The Truth Behind HR’s Poor Reputation

HR Business Partner

Written by Nicole Mathers

January 29, 2024

Ah, the age-old question; “…so what do you do for work?” – a classic that comes your way often – “I’m in HR“, you say.  And with that, you’re likely no stranger to the predictable responses that follow – fear; anger; frustration; disapproval; amusement.

As the conversation unfolds, you will likely be informed about an experience: those who’ve felt the sting of unwelcomed and career impacting decisions; those who think HR is down right scary; those who’ve sent their job applications into the abyss of silence (admittedly very justified); and those creative types who’ve mastered the art of navigating around HR to get what they need. 
No one signed up for a poor reaction to their chosen profession.  Lawyers also make unfavourable decisions yet the announcement of ‘lawyer’ as your profession is mostly met with approval, admiration even.  My co-founder is also a lawyer and she will be the first to tell you the HR gig is tougher – so why the disparity?
As seasoned corporate HR practitioners who have always done it differently (sometimes controversially so), we are constantly amazed (and vocal) about the apparent stagnation of our chosen profession.  We think the absence of evolution to a true strategic player is what is harming our credibility.

91% of HR leaders stated they have the skills to be CEOs but only 13% are prioritising financial performance*.

In the recent Sage Research Report*, “The Changing Face of HR in 2024“, it was revealed that a whopping 63% of C-suite leaders still view HR primarily through the lens of administration (read here).
In this same research, 91% of HR leaders stated they have the skills to be CEOs but only 13% are prioritising financial performance. Many HR practitioners say they are strategic, but could it be “strategic” through a lens of admin, policy policing, and a ‘back of house’ mentality, using only rules and policies to influence, rather than a commercial whole of business focus?

So how do we get some of that lawyer kudos?

To earn recognition, you must establish credibility. Credibility comes from actively contributing to tangible and impactful changes. This involves engaging in work that allows for the quantifiable measurement of significant outcomes through people-focused, commercially aligned strategic initiatives that foster growth and make culture great. 
For those aspiring to become more effective and credible, these are two fundamental basics:

1.    The ‘NO!’ Police

Stop saying no! In many businesses it is an undeniable fact that HR is the “No Police”. Bureaucratic, bogged down by a narrow focus on laws, policies, rules and regulation.
This is largely unhelpful for anyone and leads to frustration, distrust and avoidance. Sure, the rules are very important, but the manner in which the rules are interpreted, deployed and adhered too, are an entirely different matter.
Here’s when the penny dropped for me. A Senior Manager month after month was overspent on labour getting increased pressure to cut costs. When I asked why she was struggling to manage her labour spend, she lamented that the operational schedule had changed, but she had been told by previous HR people that she could never change the roster. It was fixed and inflexible. So she was required to build a budget based on the business plan, but had to deploy her labour expense in a way that didn’t match. The previous HR people had told her that the “rules in the Award” and the “policy” meant no change – ever!
This was the health care industry, so they were right to be cautious, but they were also fundamentally wrong. A default position of “lets find a way to say yes to your changes”, a quick bit of research and some modelling, and I was able to find a way. In fact, a way that was better for everyone.
Risk assessments can be done, controls put in place and policies rewritten. Consultation and change management plans can see HR influence all parties for a better outcome. This is what I did and it resulted in a solution that not only saved money, but made the business more agile, gave employees more flexibility, and changed the perception of the value HR can add. That Manager still calls me for advice today!
In short, find ways to say ‘YES’ (make it your default mindset), not ways to say ‘NO’. A CEO has a mandate to pave the way for growth and success, HR needs to do the same – start paving the way.

2.    Check your motivation

In the hundreds of HR interviews we have conducted at all levels, 9 times out of 10, when we ask “…so why HR as a profession?”, the answer is: I just love working with people”. It is a devastating blow!
Don’t worry if you’ve said this, early on I said it too, but this is why I would never say it now.
The statement is overly generic and lacking specificity. Virtually every job involves some level of interaction with people. But, truly exceptional HR professionals go beyond a simple affinity for people. They possess the skills and attributes needed to craft commercially astute, results-oriented strategies. Merely expressing a general interest in working with people signals a potential gap in understanding the nuanced requirements of building a culture and driving transformative change.
If your motivation for HR lies in just the love of people, there’s a risk that your approach may be reactive, centered on responding to requests rather than proactively shaping and implementing strategies. A reactive approach will hinder your ability to be influential, leaving your decisions without context, potentially poorly received, and this leads us back to HR’s bad rap.

 

Our call to action is to encourage a shift in focus. To discerning what the business needs to fulfill its promises as an employer, and on building a culture of high trust, inclusivity, and high performance. Skill yourself in the commercial and financial knowledge that you need to create the right strategies and steer away from drowning in administrative tasks. We say, “flick the switch”.
By placing strategy at the forefront, you’ll create a landscape where proactivity reigns over reactivity. Embrace this approach, and you’ll find yourself making a tangible difference and building credibility.
With a strategic approach, HR can shed its poor rap and rightfully claim its position as an essential business partner integral to growth and success.  The creditbility of our profession as a whole is depending on it.

As practitioners with years of in-house Corporate experience, we know the role of HR is hard, we also know that becoming strategic, influential and value add is a journey supported by mentoring. This is why we offer people strategy workshops and HR masterclasses facilitated by Marnie Brokenshire (30+ years corporate HR, 15 at C-Suite), and Nicole Mathers (10+ years corporate HR, 5 at senior management).  Reach out to see how we can support you.

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