Around the world: human resources – HR’s last hurrah

Vienna: Regular perusers of this column will have noted that I often have fun at the expense of human resources (HR) managers (or HR professionals as they like to address each other). Well no more. Because there is little point in having fun with a group like this when – according to a survey just released at a conference here in Vienna – they have zero self-worth.

This survey – carried out amongst a cross-section of human resources managers and other line managers – had a few predictable bits. One was that hard-pressed line managers don’t think much of HR. In fact they think so little of it they rank it below functions like distribution. OK. I’ll be honest, they rank it bottom of the whole organisational heap in terms of usefulness and influence.

What is not so predictable however, is that HR managers rank their own function in exactly the same way. They think (at least 350 of them from large corporations around Europe do) that they have zero influence, are at the bottom of the corporate pecking order and don’t seem to have any prospects of improving their lot in the immediate future.

So what’s wrong with HR ?

Well the temptation is to make the trite comment, there’s never been anything right with it. But, let’s be serious for a moment. We are told that excellent organisations are those that are paying more attention to the softer elements of the organisation.

We see countless articles in management journals that boldly state that it is the caring corporation that wins in the long run. We are asked to believe that people in our businesses are every much a part of our brand image as the boxes of product we produce. People, people, people is the mantra of the 21st century corporation.

If all that is true, why aren’t human resource executives rising to the top, why aren’t they sought out for their wise words and strategic counsel?

Well, the answer sadly is that the people issues are, in the words of one chief executive, “just too important to leave to human resources”.

And there’s the rub. Just as people become the key to the corporate future, the whole responsibility gets hijacked by those at the top table, aided and abetted by their very able, very presentable, very fast-talking consultants.

Yes, the people bit is turning into a very nice little earner for the big six, five, four, three, two or whatever, plus thousands of other consulting firms and HR hasn’t got a look in.

Every headhunter around the globe – at least those with more than one location (and they all have at least 60 offices, as the list at the bottom of the letterhead will testify) – now has a full-blown human resources practice.

What this does is a mystery, but it sounds good. It gets them into the boardrooms of global industries as acceptable referees. It allows them to give sage and satisfactory counsel to the chief executive officer, and woe betide the little runt from personnel who gets in the way.

As this survey showed, few HR people get their say in senior-level recruitment processes.

In other organisations, line managers tired of the complicated plans and procedures of the human resources department are taking matters into their own hands. What all this has done is leave HR with a list of basic functions to perform, and many – like payroll, training and entry level recruitment – are now outsourced to specialist organisations who do it better for less money.

What we are seeing in the dying days of the 20th century is the serious possibility of the death of human resources as we know it. It is a function – too often staffed by people who have never worked at the sharp end of business – that has run out of reason to exist: corporate Darwinism ensures that this species won’t survive for long.

This conference I am at is an annual event that I have been fortunate enough to attend most years since 1972 – a quarter of a century. At the first conference I attended there was a call from the platform for personnel managers (they hadn’t stuck that heady title of human resources onto their business cards yet) to rise up and seize the initiative. It was exciting.

It was wonderful to be a part of this revolution.

I was back the following year and the year after and the year after that.

Every year someone – they all looked the same, only the cut of the suit changed slightly each demi-decade – stood up and gave yet another resounding speech, another call to arms.

“Rise up and take control. Human resources belongs in the corridors of power. Go back to your organisations and make the difference.”

This year – 26 years later – I’ve finally realised (Yeah, I’m slow) that this is a ritual dance of a private club. You come each year and the chosen one gets up and delivers THE speech. You feel good. You go back to your job as HR director of the Acme Global Widget Corp and the thought of what could be sustains you for another 12 months.

This year 750 or so HR managers gathered here in Vienna to listen once again. As they walked out they glowed with pride. They were something, they were going to be something. They couldn’t say when or how, but they knew they were people of destiny.

Sadly, the reality of their true destiny hasn’t yet revealed itself to them. But I’ll bet anyone that while they were shouting “hurrah for HR” there was a consultant burning the midnight oil looking for innovative ways to help his client’s chief executive get the most out of the people.

The other bet is that the consultant is an ex-human resources manager who has seen the light and knows how the scenario plays out.

Mike Johnson is president of Johnson & Associates a corporate communications consultancy based in Brussels and the author of Getting a GRIP on Tomorrow, and Managing in the Next Millennium. He is working on a new book on great corporate secrets overheard in hotel lobbies around the globe.

Related reading

HMRC banknotes