HR is in Trouble

HR is in Trouble 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Since I have the pleasure of facilitating a session at HRevolution 2011 with Steve Browne, it seemed like a good idea to start the dialogue on our blogs before getting to Atlanta in hopes that we’ll be able to add more depth to our discussion there.  The title of our session is “If HR is so bad, what are YOU going to do about it?”


Thanks for the thoughts related to the State of the HR Union.  You and several others who I respect a great deal have weighed in on the topic and it seems to me that in summary, HR is in trouble.  The descriptions of where HR stands today could be summarized as transforming, in flux, precarious, better, and losing the battle.  There seems to be an idealistic sense that we’ve gotten better, but that seems like a pretty low bar to clear.  With as much effort as we spend dissecting ourselves, having conferences, writing about it, we had better be better.  There also seems to be some cautious optimism and anticipation of the future.  But I would guess that pundits from a decade ago probably would have said much the same things about HR at that time as we are saying today.  So, are we really making progress as a whole?

One this is crystal clear to me, we have a lot of work to do.  I doesn’t matter where we’ve come from or how we got here.  All that matters is the path forward.  Personally, while I think it’s important that HR focus on becoming better and more effective, it might be time to take a giant step back and reconsider why HR exists in the first place and then smash that model to pieces.  If we are truly honest, here’s what I think our mission statement would be for HR:

HR exists to try to compensate for and minimize the effect of poor management and a lack of organizational leadership.  

This is the hard reality that we face each day.  And when you spend your days and nights living this mission, there’s not much time left to address bigger issues like, “How can we make work more meaningful?”  The dirty secret behind our entire discussion is that strategic and transformational HR cannot exist in an organization with a leadership vacuum.  Organizational culture flows from the top and it does not change simply because HR is passionate.

So, that brings me to the question you posed for me in your last post: 

Have we buried passion for HR in systems and methodology in order to appear to be relevant in the business world?

I am not sure that we’ve buried our passion under systems and methodologies.  I think that our passion is getting choked out by bad management and absent leadership.  HR cannot transform organizations on our own.  All the passion, talent and skill in the world cannot compensate for a lack of leadership at key spots within the organization.  You show me a successful HR leader or team and I’ll show you an organization with a strong CEO or executive team.  They don’t exist independently.

Poor leaders favor the simplicity of systems and technology over the messiness of humanity.  So I think it’s natural that HR, in our quest to be accepted by and welcomed to a “table” surrounded by executives with missing leadership capabilities who secretly wish people would more like machines, tries to build systems that promise to take some of the unpredictability out of managing humans.  Shame on us for falling into this trap, but it is fairly predictable and hard to resist.

So, what’s the solution?  For one, we have to stop enabling bad management.  Our entire systems are set up to let bad managers off the hook, that has to change.  We also have to seek out great leaders and commit ourselves to helping those leaders build amazing organizations where human potential can be set free.

Your ball, Steve.  What do you think on this topic?

  • Linda

    I have always thought that HR has inherited the posture of being the "enforcer" of employment law, dealing with bad behavior, etc. We have attempted to become more "strategic" in the organization, but still find ourselves stuck in the rut of enforcer. Like you Jason, I always want so see what can be done as opposed to the alternative which is usually 'we can't do that because…' And like you I believe leadership is the key to vision regarding what potential HR has in an organization. Finding leaders who understand the potential of HR and aligning with those leaders is paramount if change is to occur and indeed sometimes those leaders are hard to find!!!

  • Trish McFarlane

    Jason, you know I usually agree with your stance on HR in general, but today, I am trying to wrap my mind around what you claim our mission statement should be. You say it's to, "try to compensate for and minimize the effect of poor management and a lack of organizational leadership."

    While that is certainly one goal that can support the overall role and mission of HR, it is not our mission. I believe the reason that HR exists is something like this:

    HR exists to provide expertise in hiring, coaching, and advising leadership in managing the people aspect of the business. We also provide the compliance aspects related to people.

    Your idea is certainly what reality is for many of us. I do spend a great deal of time trying to compensate for the skills that managers do not have mastered as it relates to people. This is a way that HR minimizes the effect of poor leadership. However, we do have to accept that a major part of the HR role (at lower levels) is to ensure that employees are paid properly, documented properly, administered benefits of all kinds, and that we follow the laws related to employees.

    It's not glamorous work. The problem I see, and I include myself in this, is that once we do those compliance pieces for years we want to do glamorous work. So, we set out to create it. We start morphing our work into a hybrid of HR/marketing/financial/communications and that is ok. We just can't forget that part of the sole purpose of HR has to remain the compliance piece.

    I love when you say that HR cannot change organizations on our own. So, what CAN we do?

    1. Get more honest. We have to be able to tell leaders straight up when they are deficient in managing their people.
    2. We have to have the confidence in our expertise and tell these leaders how we can help them improve on their leadership capabilities.
    3. We need to OWN the compliance piece proudly. WE need to be BOLD here. The most senior leadership needs to hear us say, "We have the compliance piece all tied up with a ribbon. We're experiencing 100% accuracy in processing and tracking information." Since we're not there yet, it's hard to be seen as credible in other areas we want to play in.
    4. We need to manage our HR departments better. Look around. We have the same people issues that other departments have. Cut loose the poor performers, create a vision that directly leads to success and then execute.

    Now I'm rambling…..guess I need to bring this to your session… 🙂

  • Jason Lauritsen

    Trish, the good news is that still have a good track record of agreement. The mission I put forth isn't what I think it should be, it's what I think it is if you observe our daily actions. At least, when I observe the actions of HR across many organizations, it seems to me we spend most of our days compensating for poor management and leadership, and thus we never seem to get upstream to meaningfully work on more strategic issues.

