Just asking

Oct 28 2009 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

There are a lot of truisms in the training business. Some are really true (management is a discipline). Some are kind of true (leadership can be taught to the willing). Some are just not true but we continue to spout them anyway (the Chinese word for Chaos and Opportunity are NOT the same symbol. I don't care how poetic it sounds- just ask someone who actually speaks Mandarin).

I recently put another truism to the test: when a problem seems unfixable, redefine the problem. The results made for some interesting pub conversation. Okay it was a fistfight, but it WAS interesting.

Here's the problem: for years people have been trying to get HR to take a more strategic role in the company and stop thinking transactionally. CEOs say it's a problem. HR complains about how they're viewed by the rest of the company and the rest of the company complains incessantly about HR.

This site as well as many others has dozens of articles (like this one) addressing the same complaints. A lot of time, money and tears have been spent trying to solve this issue, yet still 90% of companies say HR is not the strategic partner they want it to be.

Since so many really smart people have spent the last 50 years or more trying to solve this problem and it never seems to get measurably better, maybe it's time to redefine the problem. I'm not saying this is the answer, I'm just asking the question: what if HR quit trying to be something it's not and just accepted their tactical role and got on with the job?

Think about it. HR would like to stop being thought of as an obstacle to "getting things done". True, no one likes being the person responsible for enforcing rules, but it's an important job. Why does HR need to enforce disciplinary rules and government fiats? Because someone has to do it. Who else in the company is going to do it?

Sales will do whatever will make the most money the fastest. Without maligning anyone's efforts or morality the more money is at stake the more people are willing to stretch ethical and even moral bounds. Someone needs to enforce the rules.

Managers will often resort to bad behavior like bullying and threats when faced with deadlines, budget pressure or other things that might yield short-term results but create long-term problems like lawsuits and turnover. Without rules like "you have to actually talk to someone and try to correct the behavior before you fire them" and "you can't not hire someone because of the color of their skin" you get a workplace no one really wants to show up to and THAT has serious financial impact.

Meanwhile, the rules of staying compliant with any government you can think of aren't getting easier. Someone has to know the rules and be able to offer counsel to the company on how to stay out of court. It might not be a glamourous job, but no one doubts its value.

Actually, government offers an interesting analogy. I don't care what democracy you live in, the odds are the complaint is the same: it's almost impossible to get anything done. While it's easy to bemoan gridlock and stupidity, what most people fail to recognize is that's exactly the point.

Parliamentary procedure, constitutional checks and balances and such "bureaucracy" is designed to make it hard to change laws on a whim. The same process that makes health care or education a nightmare to fix is the same system that prevents a party from coming in and deciding to outlaw further elections or round up everyone who doesn't look like them. It's just that when it's your favorite policy getting amended into pudding it's hard to take.

Well, maybe that's HR's job. No, Sales can't just get its way or someone will go to jail. No, your supervisors can't resort to their managerial reptilian brains when dealing with employee challenges, there are rules and procedures that must be followed.

Now, can HR be more aligned with business goals? Absolutely. Can they do their job more efficiently? Lord I hope so. But maybe we could improve the role and the lives of the people in that role if we just let HR be what it is instead of trying to turn it into something smarter minds than mine have failed for half a century to achieve.

Just asking.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

I couldn't agree with you more, oh great one !

In my encounters with HR, over the years in all it's various guises, what consistently stands out is that many of those who work in HR don't actually want to do the jobs they were hired for. They want to put into practice all the theory and psychology of managerial, professional and behavioural development they learned in the course of becoming HR professionals. The wondrous world of mumbo-jumbo of which people like us talk and write about like so-called experts. I can't think that anybody who goes into HR with their eyes wide open really understands what they are letting themselves in for. It doesn't take long for the reality of the commercial and professional world to kick them in the head and many of them spend the rest of their commercial lives wondering just what did they get into. Those lucky enough to survive the early years may find absolution of some kind by specialising in executive development or organisational development, but many just find themselves in a maze of dead-ends from which there appears to be no way out. Is it any surprise therefore, that they often appear to sucked dry of anything other than the processes and mechanics of dealing with the volumes of people who churn through their various organisations ? To expect anything else out of them than just to manage this process in an adequate and professional manner, sums up the quixotic nature by which employees and executives judge their value to the organisations they work for.

Charles Helliwell London, UK