Are We All Just Drinking the HR Kool Aid?

I’ve had people telling me that I should move out of HR and into operations for almost 10 years. The VP at my current job jokes about it at least once a month. “Are you sure you don’t want to go run an Ops Territory?” I always laugh it off and graciously tell him that I’m fine right where I am.

But while I laugh on the outside, I balk on the inside. Because although I know he means it as a compliment, there’s an insult buried just beneath the surface that says the function I currently perform has little or no value. Then I begin to wonder if making that kind of move is something I should seriously consider …

I was still pondering this when I stumbled on Alan Weiss’s article “Quo Vadis, HR?” The first thing I had to do was Google the phrase because I took a class in film over Latin in high school. I found out it means “Where are you going?” Where is HR going? Hmmm …

Well, according to the author, HR is going nowhere because it is stuck in the tradition of itself and it is unwilling to share or relinquish any of the knowledge it has so that others are able to take on the work HR is assigned to handle. According to the author, unless HR changes radically, it will be extinct before too long.

And I’ve been hovering around this article ever since.

On the one hand, I agree with Alan Weiss. If HR doesn’t change, it will become useless. In many organizations, HR already is useless—or at least gets treated that way. We are fighting for scraps at the proverbial “table” where everyone else is welcomed with a red carpet. Everyone else is served a feast while HR is being roasted. It has been this way for at least a couple of decades and it isn’t changing. At least, not at any rate that anyone is really happy with.

I also agree with the idea that HR needs to immerse itself fully in the operations of the company to understand what the frontline leaders are experiencing because it makes both people more effective in their jobs. I’ve done this with every company I’ve ever worked for. And I make my staffers do the same thing. It is critical for us to
have this knowledge to assist in coaching, counseling, developing, employing and engaging the people who work for and with us. But I feel this way about all departments and positions. Any employee that doesn’t have comprehensive understanding of what each area of the organization does and how it helps the
organization achieve its goals is useless, no matter what area they work in.

What I am struggling with is the notion that spending an entire career in HR is an “isolated, non-credible career path.” Ouch! I’ll concede that if your goal is to be CEO of a company someday, HR is not the yellow-brick road to that great land of Oz. But that doesn’t mean your career won’t be a positive one with a brilliant legacy. There is value and honor in the work I do as an HR professional, regardless if I never make it to the C-suite. I owned the HR function in every place I’ve ever worked and I make
sure to bring all the work I do back to the values, strategy and goals of the organization. And my belief in the value of the function and work done within it doesn’t make me a part of a “cult” or party to perpetuating “the biggest scam
hoisted on Corporate America.” It makes me happy at my job—and damn good at it,
too.

Where I’m also struggling is Mr. Weiss’s notion that HR lacks the talent or will to rock the boat and perform transformational work. He goes on to say HR’s ineptitude in this area is what makes so much work for consultants. There’s no doubt in my mind that HR has the talent and desire to rock the boat until it capsizes … but HR can’t do what consultants do and expect to remain employed. Can a person even be a consultant in their own home? Not really. Because once you deliver those tough love wisdom nuggets, you don’t get to leave. You still have to exist and be productive with those people. Consultants can swoop in, tell a CEO everything that’s wrong with the organization, lay the foundation to fix it and peace out!

That’s not to take away from the great work consultants do. Sometimes executives in the organization are too close to the problem to see what needs to be done. And it would take a series of posts to talk about how resistant people are to organizational change and all the reasons why. But it is important to note that this is universal across all areas of an organization, not just HR. If you are someone within the organization, the transformations you make happen will be more gradual and incremental than grand and sweeping – unless all the leadership of the organization agrees that radical change is needed and everyone is committed to making that happen.

And if the people in charge of the organization don’t see any problems and aren’t interested in making changes – even if the organization needs to change – why is it on HR to sacrifice itself and bear that bad news?? I don’t think it is. I think you either accept it and work optimally within those confines OR find yourself another job. You may have to do both for awhile. But do it in your own way and on your own terms. Not because Mr. Weiss or your VP or anyone else tells you that it will put your career on a better, more important, more valuable trajectory.

But maybe I’ve just been drinking the HR-koolaid for too long. Tell me what you think?

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6 Comments

  1. Having survived the transition from HR to Operations, the article resonates with me. Once you’ve been designated the HR expert, you become like Michael Corleone trying to get out, but they pull you back in. The compliment is “you made it BIG”; less complimentary is the unspoken dimunition of your accomplishments in HR that made you (God forbid) actually like your job!
    The people impact should factor into all organizational decisions. One disgruntled employee can make for uncomfortable days for everyone.HR can and should be a key part of the process of change. It will not become extinct—who better to be the designated “bad guy”— but we won’t be in the VIP seats anytime soon.

