Yang: HR, or No HR? That is the Question … for Some

HR, or No HR? That is the Question … for Some
By ELENA YANG

“Thank you” following action on a simple request, and “No problem” comes the reply. Whenever I get such a response, my internal voice says, “I didn’t realize it was a problem.” Yes, I can be picky about choice of words. It’s the combination of the logic center of my mind and my heightened sensitivity resulting from “English as my second language.” Of course, I wouldn’t really want to nitpick these taken-for-granted exchanges, which bear no consequences. However, regarding other more common terms, we might make a case for the impact of their words on our collective psyche: for example, “human resources,” or, HR.

In Mr. Bernard Marr’s thought-provoking article, with a provocative title, “Why we no longer need HR departments,” he proposes that the whole HR function should be eliminated (link below.) Such an idea isn’t new, but is not expressed often, certainly not publically. Of course, whenever we want to eliminate or dismantle a large apparatus, we need to be careful about where to lay the parts. In the case of HR, where should we place all the people? Setting aside the practicality, it is an interesting notion, isn’t? When an organization grows, at what point do the owners begin to contemplate creating a whole new entity to handle HR functions? 

I share with the author’s dismay for the misnomer, “human resources.” I have often argued that a key aspect of “organization” is the web of relationships, between people, between functions or departments, between people and buildings, etc. The relationships are the fundamental assets that move processes and create real products. “Social capital,” relationships between and among people, comes close to describing what these relationships signify. To regard human beings as just one part of the organizational resources, comparable to finance, equipment, or supplies, is denigrating at the very least. 

Plenty of people, as indicated by many readers’ responses to Marr’s article, think that critiquing the words, “human resources,” is merely nitpicking. Perhaps.

What’s more interesting about this article is the author’s analysis of general HR functions. He outlines two major areas: protector of corporate interests and advocacy for employees. These two functions are different and too often diametrically opposed. Of course, we can further divide the many roles and functions HR typically does, such as hiring (what happens to “firing?”), negotiating salaries, allocating health care costs, or other collective issues. But the umbrella functional descriptions mentioned above still capture all the roles and functions. 

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Mr. Marr’s view to abolish HR, most of us – especially we who do not work in the HR area ourselves (more about this point below) – can appreciate that HR often seems to be schizophrenic when executing top management’s directives vs. helping with average employees’ various issues. I am not suggesting that it’s always antagonistic between management and other employees, but they do seem to often be at crossed purposes. Given that management is endowed with more than enough power outside of HR, I would advocate for a group (maybe “personnel department?”) dedicating itself solely to the welfare of average employees. This isn’t about labor unions, rather about separating internal organizational functions that may be inherently conflicting. 

I amused myself with reading some of the readers’ responses to Marr’s article. The majority of the readers were downright hostile to the proposal. Several readers commented on the author’s potential conflict of interest: Mr. Marr is a consultant in the HR area, and often helps organizations do away with HR departments, with some successes (he wouldn’t advertise failures, would he?) It is possible that Mr. Marr wrote this article with a self-serving purpose. However, I can say the same thing about most readers who object to Mr. Marr’s article; they are largely associated with HR department in various organizations.

Can we ever get out of our own blinders? What’s mine? I welcome your feedback.

The recent snow is beckoning, and so I am going to shred some gnar next long weekend in Colorado where the snow has been piling. I will resume in this space Feb. 24.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Referenced Link:

http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131118060732-64875646-why-we-no-longer-need-hr-departments

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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