Kill HR?

By Allen Greenberg

Did you happen to see that Wall Street Journal piece headlined, “Companies say no to having an HR department”?

If you’re in the human resources business, that’s gonna grab your attention, right?

In case you missed it, here’s an excerpt that conveys the gist of the article:

“Companies seeking flat management structures and more accountability for employees are frequently taking aim at human resources. Executives say the traditional HR department — which claims dominion over everything from hiring and firing to maintaining workplace diversity — stifles innovation and bogs down businesses with inefficient policies and processes.

“At the same time, a booming HR software industry has made it easier than ever to automate or outsource personnel-related functions such as payroll and benefits administration.”

Wow. Sounds like the end of times, no?

I’m sure there’s truth to some of it, especially the notion of HR processes slowing things down. But I also think that, headline notwithstanding, the story is overblown and, in many ways, off the mark.

For starters, the idea of flattening your organization is hardly new. It’s been around for decades. Automation and outsourcing are old hat, too.

Thomas Parry, the president of the Integrated Benefits Institute, said it’s no surprise companies, especially smaller employers, might be exploring new ways to do what HR has traditionally addressed.

“But it is essential (employers) remember that integrating health and related benefits can help drive a healthier and better-performing workforce, which ultimately maximizes the efficacy of their human capital,” Parry said.

In other words, there’s no way software alone can do what HR does.

Apparently still feeling the sting, IBI issued yet another defense of HR several days after Parry’s comments. This time, it turned to Steve Adams, the CEO of Navera, which happens to sell HR software that helps people make better-informed choices about their benefits.

“Automating important … HR processes and freeing up HR professionals to focus on strategic, high-value programs related to employees should be the goal, not getting rid of the HR department,” Adams said.

“Human resource management is a profession with critical skills like any other function within a company, and it’s unwise to think that distributing the responsibility across managers with a wide range of skills wouldn't create serious financial, legal and operational risks. In fact, we should be placing greater emphasis on the strategic role that HR professionals can play.”

Who in HR would disagree?
I’m not here to shill for HR. But it’s clear that the real problem is that HR too often isn’t given the respect it deserves. It’s not invited into the C-Suite, and it doesn’t get asked for its thinking about corporate strategy.

Of course, if you’re a CEO, HR isn’t where you’ll find operational expertise. But CEOs would do well to remember that HR often can bring an even wider, if not global, view of all kinds of issues critical to corporate growth.

After all, HR is often where everyone goes to share all that stymies the development and potential of the people we employ, regardless of their title or role in a company.

There’s also a more cut-and-dried argument here. If you’re busy helping find new markets, developing new technologies or doing whatever it is that you do, how can you be expected to also master all that HR brings to the table?

Compliance is a bear, guys, and I can’t for a minute imagine trying to manage a widget factory floor while staying on top of the Affordable Care Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and so on.

So, what about that damning Wall Street Journal piece?

Well, funny thing is, the first company highlighted in the article just hired an employee “to focus on all things related to people.”

She isn’t called a human-resources executive, though; she has no title at all.

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