Why We Hate HR: It’s Often A Problem of Professional Development

Why We Hate HROver the years I’ve read article after article about what’s wrong with Human Resources.

The most famous was “Why I Hate HR” published in 2005 in Fast Company, followed by many blogs on the topic and a recent article by Ram Charan in Harvard Business Review and a Wall Street Journal story about companies getting rid of HR entirely.

I hate reading these articles, but they keep on coming. My most recent thinking on this topic is in the Forbes Article Why Does HR Get So Much Grief, which details a lot of my perspectives on why Charan’s recommendations probably don’t make sense.

Generally speaking, the complaints people have is that HR professionals are too “process-oriented,” they are not very business-savvy, they don’t understand data and analytics, and generally speaking they are not consultative enough (directly from Charan’s article).

Well while some of this may be true, this is a difficult profession which is going through a lot of change. My experience with many HR professionals is that they are among the most committed, passionate, tireless, hard-working business people I’ve worked with throughout my career.

The transition taking place is a shift toward a “new type of HR professional” and each of us have to evolve. In many ways, there is an epic change taking place in the whole HR profession.

A few years ago (2009) we did a major research study on the “demographics of HR” which was published as The HR Career Factbook. In that research (the report is free) we found that people go into the profession for the following reasons:

  • 73% of HR professionals “want to help their organization improve through people”
  • 63% “like to help others”
  • 56% “love organizational learning”
  • 52% “love working with people.”

So generally speaking, many people came to HR because they are “people-people” – not because they are business strategists, consultants, analysts, or process experts.

What this research showed is that as HR professionals advance in their career, they have to become more business-savvy, more financial and analytic-oriented, and more focused on business strategy. Today, with all the technology, data, and transparency we have in organizations, strong HR people are more analytic and business oriented than ever.

So my argument to critics is not that HR is “broken” but rather that we in the profession are in the middle of a transformation: changing what HR does, who strong HR people are, and how HR should be organized.

For example, today organizations have self-service HR systems, enabling people to do much of their own HR administration. So the need for HR administrators is greatly reduced. We have highly transparent organizations where people-related data and feedback is readily shared (internally or externally on Facebook, Glassdoor, LinkedIn or other places). So HR teams must be very good at dealing with culture, transparency, coaching, and feedback. And if you are a recruiter, you know well that the whole world has been transformed by social networking, so you need to become expert at all these new tools.

Bottom line is this: the things strong HR teams must do are vastly different than what the “personnel manager” did back in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’ve dedicated my career to helping this profession continuously improve – so rather than read these articles and worry, let’s just learn and evolve. I remember well when the IT department was called “Data Processing” and it consisted of a team of geeky Cobol programmers sitting in the basement. Just as IT evolved, so will HR.

The Mind of an HR ManagerWhat Should You Do? Think About Your Role and Take Professional Development Seriously.

As our research points out, today’s HR professional is a “talent consultant” not just a process designer. This means we have to spend more time in the business and make sure we’re up to speed on ever-changing practices in all areas of talent.

Here are some things you as an HR professional should consider:

  • Continuously educate yourself on technology, new practices, and the needs of younger workers. Read articles, attend demos, go to conferences. (I know it’s hard to make time to go to conferences, but they always pay off.)
  • Learn everything you can about data, analytics, statistics, and how to present information. Analytics is coming to HR like a freight train, and you should not feel intimidated talking about a “regression” or “mean.”
  • Read about business trends, economic trends, demographic trends, and cultural trends (I read the New York Times, The Economist, and lots of design and tech magazines to keep up). Let’s face it, much of what we do is influenced by global cultural and demographic trends.
  • Get to know your company’s business issues in specific: what competitive pressures do you face? what product challenges do you have? what customer problems are you solving?
  • Read a few books on how to become a consultant. “The Trusted Advisor” by David Maister is a masterpiece, it will show you how to think and act like a consultant.
  • Take on developmental assignments. Try being a senior business partner for a new business unit. Develop a social recruiting strategy. Teach a leadership workshop.

HR is a serious profession and we need to take our own professional development seriously.

And part of this process is attracting more and more business school graduates to join the HR profession.

(One CHRO I know well told me he is trying to get half his senior HR team to have MBAs. Another told me she refuses to hire any more HR professionals who don’t have some training in statistics.)

When I go out and spend a few hours speaking to HR organizations they always come away more confident, excited, and often more educated than before.

We deal with some of the most important issues in business (who to hire, how to lead, who to promote, how to train people). It is our responsibility to be confident experts at our craft.

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  • Brynn Freeman

    I really appreciate this entry! I’ve listened to people complain about HR for years rather than sharing perspectives on how to improve the profession. Reposted to linkedin.

  • Daniel Freschi

    Josh, you nailed it. Thanks for taking head on what so many in the HR field have failed to articulate. It has been my experience that many HR professionals don’t feel as thought they need development because they think can wave their hand and ignore it or they say they are too busy to learn. Final point, if the business experts really wanted us HR professionals to learn what they do, they wouldn’t prevent/stall/obstruct us from having a seat at the table. A CEO that I admire from a global mining manufacturer said that “people and finance, finance and people, are the most important part of the business. If you manage your finances and develop and lead your people, your customers will always be happy.”

  • Josh, I beg to differ with you completely. I am witness to numerous HR professionals who are mere event managers and rubber stamp playing into high handedness of management. I am currently in the process of writing in detail on this topic in my blog virginwords.com, straight from experiences shared by my readers.

    • krantmrinal

      Agree with you Vibhor and looking forward to reading that article on HR at virginwords.com
      If the lowest common denominator for people in HR choosing HR is “people-people”. Is that a unique competency to be of much worth to be a change agent, a catalyst, a talent magnet, capability builder, etc. Not really. If HR people had that much competency/read leadership, they would have moved to other business functions where they could lead from front. How many HR folks have been promoted /elevated to become CEOs? I know of only a few in India, that has half a million HR professionals. I guess, personnel department added much more value being masters of “Labor laws”, “Trade Union management”, “Statutory experts”, “People welfare” where they were respected for the work that they did. Today’s HR is just fake talk on borrowed/half-baked concepts, which do not work out as HR fails to sell and integrate them to the workspace where peers are much more qualified and educated on the concepts of HR than the HR folks!