HR – Not Dead Yet

Another controversial post

In my opinion, Laurie Ruettimann is one of the most influential and disruptive thought leaders in  human resources.   She wrote yet another thought provoking blog post this week on the topic of whether or not HR is a dying field.

Update: Check out all the rest of the discussion on the “Death of HR” here!

The Death of HR may have been prematurely reported!
The Death of HR may have been prematurely reported!

HR is a dying field

JD asks, “Honestly, is this site still Punk HR or just Anti HR now?”

I think HR is dying — and JD thinks it’s being embraced by Corporate America. Who’s right?

Here’s my take.

  • Recruiters constantly undermine it,
  • job seekers avoid it whenever possible,
  • and employees dread their interactions with any member of a Human Resources team.

I disagreed.

HR is not dying.

I would agree it is bifurcating to a certain extent, from a blended generalist type function into several smaller more specialized areas, like talent management, etc,.  But there is still a need for someone to do the shit work that line  managers hate when it comes to dealing with people.  There is also a need to ensure that the bad managers out there  be required stick to some form of cultural consistency and conformity.

I think too many HR people hunker down and develop a reactive mentality to issues. We need to stop trying to avoid disasters and litigation.

HR peeps need to step out and make shit happen.

When you do that, you are at the table, whether you got invited or not.

BTW – the invites are not coming any time soon.   You have to create the opportunity. Same holds true for authority and respect. And you have to work to hold on to them once you have them. They are pesky and disappear quickly.

The great companies out there typically have great HR departments under the hood somewhere. But there is also a lot of “What have you done for me lately?”

Stop hiding.

Do the work.

Make shit happen.

HR rocks anywhere that happens.

What kind of HR are you?

Before this intensive dialogue commenced on Punk Rock HR, I had been working all week on a thought inspired by my attendance at the ERE Expo last week.   I had been writing about the growing differentiation I see in the way HR generalists and recruiters approach their work.  I was trying to develop some typologies that I see in HR.  I was struggling with the idea, and then Laurie’s post changed my mind some more.   Here is a very shortened take on what I had been trying to get.

Seven types of Human Resources Practitioner

  1. Rockstardrives their organization to new heights.  Visible leadership with positive impact on culture and business bottom-line.
  2. Expert – brings a new level of knowledge and success to an existing organization.  Leads incremental improvement of already successful business practices and culture.  Helps the organization strive for the next level.
  3. Specialist – helps a successful organization stay that way through a very specialized knowledge base.   Drives improvements in a small portion of the business or the HR function.  (Many Recruiters fall into this grouping! – the good ones that is…)
  4. Professional – competently ensures the business stays on track.  Does little to provoke change or drive incremental improvements, but keeps the organization on an even keel.
  5. Preventer – the shadowy version of the Professional.  Believes role is to keep the business on track by preventing anything bad from take place.  Spends so much time being reactive and living in fear of disaster that eventually the organization declines and becomes unhealthy.
  6. Placeholder – keeps a chair warm for as long as possible.  We all know one.
  7. Victim – accepts the traditional view of HR as a lesser function wholeheartedly and remains steadfastly ineffective in their role due to “circumstances beyond their control”.

Where HR needs to go

Coming back around to the discussion over on Punk Rock HR, after following all day through the more than 80 comments, I read an observation by Beth Carvin that really resonated with me.    It was:

You’re worrying about the wrong people when you say that recruiters, job seekers and employees don’t like HR. The people that need to like HR are the senior execs and other Managers.

Great HR people make a difference in how well the company is managed. There’s not a lot of fanfare in HR because the assistance HR provides is given quietly. Great HR people are working day-in-and-day-out helping and advising about the people side of the business equation to help make the execs/mgrs look good.

When it’s time to pass out credit, everyone forgets that it was advice or actions or discussions with Great HR that helped the organization make or take the right decisions/actions.

I completely agree that HR needs a major PR overhaul. It should absolutely be one of SHRM’s highest priority action items. One starting place would be with the top MBA programs.

and was followed by:

When you think about it, the work that HR leadership provides (guidance on the people issues) is really one of the most important BUSINESS roles in running a successful company. If the people issues are f-ed up, the Sales department is going to suck and not make sales, the Operations people are going to be lazy and unproductive, and on and on.

In order for any large company to be successful, they have to get the people issues right. Every single time. Why do you think every article in Harvard Business Magazine has so many articles on the people issues? They just don’t call them HR issues.

If HR is the most strategic business function (which I believe it is) then every MBA program should be focusing heavily on the people issues. HR should be the COOLEST profession for business people. Only the brightest, most intuitive, sharpest, entrepreneurial, kick-ass punk rock people need apply.

