Is HR really necessary?

In many ways, Human Resources (HR) feels like a department that’s trying to justify its existence.

Business leaders and managers have sensed this, too. They are dissatisfied with the service that HR departments provide them. And that’s with good reason: They’ve failed to evolve with the times. They’re a biplane in the age of space travel.


HR began life unofficially when welfare officers were assigned to the workplace in the years before WWI, though the conditions produced by the war itself and the depression that followed meant that workers’ rights were set back for a time.

After WWII, personnel departments were created. They were administrative branches that were formed primarily to deal with accusations of discrimination against those in the workforce. To a certain extent, that meant that they handled the legal side of things which enabled them to minimize costs in such matters.

Over time, the administrative role grew, as it always does, and other things were added such as health and safety, recruitment, training, discipline, days at work, absenteeism, sick days, holidays, employment law and everything else to do with employees.

The term, personnel, fell out of fashion in the 1980s and became Human Resources - an expression that was intended to make it look as if the organisation actually cared about the people who worked there. This led managers to view staff as assets and resources, and ironically, also removed the personal label.


What managers want, and what they get

If managers are unhappy with what they get from HR, then what do they want?

They want HR to be a strategic partner.

What does that mean?

There is no agreed definition of strategy, which is another way of saying that everyone has an opinion. This doesn’t help. If you can’t agree on what it is, then you have no chance of getting it. If those in HR believe that they’re contributing strategically and the leaders and managers of the enterprise don’t, then everything they do will be out of synch.


Historically, HR has fulfilled what has become a largely administrative role. This may be more by default than by design. People have generated a lot of paperwork because for a long time it’s been considered to be the only way to account for everything that concerned them. This was deemed necessary in order to provide an audit trail should anything go wrong.

That said, the current form of HR hasn’t changed that much since it first appeared. It seems to be something of a sleeping dog that no one wants to disturb. That’s due in part to the fact that they seem to get stuck with many of the things that no one else wants to do. Most managers would rather manage people than complete the paperwork that goes with it.

So on the one hand, HR has become the sinkhole of administration, but on the other not important enough to sit at the top table. In other words, they’re expected to contribute strategically without having a hand in creating that strategy.

There would be fireworks if this was true of any other department.


What is the role of HR today?

There’s a variety of opinions about what HR should do.


First and last stop

There are those who believe that the first and last stop of anyone in an organisation, whether they’ve just been hired or are leaving, regardless of the reason, should be in the HR office. That’s because it’s where all the documentation is kept. People hand in their keys, their company car and credit card, and any equipment that’s been issued to them.

This line of reasoning, however, is circular. Although it makes some sense for HR to do this, if this is where people received these things in the first place, it says nothing about why HR should be the one to do so at all. In other words, it doesn’t explain why their line manager could and probably should do it, as that person is intimately familiar with their situation.


Make people aware of policies and procedures

There are others who think that the raison d’être of HR is to make employees aware of policies and practices that support the business. Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen. All of the organisations manuals don’t need to be kept in a central place. It would make much more sense if they were kept close to the departments that used them the most.

Cambridge University, for instance, has 130-something libraries. Each college has its own library, and there are also various other ones including the main University Library. It could be argued that all of these books aren’t kept there because there’s insufficient room, but the books and journals that pertain to the specialties of a given college are kept in that school. That means that students who are studying law, for instance, can go to the Law library, and those who are studying management can go to the Judge Business School library. Instead of 20,000 students all going to one library, they can go to the one that contains the materials that they use most of the time.

There’s no reason why organisations can’t do the same thing. Department managers are more likely to understand what they say than HR simply because they work with those things every day.


Talent acquisition

Talent acquisition is a euphemism for recruitment, and there are those who think that it should be handled by the HR department. This may be because it’s a central location where things such as applications, and background checks, and all the legal stuff that needs to be done to formally bring someone into the organisation, or to move them out of one can go; but translating that need into some gobbledygook that makes sense to someone outside of the department is largely a waste of time. It’s much easier for managers to do this directly, because they know exactly what they’re looking for in a candidate, and when it’s time to terminate someone.



