“Why Do They ‘Hate’ HR?”

Ok, well — maybe not “hate,” exactly (though in some offices, this is no exaggeration, I’m sure).  Perhaps it’s something closer to this snippet of dialogue from Godfather III* (I know, I know — “it wasn’t as good as the first two,” something I still grieve over 20 years later):

  • Michael Corleone (Al Pacino): “You hate me — you truly hate me.”
  • Kay, ex-wife (Diane Keaton): “I don’t hate you, Michael.  I dread you.”

Is dread any better?  I don’t know.

* Apologies to my female readers.  I know that The Godfather is a “guy” thing mostly (and probably a New York guy thing, more particularly).

I realize this is continuing a theme drawn out in the first post of this blog (re: JFK Quote on ‘Happiness’) — that HR is roundly disliked.  I guess that this thought has really been bothering me lately — perhaps since it is a relatively recent “revelation” for me.  I wasn’t aware of what is apparently common knowledge until just a few years ago.

As I was in the midst of seeking a new HR position as part of a relocation back to the Northeast from Florida, one of my uncles said to me, “Why do you want a job in HR — everyone hates HR.”  As a veteran of 30 years in a large corporation and 10 more in small/mid-size businesses, he seemed to know from whence he spoke.  This truly was news to me, even though I was 15 years into my career at that point.  In the intervening years, there seems to be more and more evidence that this is the case in many offices.  This is contrasted, ironically enough, with the trend toward positioning HR as a “business partner” (why would you hate your “partner”?) — but more about that later.

I’m not sure exactly how or when this trend came to be, but to be candid, I do have a few guesses as to what may be contributing to it in many places. (All are real-life cases . . . but with “names changed to protect the innocent/guilty,” as it were!)

People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones
An alternate heading might be, “People don’t like ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do.’”  I’ve seen an HR leader or two over the years get
so enamored of advising the CEO that they forgot their primary job was running the HR department (i.e., providing service tothe organization).

In a sense, it’s understandable — you slog your way through the ranks,  hoping every day to move toward more and more “strategic” work.  Then, one day, you have a seat at the strategy table and you quickly forget that your “day job” remains meeting the company’s needs from a nuts-and-bolts perspective (i.e., the “blocking and tackling” of hiring/firing/compensating actual employees).  Losing sight of this, day to day HR operations start to slip and before you know it, you have managers saying, “How can they think they can help me fix my department if their own is such a mess?  Please — fill my open spots before you lecture me on ‘team-building’ programs I need to put in place.”

Afraid of Our Own Shadows
A favorite mantra of most employment attorneys that I know is, “We can be sued at any time for any reason.”  While this is inarguably true, HR may sometimes be too conscious of lawsuits — i.e., it’s just as true that we might not be sued today.  Yet, HR often has a “Chicken Little” reputation — spreading the “gospel of fear” out of proportion to reality.  Yes, we might get sued if we terminate a protected class individual with a spotty performance record even if not every “i” has been dotted nor every “t” crossed in the ideal corrective action process.  At the same time, though, it’s also true that the business has to operate in the way it sees fit and an undue fear of lawsuits should never paralyze us and prevent managers from doing what needs to be done.

“You’re Not The Boss of Me”
Part of our job in HR is to step back and try to help the organization “see” the road ahead.  A problem that occurs sometimes, though, is that we can become so convinced of the “truth” of our own “strategic vision” that we can come off as protectors of that vision, even if it isn’t exactly the organization’s vision.  Case in point:  I know of a high-performing HR team that spent several years spreading the “integration” vision of the division president (though, even then it was unclear exactly how passionate the president was about integration versus how much the HR VP wanted him to be passionate about it and thus “interpreted” his statements in that fashion).

When the president left for greener pastures, the HR team kept right on pushing “integration” — but without any visible backing from other corporate/divisions leaders talking about this anymore.  Predictably enough, this was roundly resented by the business unit heads, each of whom had their own vision of what was needed — and none of it had anything to do with integration (especially not since there wasn’t any longer a push “from above”).  Morale of the story: HR doesn’t  have the power to “enforce” anything if it’s not fully aligned with leadership.

I’d love to hear what you feel are the “sins” of HR (real or imagined).  A future post will explore the flip-side of this issue:  What does “good HR” look like (when HR “gets it right”)?

Note: Another interesting perspective on this can be found on the Workforce Management blog in an article entitled, “HR vs. Fear.”

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One response to ““Why Do They ‘Hate’ HR?”

  1. Celia Thompson

    My philosophy exactly from the HR perspective. I’ve always believed that HR should use our skills and experiece to help make the business successful (from their perspective, not ours). I’m anxious to see the next article on how to do it right.

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