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How to save HR

How to save HR

Used with permission of the author:
Author: Jay Shepherd

CEO — Attorney
Shepherd Law Group
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
25 May 2007

The following article originally appeared in "Gruntled Employees" at www.gruntledemployees.com

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 11, 2007


Human Resources is perched on the edge of falling into irrelevance. Companies are outsourcing typical HR functions to India. Management often doesn't take HR seriously, viewing them as the nice, social-workerish people (usually women) who take care of the I-9 forms and the orientation tours. Last year's cover story in Fast Company "Why We Hate HR" showed how dire the HR situation is.
[If you haven't read the article, written by Keith H. Hammonds, click here and read it now. I'll wait. The story touched off a firestorm, offending most HR professionals. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about HR.]

So how do we save HR? As an employment lawyer who deals with HR professionals constantly, I've been gathering ideas for a solution. A manifesto, if you will, for keeping HR relevant. I'll share with you my keys to saving HR.

Step 1 — Change the altitude: Move HR to C-level

HR is in danger of falling into irrelevance. The first step for saving HR is to raise its altitude — to "C" level.

Most companies have a handful of executives who report directly to the CEO: the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Information Officer, the Chief Marketing Officer, and the Chief Legal Officer (usually called the General Counsel). But rare is the company that has its head of human resources sitting in the "C suite."

This makes no sense. Every company depends upon having the best people — the best talent — it possibly can to succeed. Without top talent, who actually does the operations, finances, technology, marketing, or legal stuff? Why do most companies relegate the recruiting and managing of talent to an administrative position that usually reports to the CFO? Even the term "human resources" — itself a euphemism for the drab "personnel" — demeans the role and its importance. HR professionals often decry not having "a seat at the table," and for good reason. Most companies fail to recognize the strategic role that HR should play.

Top business guru Tom Peters beats the drum for elevating HR to its rightful place in his excellent book Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age. On page 256 of the hardcover edition, Tom advocates for changing the name of HR to "Talent Department." (Or even the slightly more exuberant "Seriously Cool People who Recruit & Develop Seriously Cool People.") He writes:

I have long believed that human resources people should sit at the Head Table. I'm a fan of HR. It is ... after all... an Age of Talent.

Problem: All too often "HR folks" are viewed (all too) correctly as "mechanics." Not as ... Master Architects ... who aim too ... Quarterback the Great War for Talent.

(Tom loves ellipses and capital letters nearly as much as he loves exclamation points.) Tom blames all this on a "failure of imagination." And he's right. You could do worse than to read Tom's chapter on Talent and implement half of his ideas for building HR into a strategic arm of the company, with a Chief Talent Officer reporting directly to the CEO. (Also, you should subscribe to his blog.)

Most companies say that their employees are their most important assets. If that's true, they should put the person in charge of developing them at the right altitude: at C level.

Step 2 — Outsource the "personnel stuff"

The next step in saving HR is to get rid of the nickel-and-dime stuff.

There's a reason why many companies and their employees lack sufficient respect for their HR professionals. They spend too much of their time dealing with what I call "personnel stuff": I-9 forms, dress-code exceptions, sick-day tracking, floating-holiday calculation, progressive-discipline rules, snow-day cancellations, dental-plan waiting periods. This administrivia is the tail wagging the dog of HR. Even the most forward-thinking, strategy-minded HR chief has no time left to do the important work — developing and implementing the company's talent strategy — after dealing with all the personnel stuff.

Get rid of it.

Outsource it. Send it to India. Offload it to companies who provide these services as an "outside personnel department." Clear your desk of the nickel-and-dime stuff. Then you can focus on developing, managing, and retaining the best talent your company can get.

Step 3 — Avoid the knucklehead stuff

Quick recap: The first step in saving HR — establishing a Talent Department run by the Chief Talent Officer. The second step is to get rid of the nickel-and-dime stuff — the traditional, unimportant, uninspiring personnel administrivia.

Step Three is just as important: getting rid of the knucklehead stuff — the often-well-intentioned but inadvertently small-minded rules that accomplish nothing except giving HR a bad name.

An example, straight from the I-swear-I'm-not-making-this-up department:

A friend of mine just started a new job. With the holiday season around the corner, she was delighted to learn that the employer had an annual holiday party that was always a fun affair. Spouses were welcome. Even boyfriends and girlfriends. That is, if you had been dating for eight weeks. Otherwise, sorry. HR rules.

It's nice that the company wants to reward its employees with a little Festivus action at the end of the year. And it's even nicer to spend the extra dough to include the missus or mister at the fancy dinner. And it's further even nicer to extend that holiday cheer to the unmarried but reasonably committed. But you can just imagine the brow-furrowing that went on to decide where to draw the line. It might have gone something like this:

HR rulemaker: "We can't limit it to married couples. That could be discriminatory. What if the couple isn't married because they're gay? Or commitophobic?"
Other HR rulemaker (looking anguished): "But we can't just open the doors to a couple that just met yesterday! That wouldn't do."
"Good point. How about one months?"
"Too short. Could go either way. How about six months?"
"Two. They've probably met the parents by then."

OK: we kid because we love. But there had to be some thought that went into this, and it led to the ridiculous eight-week rule at my friend's company. And this is part of the reason why HR often lacks the respect they otherwise deserve. Well-intentioned rules that end up being silly.

Have the party — great! Let the employees bring dates — fine. But stay out of the business of qualifying those dates. That's just knucklehead stuff.

Jay Shepherd has been protecting employers in and out of court for a dozen years, and he's defeated some of the largest law firms in the USA. He's nationally known for his expertise in noncompete lawsuits and related business-employment litigation. Jay has defended employers large and small in discrimination cases in state and federal courts, and has helped management solve many labor-relations problems. He has taught seminars to thousands of employees, managers, and other lawyers on employment-law topics from sexual harassment to wage litigation. Jay's married to an employment lawyer at another Boston firm and has two young daughters (who are not employment lawyers). Jay's written a 700-page draft of a legal thriller, which someday he may have time to finish editing. Check out Jay's award-winning employer blog, Gruntled Employees, recently named Best HR Law site by Human Resource Executive magazine. He can be contacted at .

Short summary:
For HR to stay relevant to business today, it needs to see to changes in the workplace - get a seat on the "C suite", outsource the "personnel stuff" and avoid the "knucklehead stuff."

Key words and related phrases:
Executive board, personnel, HR policy, HR practice, talent, talent management.

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 11, 2007


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