HR – Facing an Identity Crisis

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on July 20, 2013

HR – Management messengers or voice of employees?

Role of HR – Percolate the management philosophy or flag employee concerns?

Traditionally HR must have been defined as a group of individuals taking care of the human capital of an organization. However, the role now seems to be of walking a tight rope between management and employees and therefore the issue of “switching loyalties” arises. Who are the HR folks? What is their identity? What role do they play in the corporate jungle? Are they merely back end supporters or actually back bones of any organization? Whose side are they supposed to be – management or employees?

The term management always seeks objectivity, however human resource management is quite the opposite. It is devoid of formulae unlike finance or methods unlike operations. In fact, human resources – the term itself begins with nature’s most complex creation – “humans”. Each human being reacts to different situation differently unlike machines that have standard operating methods or balance sheets that need to be scrutinized by using accounting standards and formulae. Managing humans (read employees) is supposedly the toughest management role considering absence of set rules / success formulae.

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It is noteworthy, how this function has evolved over years. The journey from mere administration to personnel management and then human resource management is an illustrious one.

Human resources function is considered to be the bridge between the management and the employees; bringing the two closer and striving to keep them on the same platform. But unfortunately it ends up bearing the brunt of employees’ ire if it devises employer friendly policies or management’s thunder if it voices too many concerns of employees earning the title of “Rebels” instead of resources. In a nutshell, it is the HR that gets victimized at both hands.

The unfortunate incident at a car manufacturing plant (irked labourers burning the General Manager – HR alive) or firing of a senior HR person from a reputed IT company are testimony to the treatment meted out to HR.

According to a research carried out by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) and Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions in 2011, HR folks lack influence within their companies and act as mere communicators of board room decisions without any say in them.  “Kept out of business loop” is the more appropriate description.

Puppet of Management

HR, these days seems to lack independent opinion. Their role is being carved in such a way that they remain nothing more than a corporate communication cell. PR agencies handle external communication while HR handles internal communication. In this process, HR loses faith of employees and is branded as “anti-employees”.

Lacks a professional face

Why do other management functions normally tend to have an upper hand over HR? Why does the management not muddle in the affairs of finance or operations? Most other management functions have professional associations overseeing their function like ICAI for chartered accountants, RBI for bankers, FDA for pharmacists, IMA for doctors etc. There are various laws and regulations for workmen under various acts like Factories’ Act, Industrial Disputes Act etc but they predominantly cover IR – industrial relations instead of HR.

Reporting woes

Most organizations have reporting structure where HR is made to report to either SBU heads or Location heads. This is where the misery begins. HR feedback, reports, opinion etc get filtered by the time they reach the Head of the organization as each unit / location would not want to get into the bad books hence just cook the books!!

Language difference

HR folks tend to be subjective. This is the beauty of this role. Ideally each case should be seen from fresh perspective instead of old glasses (past records). Past behaviour is only an indicator, not predictor of future actions. However, in this cut throat competition, management across the globe seem to understand only one language – Numbers!! Yes, if HR also starts talking in terms of ROHI (Return on human investment), Net Human Loss or Human Capital cost benefit ratio, it might lead to a significant change of management perspective towards HR. After all, business is nothing but profit and loss statement; the rosy terms like societal interest, employee welfare, environmental interest follow only after the pockets are full (read profits).

“One size fits all” processes and policies

The genesis of process manuals or policies was meant to act as reference / base / standard for arriving at any decision without harming the interest of any of the parties involved. However, HR and the management seem to totally misconstrue the very meaning of process manuals and policies. With the advent of globalization, it is practically not possible to design tailor made policies for each employee working for the same organization sitting at different locations across the globe. However logic demands tailor made approach to each case; where the policies or process manuals only act as reference guide. Several soft factors like gender, society, location, religion, culture etc come into foreplay of myriad people issues. Unfortunately in majority of the cases, HR in the name of policies ends up ruffling feathers of many employees thus creating atmosphere of unrest, injustice and mistrust.

Management perspectives

  • Lack of business acumen – According to survey of CEOs by Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) and Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions in 2011, most CEOs feel that HR folks lack business acumen. This is one of the major reasons of keeping them “out of business loop”. Recruitment is one thing but designing people strategy based on business strategy is a different game altogether. HR folks need to actually sink in their teeth into the domain understanding, industry overlook, changing economic scenario, government regulations etc and envisage its impact on talent pool required to sustain the competition.

  • Lack of Assertiveness – Communication and conviction are critical to HR role in business. So it’s crucial to blend the understanding of people fabric (geography, culture, gender, competency, career expectations) with business strategy and gain management’s nod on critical people policies that can create conducive work environment. Many a times, due to lack of assertiveness and inability to speak in Profit and Loss language, HR folks are unable to show the real picture to the management and their voice for people welfare falls on deaf ears.

Employee perspectives

“Employees first, customer second” by Vineet Nayar created stir upon its arrival. But the ground reality is that very few organizations have realized it or implemented it. In this case, HR should take the onus of brining in practical people policies accelerating the business growth. Without analyzing the people, business, industry, social, economic, and legal fabric, HR’s too orthodox or highly unconventional ideas or application of fads (fashionable people policies), can cost an organization dearly. HR should not push through unrealistic practices by using fear as a tool (fear of termination, impact on annual appraisal) etc. The negative word of mouth has actually marred the image of the HR profession itself equating the HR with goons or gullible.

HR needs to create an atmosphere of trust and confidence by tactfully communicating the management’s perspectives to the employees, gain their acceptance, while also flagging people issues appropriately in front of management and presenting them in context of business bottom lines. By virtue of profession, they cannot take either sides or change loyalty depending on situations. They need to learn the art of rope walking (keeping both management and employees on the same platform) so as to make significant contribution in organizational success.

In a nutshell, currently HR seems to be facing an identity crisis. In order to make their footing strong in the boardroom, they still have a long way to go. Other functions such as finance, operations, and marketing have reins of money, material and machinery while HR seems to possess the most crucial of all the assets without which other assets are rendered useless!! Still, HR is unable to capitalize on its strength and gain equal footing in the boardroom with other functions, which is quite disappointing. The current scenario demands HR folks to pull up their socks and work on 3 As –

  • Assertiveness (tactfully communicating the practical people strategies to both management and employees)
  • Acumen (Sharpen the business acumen to wield a greater say in business decisions)
  • Assimilation (Devise practical people strategies by decoding the complex and intricately interwoven economic, social, political, cultural and geographical fabric impacting the business)

Hopefully in the near future even HR Heads would become contenders for the C-suite like other function heads (IT, Finance, Marketing). Gear Up!!

This article has been authored by Abhilasha Lunia, Assistant Manager – Human Resources, Torrent Research Centre (Torrent Pharmaceuticals)

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