    Your comments are right on and I hope that others will find and follow your 4 recommendations above. You are one of the best and are setting a great example for all of us to follow.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  • costofwork

    This goes back to the practice versus procedure conversation, I remember from my days in college. Professor told us straight out, we teach what should be practiced in HR, but what you will find as procedure is totally different. Its been my experience that we enable poor management and we end up trying to minimize risks the company places itself in as a result of poor management. Managers will try to hire who they want, make side deals and then come to HR to make it happen. Not concerned about the possibility of discriminating, effects on morale or productivity. We are the people they come to clean up their mess, insted of being the place they come to keep from getting messy. Wow this is a great conversation for a Sunday morning…Let's get it cracking.

  • Chase LeBlanc

    Jason, I have a simple "what are you going to do about it" suggestion –

    Stop Using “Manager” as a Job Title!

    In business, if you are managing people in any way, shape or form, you are clearly expected to be a leader of your team/tribe but leadership is rarely, if ever, included in a job title and by implication (from the jump) leadership responsibilities are promoted as secondary. We are playing catch-up to the “ideal” – of managers who are good leaders – from the second they are hired.

    Business leaders,HR and training/development departments are working against the blending of leadership and management skills by utilizing a job title that positions one clearly over the other.

    I know that it is hard to change the world, nix that, a word, but it seems that it would be of great service to indicate at the start that these jobs include both, and both are equally important. Try using leadagers (leed/a/jers) to describe a leader who manages, and a manager who leads. This is in alignment with the true aim of any job description – clarity.

    Leadership is a term for a “role” that one seeks or is thrown into (or back-doors into), and is brought into play when one must influence/guide/impact others. Management refers to the “job” of having responsibility for bringing about specific outcomes or overseeing certain activities. You can be a leader without management responsibilities, which is called a figurehead. If you have no other person within your span of influence (let’s say you’re operating a street-cart) then you can manage things without being a leader.

    If you have the job of “manager” which includes supervision of others, then you are expected to show some iota of leadership skills, as it will be “on you” to get the group to pull together (without breaking apart) and to accomplish the tasks set forth. There are many good managers who are bad leaders and many (short-lived) acceptable leaders who are bad managers.

    It is important to make a distinction between the two for illustrative purposes and instruction. Even though common belief holds that they are conjoined twins, they are in fact dizygotic twins. The same mother, but difficult and different skill sets.

    It does not matter if you are a leader who manages or a manager who leads. In the world of work, nobody will truly trust or willingly follow you until you prove that you know what you are talking about. The only real way out of this is by going through it. The often overlooked fact (by the uninitiated) is that on any job, you will have to create a “trading currency.” You will be tested to see what you can handle (by the principal player’s reckoning, not yours). This is also referred to as paying your dues, earning your stripes, or street cred.

    The developmental benchmarks (or acumen) you should focus on are the equivalent of possessing a strong right and left arm, a quick left and right brain, and effective leadership (soft) and management (hard) skills. The more you utilize all of your resources, the easier it will be to respond to the inevitable forthcoming peaks and valleys.

    Think of it this way: If you are in business with others, you are in hot pursuit of business coordination, a graceful exhibition of leadership and management (despite their differences) balancing in motion. The demonstrable necessity of business coordination, or blending of leadership and management, is not acknowledged by staying on the manager side of the river.

    It is also best if you think of yourself as always being in motion toward desired outcomes. Advancing/upgrading your skills are directly linked to improvement of career traction – out of a ditch or over a mountain.

    Here is the crux question for business leaders in HR or otherwise – Are you promoting the reliance of an on-the-job-granted positional authority to herd one’s team/tribe, or from the beginning, do you also promote flying a flag that others wish to rally around?

  • Dawn

    Jason, Jason, Jason–
    I love this conversation. I agree with your assessment that we are there to compensate for poor managers. Big Time.

    I don't disagree with Trish–so much of what she says is true. Quite frankly, I get tired of HR peeps trying to act like we shouldn't be into compliance. Its an important and necessary part of the job. However, a majority of the time I am assisting in the decisions that many think mgrs, by shear inheritance of the title Manager, should be prepared to handle.

    Some would say these managers are bad. But I would say "bad" management isn't always by design. Management talent is as varied as human emotion. There are plenty of great managers who succumb to bad circumstance, melodrama, or taking things too personally. Great managers do not always make great decisions. So the very best work I do, the most transformative work I do is when I coach, train, teach, mentor…hell, when I just listen to the managers I support.

    So why is assisting with or even compensating for bad managers non-transformative? I tell my team daily– the best work HR does is behind the scenes, during one-on-one conversations. This is where trust is build. And where there is trust—there is transformation.

    So HR doesn’t need to be front-and-center to be important, it just has to Be….

  • Jay Kuhns, SPHR

    Great post Jason. Terrific discussion…I'll keep my remarks brief. If HR does not lead the way in removing ineffective leaders, our organizations will suffer – big time. Almost every issue, challenge, success and failure is a product of good leadership allowing great employees to do their work. Get the bad leaders out, now.

  • Anonymous

    I do have a question? I was in H.R just two weeks ago to ask a question on my daughter being pregnant and the lady please no one knows yet. Come to find out she told someone and got back to me and my daughter. This is the same company who says that if you are related to someone at the company you can not apply in H.R due to personal and confidential info.Should i say something or just let it go?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Jason Lauritsen