I always enjoy reading commentary from professional people other than HR practitioners that allude to the positive difference that HR can make to an organisation.
One such article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald towards the end of last year, authored by Josh Bornstein, the head of employment law and a board member at Maurice Blackburn lawyers.
In the course of the article, Mr Bornstein observed that human resources managers “are the vanguard of workplace change” and that “the human resources department has the ability to make enormously positive change in an organisation.”
He added that HR can also “assist managers, often promoted for reasons other than their management capability, to develop crucial people-management skills and help ensure an organisation can conduct hard conversations with staff without alienating or insulting people’s sensibilities.” His view was that “we conceive of HR managers as arbiters of fairness and decency.”
Sentiments such as these come from a good place and are music to my ears. But they rarely come unconditionally, and so it was with Bornstein.
He observed, for example, that “invariably we are disappointed with our HR managers because they don’t live up to our expectations”, but also asked the question: “Why do we have such high expectations of them in the first place?”
In answer, he mentioned workplaces that promise ethics and transparency, and that don’t tolerate poor behaviour such as bullying and discrimination. And he credits the genesis of those expectations to HR.
Yet he finds himself asking where the head of HR was at David Jones when the CEO was alleged to have engaged in sexual harassment, and where was HR when low-level office employees at 7-Eleven were being told by their managers not to raise awkward questions about visa abnormalities and systemic underpayment of employees.
Could HR be forgiven, he asks, for hiding under the table? He believes the answer is yes. They can be forgiven because, like any other employee, HR will “usually do what the CEO or another senior manager allows them to do”, and “the best we can probably hope for from our HR departments is they’re enlightened, civil and honest”.
While I can see generosity in that summation, I am reluctant to settle for a concession of that magnitude.
The HR certification initiative we put in place last year through the AHRI Practising Certification Program (APC) makes demands on candidates that attest to their theoretical expertise, but also to their capacity in practice to be credible, professional and courageous.
If they only do what they are “allowed to do”, to that extent they have not succeeded in becoming partners in the business. Certified HR practitioners need to show that they are capable of being collaborative, influential, future oriented and solutions driven.
HR business partners who can demonstrate those qualities do not take sides. HR’s role is to work towards achieving solutions that are best for the whole organisation. That can only be possible if the chief human resources officer (CHRO) has already won the confidence of the CEO and the CFO, as business advisers like Ram Charan argue. HR’s professional duty is to speak the truth on the basis of evidence for the good of the organisation. That can only be done in collaboration, using influence and sometimes requiring courage. It is not so different from the qualities a CFO is required to exercise when challenging a direction that amounts to cooking the books. On that note, I am happy to inform you that AHRI recently signed a co-operation agreement with CPA that recognises the alignment between our professions.
We shouldn’t delude ourselves that the HR role is a soft one. It is a complex role that requires a sound basis in science, but is also an art that requires a touch of magic.
To read more columns from AHRI CEO Lyn Goodear, click here.