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How elusive is good HR?

One of the many observations made by Peter Drucker during his lifetime advising business leaders is that one of the secrets of vital communication is in hearing what is not said. To Drucker’s insight I would add that in order to hear what is not said, we need to actually listen to what is said.

It’s not uncommon for work colleagues, especially managers, to use the expression: “I hear you”. Whether they listen in the sense that Drucker meant is sometimes questionable. Two stories came to my attention recently that I thought revealed failings to hear in the way that Drucker meant.

One was a story about a managing director who ‘sacked’ his entire HR department. The other was a story about an HR manager who resigned because his CEO interfered in what he regarded as his job.

Let’s look at the HR manager story first, as reported in Workplace Express. I refer to a case heard earlier this year by a vice-president of the Fair Work Commission, Graeme Watson, who decided that the chief executive who was appearing before him did not constructively dismiss her HR manager, as alleged.

The HR manager had resigned because the CEO insisted repeatedly on making employment-related decisions without consulting him, and that caused him “considerable frustration”. Vice-president Watson accepted that the CEO was open for discussion with her HR manager, and noted her preparedness to be receptive to a proposal from the manager to restructure his department. Inexplicably, the proposal did not materialise.

It appears the HR manager had a fixed view of the boundaries around his role. What he persisted in not hearing was that the CEO wanted to manage appointments herself, and did so by-passing him.

Had he really listened in the Drucker sense, the HR manager might have heard that she wanted a business partner who could advise her on how the people in the business could be better engaged in achieving the objectives of the enterprise. If so, that message went unheard.

The other case was reported in the Australian Financial Review about a managing director named Steve Meyn. He was the head of the Sydney division of an accounting firm when he proudly announced that he had sacked the four people who made up what he called his HR department.

The story contained a number of revealing items of information. According to Mr Meyn, staff churn decreased and staff engagement increased after the HR staff members were sacked, and the function was outsourced.

He also claimed that staff no longer abdicated responsibility which it appears they had been doing when there was an HR department. Responsibility moved “back to the trenches” he said, because no longer were those with people management responsibilities “using human resources as a crutch”.

While there is merit in achieving efficiencies in certain transactional functions, it is apparent to me that Steve Meyn didn’t outsource a real HR function because he had never established one to outsource in the first place.

A critical imperative of a good HR function is that it does not do the work of line management, but instead creates systems that streamline and strengthen how the line manages its people.  A vital part of that function is to create a workplace culture that empowers line managers and prevents learned helplessness.

Mr Meyn would not be the first leader to employ people into positions with no power and little influence, call them the HR department, and then lay the blame on them for failings beyond their control.

Research conducted by AHRI last year asked the HR professionals surveyed this question: ‘What is good HR?’ The results list a number of expectations. They include practitioners being solutions-driven, future oriented, influencers, courageous, credible, collaborative, and critical and enquiring thinkers. They are also expected to be professionals who understand and care, and who can make calls that display astute judgement about people and business.

None of these qualities are achievable unless practitioners listen to what is said, hear what is not being said, and are capable of taking appropriate professional action. They are qualities expected of a knowledgeable, trusted and skilled business partner.

The certification model that AHRI is in the process of putting together over the next two years is a model that will enable the institute to affirm with a high degree of certainty that AHRI certified practitioners are people who can and will be those business partners.

Lyn Goodear is the chief executive of the Australian Human Resources Institute

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Lori Tyrrell (CAHRI)
Lori Tyrrell (CAHRI)

Hi Lyn! Love your reference to Drucker here!! He is one of the best!! He also suggests success comes to those who ensure their own (and their team’s) objectives are in total alignment with overall mission of the company they serve. Perhaps what was missing for the examples you write about??!! The research on what “Good HR” practitioners look like is not surprising, but I would add that what really makes you stand out (as Drucker says) is when you are aligned and taking action toward the objectives of the company you serve, instead of just “doing your job”. Imagine… Read more »

Linda Norman
Linda Norman

Absolutely agree with Lyn! A functional HR Department adds value by working with managers to make good decisions and facilitating positive change to support the strategic and operational goals of an organisation. HR Departments can also lower HR risks and you need strong technical skills to do this. The managing director probably won’t tell us how many unfair dismissal claims the coy has fielded as a result of sacking HR! It seems in this case that the probably newly appointed managing director had different views about the role of HR personnel in that business. He decided to sack them all… Read more »

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