Monday, April 18, 2011

How To Fix The HR Profession?

The seminal mockery of HR as a profession is the widely read article by Keith Hammonds in FAST COMPANY MAGAZINE entitled, "WHY WE HATE HR?". Take a moment to read the article if you have not had the pleasure. Hammonds' sardonic tone struck a sensitive chord throughout the HR world and was widely passed around the web for a few months and then was quietly swept under the rug and left largely unaddressed by the HR community. The truth hurts, and without question, Hammond had laid bare some ugly realities about the state of the profession.

As an apologist for the HR profession I whole-heartedly disagree with some of his main points and feel like his writing and arguments are riddled with logical fallacies -- however,  I concede that HR as a profession does have serious opportunities for development and improvement and within that context I will share a few thoughts inspired by his article.

Hammond's argument is summarized in four main points:

1. HR people aren't the smartest tacks in the box
2. HR pursues efficiency instead of value
3. HR is not working for you
4. The corner office does not get HR and vice-versa

In this post I want to explore in depth argument #1 regarding the "theorized relative stupidity of HR people" and another day I will address his other three points.

To set the stage (and boil the blood) -- a couple of quotes straight from Mr. Hammond:

"HR people aren't the sharpest tacks in the box...If you are an ambitious young thing newly graduated from a top college of Business School with your eye on a rewarding career in business, your first instinct is not to join the human-resources dance...Says a management professor at one leading business school, "The best and the brightest don't go into HR."

"HR doesn't tend to hire a lot of independent thinkers or people who stand up as moral compasses. Some HR people (sic) 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. (GRIMACE!)

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".

Are HR people generally unintelligent or relatively less mentally able when compared with their peers in other functions? In other words -- to candidly pose Hammond's question, "Are HR people stupid?"

I don't think so --

If you look at intelligence as a measure of business competence it is important to look to some sort of quantifiable and measurable standard in order to verify Hammond's assertion. Graduate schools use tests like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT etc. to test quantitative and analytical reasoning of potential candidates. In two other posts I have written at length regarding the best places to pursue a Masters in HR or a MBA with a HR emphasis. Those two posts are the most popular on this site and contain what I believe is the only current ranking of HR graduate programs.

HR professionals who pursue master degree level education in HR from these top schools are required to take the same standardized tests as those who pursue careers in other business functions. While the GRE may be perceived as a simpler test than the GMAT -- many of these schools accept either score. It is wildly unfair to categorize these HR people as unintelligent. Now is it possible that candidates for the top business schools in the countries have better test scores than candidates for the top HR programs? Yes -- but again it depends on the student.

I think the broader problem is that while the MBA is a standard proving ground for entry and advancement into some of the largest and richest companies in the world -- the same can not be said of HR. It is highly unlikely that you would scan the halls of a General Electric or IBM finance department and find non-credentialed executives.

HR is still a vastly different story and this is why Hammond's criticism strikes a nerve. While the academic credentials of HR leaders are continuing to improve over time - it is still common to find corporate HR departments full of serendiptious HR people i/e HR people that wandered into the profession without methodic intent. A HR professional who pursued a HR masters degree is a completely different animal than someone who started out as an administrative assistant, wandered their way into a staffing or recruiting role and then before they knew it sits as a HR Manager in a company. While this generalization may be offensive, it is apparent that this unintentional HR professional still prowls the halls of corporate america and brings down the rest of the profession.

Hammond nails this point when he cites a Society of Human Resource Management study that, "a considerably smaller proportion of HR professionals today have some education beyond a bachelor's degree than in 1990." That type of data causes the profession to regress as the quality of the HR people has not kept up with the strategic awareness and intent of 21st century HR.

What's the solution?
1. We need more intentional HR people. We need to market the profession to a new generation of academically qualified and trained HR professionals who can bolster the HR brand and improve the functions effectiveness in corporations across America.

2. We need the HR Masters programs to modernize themselves and assure they are providing rigorous quantitative and qualitative training to assure the graduates can hit the ground running. We the need the HR Masters programs to market themselves better to undergraduate students and current HR workers. We need them to attract higher caliber talent and assure they are producing a product that competes head to head with MBA programs. If the HR Masters programs fail to improve and adapt a day will come when the MBA will become the standard credential for HR pro's.

3. We need to continue HR transformation efforts within our companies. The function can not be effective with the same stodgy staff that had plugged along year after year. If people lack the necessary quantitative skills, executive presence, action/results orientation etc...Then they need to move on.

I realize HR work varies depending on company size and industry and that is difficult to write a post that captures all levels of thought on the topic -- but I feel strongly that Hammond's jabs should not go without response. If HR people are not the smartest tacks in the box as he claims, then it is our responsibility to refute his claims as strongly as possible.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Maj Gen B K Bhatia said...

Operations in any business can not be managed without human resources. When the operations are inefficient, it is customary to blame HR. Labels such as : HR's inability to motivate, faulty shift management, inadequate attention to employee grievances, complex HR processes, delays in performance & remuneration reviews, faulty training, right man not in the right place and so on... are used to greet the HR folks. When budget requests are made by HR to acquire technology solutions, managements side line the issue by talking of some higher priority needs. How do they expect from HR any value addition to business when the tools for imparting value are denied?

The CEOs need to deliberate on this issue since HR guys joining them from top business schools will need technology solutions to make HR as a strategic partner in business. Will you meet their needs or decide 'How to fix your HR?'.