    • Buzz Rooney

      May 26, 2011 at 3:16 AM

      I really agree with the article about HR immersing itself in Operations. It is invaluable to be the kind of HR person who is an expert and who is transforming the organization from the inside out. Many HR people are too stuck in the traditional roles to embrace the value in that. This makes me sad. But I agree with you that HR isn’t going anywhere. Because companies really aren’t ready or willing to take on what HR does.

      The People factor is also critical. Employees who get mad and leave — or, even worse, get mad and stay can devastate an organization for years. There’s no better way to make this happen than to push someone into a role they don’t want and/or are not suited for. There’s no doubt I could succcessfully run a territory, but is that really, truly what is best for the organization?? Probably not. With a clear understanding of the workings of operations, I’m a much stronger asset right where I am. Most organizations are not smart enough to realize that and use it to their advantage.

  2. In reading both your post and Alan’s article, I have to say that I agree with him wholeheartedly. Where it seems you’re struggling with his article is that it’s a slap in the face to your career and accomplishments, and a validation that your VP is right.

    Whereas, I see it as a validation of the stellar career you’ve put together to this point, and the fact that unfortunately, you are the exception and not the rule when it comes to the HR function globally. Are there transformative figures in HR? Absolutely. Do they make up the greater percentage of HR professionals in the field? Absolutely not. It’s the same for any department of a company, but the biggest difference is that HR is one of the most highly visible roles in a company, so all of your scars are on display for the whole company to see.

    So while I do see exactly where you’re coming from, I think your career proves Alan’s point all the more. When a company identifies someone as “best and brightest” they attempt to move them where they feel the best and brightest would have the greatest impact on the tangible growth of the company. That doesn’t take into account that you have a love and passion for your work, but does factor in a perceived value upon operations and sales that’s prevalent in most companies.

    And “the biggest scam hoisted on Corporate America” IS Corporate America, LOL!

    And much like an offensive linemen in football, no one talks about you until you blow an assignment. That’s the blessing and the curse of being an HR pro, I suppose.

    • Buzz Rooney

      May 26, 2011 at 3:04 AM

      At another time in my career, I would have thought about making that move. Now, not so much. My ultimate goal at this point is to be the CEO of Buzz A Rooney’s enterprises because I am wise enough to know I will ultimately end up frustrated with anything other than that. In the meanwhile, I give my best to my current employer. I’m glad they recognize it, even if it is in a back-handed way.

      However, there are people out there who are content to bloom where they are planted and only make a difference where they are. They don’t want to move up. Everyone can’t and shouldn’t be the CEO. The hive needs the Queen and drones. There is nothing wrong with that. And sometimes moving the best & brightest out of the place where they are already shining is a disaster. I’ve seen it 1000 time in operations. Take a kick-ass line manager and putting him/her in charge of a department and 6-months later, everyone is miserable.

      I think the goal should be developing strengths, improving weaknesses and keeping the person engaged so they are helping the organization meet it’s objectives. If a move works for all parties, make the move. But pushing the move only because you are uncertain or unfamiliar with how to utilize the asset as will likely be an epic fail.

  3. There’s been a discussion about the value of HR on LinkedIn recently, with an angle of “why doesn’t anyone from HR ever make it to the C-levels”? One of the comments was a bit startling: the reason HR never makes it to the C-levels is because the part of the CEO’s job is to take risks and HR’s job is to prevent/manage risk. They’re diametrically opposed, although the wise CEO knows that risk management is a prudent move and thus welcomes those who’d raise red flags.

    Perhaps your VP thinks you are more of a risk taker than a risk manager? And perhaps he might think that’s a compliment?

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 27, 2011 at 11:15 PM

      That is a wonderful observation! In HR, we really are conditioned to be risk averse. We are all about mitigating and minimizing risk — which is great for maintaining status quo, but not necessarily great for advancing a business. I’d never thought about it that way.

      I think his comments about moving me to Ops are meant as a compliment. But it still feels back-handed. I think I can add more value to the organization where I am through training, developing, coaching, counseling, directing and ensuring compliance across the entire organization than I could if I was assigned to manager a single operations territory. I fear organizations sometimes hurt themselves by pushing talent in directions that don’t play to their strengths instead of finding innovative ways to broaden their influence where they are. Fortunately, I know I’m better off and happier where I am so I won’t make the leap. A lot of people do and it doesn’t turn out good.

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