on many fronts - typically where there is no high level HR presence).  While this article was published in 2005 - it's legacy lives on enough for me to write this comment.  Maybe things have changed for this author in the past 8 years, as hopefully many have seen targeted efforts toward a focus on customer and employee engagement, the value of supportive metrics based on individual goals in performance management practices, a dedicated staff member (who cares what their title is) who undertands the strategic objectives of an organization, and helping employees see how their work ties directly to them, etc.  I also read the more recent article about why we shouldn't hate HR, and think there could be an even more balanced approach to the real topic - how to have a high functioning workplace and involve ALL the right human resources players, regardless of what department they work in.

  • Mikeolzak

    I have worked for companies for the last 35 years that have had HR departments and I have yet  to come across an HR department that knows anything about what it takes to run the business.

    They have no clue what it takes to actually run a productive department or business.

  • Brittney Barnhart

    HR is not intended to be the production specialist.

    But they -can- tell you how much turnover you average, how much it's costing you, and what you can do to improve it. Good HR can ensure you don't throw money at your competitors or blow your profits in court fees and backpay for violating laws or miscategorizing your employees. And the right HR leader can speak in the strategy meetings with the rest of the team and explain to the CEO how to align his/her comp/benefits plan to remain competitive in the market according to the company's strategy plan.

    The standard for HR is changing, and it will just take time to catch up.

  • Msgrinnell

    A guy I know worked as a contract IT consultant for 14 years for the same company.  The company changed its policies to bring all consultants on as employees so the guy had to apply for the job.  HR rejected his application saying he lacked experience to do the job.  Seeing as he was actually the most talented guy in the whole group I find that funny.  

  • Erin

    Hmmm, I think HR does exist because Manager's of other departments don't know how to work within the legal arena and employments standards. Hark, Unions are born! Poor employee treatment causes low productivity, HR is doing things like employee appraisals and so on to ensure the employee gets what they deserve (cause, come on....other Managers are thinking about the all mighty $$$ than thinking about the employee that helps make that $). HR is the buffer between the employee and the company and exists for a reason. AND the fact that you don't think most are intelligent just shows your own intelligence level. A long article that is filled with a whole lot of negative, did you feel better after writing it?

  • Trina

    HR could empower millions of employees to go to work and be
    all they can be by truly doing something about dark leaders currently ruling
    over the fate and the emotional well being of followers everywhere. The Time
    Warner manager in this article was described “a widely reviled manager”. Seriously – why was that manager still in charge
    of followers if he/she was ‘reviled’?? The negative outcomes of dark leadership
    on productivity, innovation, and turn-over are well documented yet HR teams
    will do very little to nothing at all to firmly eliminate such persons from their
    management roster. And not only will there be a near catatonic acceptance of
    bullying, abrasive, emotionally abusive leaders, these monsters get promoted!
    And now your upper management team is partially made up of psychopathic,
    narcissistic, ego-maniacs. Congratulations. But we are all standing around
    scratching our heads why we have a turn-over problem and can’t retain key
    talent. People join companies. People leave managers.

  • Ken

    WOW! EXCELLENT POINT!

    It seems too often, in my opinion, that HR merely exists to shield bad management, bad executives and bad companies AND half the time or more don't know the regulations and are NOT interested in hearing them or serious safety issues. HR, in my experience has cost companies more than they ever saved....and as you noted it is NOT always HR's fault...comes from the top. I don't work for fortune 500 companies...these are small to medium companies I am referring to...and all to often they CREATE legal problems for the company because of their "know it all" mindset. I have NO problem with someone that asks where the regulations are, how to find them or even ask to forward them; but it seems most of the time they are trying to screw the employee. Most I have run across are either completely ignorant of ADA, FMLA, OSHA, or DOT laws/regs OR refuse to follow it unless they get letters from attorneys. By that time I am already starting to look for a new job...HR people in general lack ANY compassion..or a forced to be that way by execs....have seen that too. They seem to often be narcissistic "do-gooders" that want constant praise and adoration; but also try to put ANY fault wrongly and automatically on the employee...to be the exec's good little suckups.

    Not all companies are like this..I worked at a great company, the president had an open door policy and HR merely existed for smaller items and payroll and benefits questions...they were great and very efficient and I never felt I was getting a BS line because I could always talk to ANY of the executives. SOmetimes things are just misunderstandings and we had a few of those..but they always got ironed out NICELY! I would NOT have left if it was not necessary to relocate...but right at the end they sold out to some investors that closed the door on employees and contractors and started issuing edicts from "on high" without any regard or input from employees about their lives or rights. I was glad, at that point that I had already given a large notice I would be moving. Morale went in the tank and the formerly friendly HR people seemed afraid to say anything that was not on script. 

    I worked for another great company years ago that was overtaken in a HOSTILE takeover by a huge fortune 500 company...first thing they did is start "cracking down" on company policy violators....like a man that emailed his wife on his LUNCH BREAK...it was very important because the were on the brink of divorce...BIG 500 didn't give a damn...canned him asap...and he was a VERY efficient and well respected member of management...not just by employees but by customers too. DID NOT matter in the cookie cutter HR world...no warning, no write up....POLICY says NO personal emails...CANNED! That and the many other changes they made that screwed employees...like insurance and overtime issues etc...I left and so did a lot of customers and other employees around the same time. 

  • Ray

    Great article!  I’m a strategic manager who sits at the table making critical business decisions daily as to what is best for both our customers, employees and community.  I will admit that we have recently begun to bring HR to the decision table and it has been a disappointment as I find these HR “professionals” are not forward thinking leaders and some lack basic business intelligence.  My answer: Outsource your HR functions (benefits, employee relations, hiring, training, OD and etc.) and keep a few HR senior level (strategic focus) managers onboard to oversee the vendor relationship (tactical focus) to ensure alignment to company vision and strategic goals.  I do not support outsourcing for critical skills that are part of our company’s DNA but Human Resources is a business process that is easily managed by outside experts at a lower cost.  It is the role of ALL leaders in an organization to develop, support and embrace a culture that recruits and rewards great talent.