For years, managers have been trying to figure out how to onboard people in such a way as to make them feel like one of the “family” - one of the team; and yet instead of doing those things personally, they have delegated it to a department that doesn’t know who these people are, and where the goal isn’t to create such a relationship.


Training and motivation

Training and motivation is another thing that HR is supposed to do. The problem here is that Human Resources often doesn’t understand what people need to be able to do differently as a result of attending a training course. Only the manager, and perhaps the employees, know.

On the flip-side, HR is likely to face the blame if things don’t work out. Managers will accuse them of sending people on the wrong course, whereas if it was up to them, the chances that employees attended the right one would be greatly increased because the decision would be made much closer to the problem.

Workers need to be developed in a way that will make them more productive, and organisations need to be structured in a way that makes it easier for them to use their skills. Managerial training and development also needs to be greatly improved because it is seriously lacking in organisations today, but neither of those require a department to do it.


None of the things mentioned above is “strategic”. Instead, it’s administrative.


How can HR be made relevant?

If you, as a manager, want HR to be a strategic partner in the organisation - to be relevant - then you have to do two things.


Seat at the table

First, you have to give them a seat at the table where the strategy is made. It’s no good saying that you want something without affording people the resources they need to get it.

That means training HR personnel on business topics such as business planning; not filling their time with administrational duties that anyone can do.

MBA students, for instance, have to study enterprises from many different angles and then put it all together so that they understand how they should function as a unit. Those in HR, from the bottom of the organisation chart to the top, need to learn those skills, too.

Not only must they understand business planning in theory, but they must also learn to do it in practice. Regular training and discussion can help those who work in HR to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the business - public or private - works, who their competitors are, and how to best serve customers. It’s only when they have that, that they’re in a position to become the strategic partner that you want.


Describe a strategic partner

The second thing you have to do is to explain to HR what a strategic partner looks like.

It’s all very well and good to say that you’re not getting what you want, but it’s irresponsible to fail to explain what you do.

It has been suggested that the most successful HR managers are those who can link people-related programs to business results, which might be your pat response to what a strategic partner looks like. To say this, however, seems rather odd when you think about it. That’s because no organisation can succeed without the people who work in it. Large or small, they all depend on their employees. That means that in many ways, the links are already there, though you may not recognise them. In other words, you don’t need a strategic partner to explain it.


Is HR really necessary?

That depends on your goals; on what you expect of it.

If, for you, it is a place that performs all the administration that you want to avoid - a sort of rubbish tip of tasks, then “no”; you don’t need it. That’s because no department can make a strategic contribution if that’s what its primary purpose is.

All of that can be outsourced.

Of course, the obvious solution is for you to do it. After all, you know, or should know, more about the people in your charge than they do.

If, on the other hand, you want HR to contribute fully and participate 100% in the strategic decisions and implementation of the organisation, then “yes”; a department may be helpful, though it should still divest itself of everything that prevents it from doing so. That is, it should retain the responsibilities that contribute to its strategic understanding, but stop performing all of the administration that doesn’t.

The administration that HR performs today is akin to the typing pools that existed decades ago. Just as everyone now is expected to type their own documents, the administration that’s found in HR should be completed at the lowest level possible. It’s not something that requires a department.

And even at the strategic level, much of what goes on in HR could be handled by a tiny proportion of the number of people who are normally involved in it. You just have to decide that that’s the way it will be done.


HR in your rearview mirror

Traditional Human Resources is one department whose day is over. Nearly all of the administration that an HR department does can be outsourced, and that’s because it’s ancillary to the core business of the enterprise.

The remaining responsibilities - the ones that are of strategic importance - should be handled at the managerial level, and junior people should be trained in business concepts so that they can grow into those roles. After all, it’s at that level where more is known about the people who work there than anyone else in the business.


Do you have an HR department because you’ve always had one?

Do you have it because your managers hate administration?

Why do you have an HR department at all?

Decide what you really want that department to do. If it really is to be a strategic partner, then explain to them what that looks like and free them of the administrative shackles that prevent them from doing that. If, however, it’s simply to perform a lot of administrative tasks, then determine where else in the organisation it could be done and disband that department. Chances are high that you don’t need it.


If you want to know more, contact me here.

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