I Used to Think HR was B.S. Here’s Why I Was Dead Wrong.

It’s easy for business executives to rag on the historically annoying nature of HR. But the field has changed to the point where it’s no longer a necessary evil but a strategic differentiator.
HR

I’m going to write something that may surprise some of our readers: I used to be a skeptic of the human resources profession.

And by skeptic, I mean full-throated, unrelenting advocate for the notion that HR, in general, was a bunch of bullshit.

In fact, I remember it like it was yesterday, that first time I spoke to my mom, a career HR professional, about my impression of the field after my first day at work at Human Capital Media (Talent Economy’s parent company) a little more than six years ago. I actually said to her, “Mom, I think it’s sort of a bunch of bullshit.”

And yeah, I really said bullshit. I thought that was being nice, too.

She reluctantly agreed, saying that, yeah, some of the “softer” sides of the HR profession, like leadership development, learning, etc., came with the stink of nonsense. I remember my first interview as a young editor over the phone with a learning and development executive. The eye rolls from my end of the phone call grew too many to count. The executive said a lot without saying anything at all. It was over-the-top inspirational yip-yap without a ton of substance. You could tell they just enjoyed hearing themselves talk.

To be fair, before coming to HCM and being ingratiated to the world of HR, I was in a very different environment. My first job out of journalism school, where I studied to be a business and economics reporter, was in commercial real estate. Most of my conversations then were with people in finance, law or other transactional occupations. The interviews were short, mostly dealing with hard business transactions, like the selling of an office tower or the foreclosure on a shopping mall. The subject matter was extremely technical, clear and to the point, formulaic even.

This was initially a great way to learn the world of business, but it left out a whole other side to it that I didn’t yet understand. And that side was the business of talent, organization, culture and people management.

Obviously, I’m not alone in once thinking HR was a big loser. A lot of business executives still do today. Sure enough, if you stopped someone on the street from most any other corporate function and asked them about their impressions of the people in HR, the reviews wouldn’t be good. To them, HR is a big pain in the ass, a function that is a necessary and annoying evil. We need someone to manage payroll, administer benefits and document and solve employee conflict. We need a way to systemize hiring and firing.

For many business executives, having to deal with HR is like visiting the dentist for a root canal — it’s not fun.

Yet, over the years my view has slowly evolved from thinking the profession was a giant dumpster fire to one that is perhaps more important than anything else. Obviously, I wouldn’t have remained covering the industry if I didn’t eventually feel this way.

Yes, there are many things about traditional HR that I still find annoying. HR people still have a ways to go on developing proper business acumen and perspective on what influences executive decision-making. But the more I’ve learned about the importance of building and scaling high-performing organizations, the more I’ve realized that the people side of business is probably more important than anything else. So many businesses have top-notch people running their operations, finance, marketing and other corporate functions, but they still struggle as a company.

Why?

Maybe some of these companies have legitimate tactical problems within these business areas, but I’d venture to say that a great many of them struggle because they don’t get the people, organization and culture side of the equation right.

Deeply embedded within HR and the talent side of business is a need to carefully manage the psychology and sociology of both individuals and teams. Certainly if you’re reading this as an HR lifer, this is no surprise to you. But if you’re reading this as a long-skeptical business executive, you might want to check yourself. There’s a lot going on in your organization that you don’t realize is affecting your business — and it has little to do with numbers or transactions.

So much of what I’ve learned over the years is that the real value in HR and talent is being able to properly organize and execute ways to get organizations performing to their potential, and more times often than not, achieving that goal comes down to the psychology and sociology of organizations and people — not necessarily how good people are at their specific, technical disciplines.

I see this all the time in professional sports. Teams with less-talented players succeed because collectively they have a culture that is superior.

So to any executive driving the HR-sucks train, as I once was, let me tell you: You’re wrong. And as a result, you may be costing your company big time in ways that you’ll never see on a balance sheet — at least not in plain sight.

Today more than ever, the business of talent is what’s driving top companies. That requires executives to lean into the HR and talent side of the business, not out of it.

HR isn’t a bunch of bullshit — the notion that it is needless, unimportant and secondary to business is.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.

  • Karel Sovak

    Frank, Good stuff here; however, there are still so many stagnant HR departments that are stuck in the hire/retention/policy driven venues, and don’t see themselves as strategically important. Marcus Buckingham notes that HR has a “relevancy” issue. These departments have done that to themselves, through this annual performance evaluations and remediation style. Today, HR has the potential to be so much more but they have to be empowered to want to think along those lines. As for strategy, you are so right and so is Peter Drucker – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so until we invest in a cultural that values people, all this is is rhetoric. Keep fighting the battle.

    • Walt Carter

      Karel, Couldn’t agree more. The key to the win going forward is the caliber and motivation of the people on your teams. We know so much (like Buckingham’s work, or Daniel Pink’s work, or Pfeffer & Sutton, or James Heskett) but we are not deploying what has been known for years effectively nor are we inculcating these foundational ideas into our cultures. Shoulder to shoulder – with you.

  • I am a bit skeptical of weighing in on a discussion that is barely a discussion (seven days after the post, only two comments), but here I go anyway. HR can succeed only when the person at the top of the organization has a deep understanding of what HR is, why it is valuable and how it can and should contribute to the success of the company. Such understanding eludes 80% of those who head up organizations, in my experience and observations. CEO’s who complain about HR far too often are using (and abusing) HR because the CEO’s don’t want to do the hard work that is HR — the HR work that the CEO, not the HR Department or the CHRO, is responsible for doing. You can delegate the management of all the other functions of an organization — Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Sales, etc. — but you cannot delegate the management of people. Managers cannot continue to offload their HR responsibilities onto the HR function, and HR should not stand for it, but, sadly, HR does. Tens of thousands of managers will have their performance evaluated this year. Some will be promoted and earn big bonuses and pay raises. The vast majority, though, will not suffer an iota of consequences for being poor managers of people, no matter who is at fault for their poor people management results. Small wonder, then, that we have — and have had for most of the past 100 years — the annual “Why CEO’s hate HR and What HR Can Do About It” discussion.