All of this led me to ponder what suddenly struck me as a really obvious and dumb question.

Why aren’t those of us who are perhaps on the leading edge of HR thought  and social media doing more to use our bad ass blogs and communities and all the other forums that we have at our fingertips  to tell the world just how kick ass HR can be?  punk

Are we too busy being a different sort of victim?    Should we be spending far less time bemoaning the state of the HR profession, and putting that same energy into lifting HR  ?

Maybe we are.   The bigger question is, how to do go about changing it?

What would you do?

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46 thoughts on “HR – Not Dead Yet

  1. Mike –
    Thanks for weighing in on this age old debate – I like your take on it.
    I’ve always wondered if other professions – like engineering, finance, sales – spend as much time as we do in HR discussing if they suck or not. To some extent, I suppose all functions sometimes feel they are under-appreciated, and there are varying levels of competency in any function (I love your 7 types!). But would we ever see a blog post on an engineering blog (is there such a thing?) titled “Is engineering dead?”
    When an airplane is being built, do engineers sit around and wonder if they are going to be “invited to the table” or not?

    1. HEy Dan, really appreciate your dropping by and commenting. Isn’t it sad that we continue to have this debate? And the answer to most of you questions is “No”.


      Becasue engineers are tangible and quantifiable, and the stuff they do is magic. People KNOW with certainty that they need engineers to make things move, stand or fly. More importantly, not everyone believes they have those magical skills or that they can learn them. None of this is true for soft skilled work like HR. The output is sloppy, and not easy to measure. And everyone, and I swear to God, I mean everyone, but especially other managers – believe that they know as much about “people” of “HR” as their so-called HR professional.

      Even guys who pay full price on at the car dealership think they can successfully negotiate a “good” labor agreement if someone just sits them down at the table. They can negotiate something certainly – but strategic is it? What did they give up that today that they may realize until tomorrow? What did they omit?


  2. Beth states “The people that need to like HR are the senior execs and other Managers”. She is absolutely correct. Great HR and Mike’s 7 HR practitioners can not be viewed from a HR’s point of view. They need to be viewed from an executive’s point view. A HR rockstar from HR point of view could easily be a professional or preventer from an exec’s point of view.

    I was pulled into HR due to this type of situation. One my previous employers was going to expand a minor but rapidly product line into its own business unit. The executives of this new unit invited all functions (sales, finance, HR, compensation, IT, operations) to the table. One of earliest meetings was focused employees. The exec had some ideas for the sales compensation structure. We told them that the regs would not allow us to pay that way; however; we could do X, Y or Z to achieve the same results. Then we told them that we would do some simple modeling of the alternatives so they could see more concrete examples.

    Then they asked the HR team some questions. Similar to our questions, regs or company policy would not allow the execs initial ideas. Unlike our team, the HR team would (or could) not suggest alternatives that allowed the execs to achieve their goals. When the execs asked the HR team to recommend some alternatives as a to do for the next meeting, the most senior HR manager on the team stated: We don’t do. We are strategic.

    After the meeting, one execs pulled me aside and asked me to pull together some suggestions for the HR issues. The execs needed to turn ideas into actions that allow them to achieve their goals. They loved that we were able to help them do this while staying in compliance with the various laws, regs & policies.

    The HR team was not invited back to the planning meetings. I just used them as reg & policy knowledge source.

  3. @Frank – For someone who seemingly despises everything HR, you spent a lot of time reading the post and commenting. Personally, I hate metrics and deal with them only when they add true value (or I hope so).

    I am curious though, what’s your plan for dealing with the potential passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in your company? Would love to hear!

  4. I am in the hospitality industry the so-called personnel department/human resources/talent acquisitions or whatever they call them selves this week definitely need their wings clipped. I remember in the mid 1970’s when I started in the hospitality industry business was 80-85% operation and 15% human resources now in 2009 it is the other way around. How did this happen that HR became such a powerful identity? Human resources departments live and die by their metrics, but not every statistic is useful, Keeping track of stats on days to fill, diversity and employee engagement is time consuming and tells a department next to nothing about how the organization is running
    I mean seriously, who got up in the morning and started to write this article as real news? It did get me thinking though about other worthless metrics, we might measure in our everyday professional life, that are meaningless. It’s a classic argument that HR Pros and every organization seems to have different metrics they use to measure the health of their people business Remember HR is a non-revenue producing department and over time they made sure those employees go and whine to them thus creating a bureaucracy of huge proportion. Now, one has to content with monthly training classes from how to lift a box to sexual harassment. I stopped all this cold. Every resume goes to me and never to HR. Job seekers know: Every good opportunity ends with personnel department/human resources/talent acquisitions or whatever they call them selves this week.

  5. HR is not dead! If it were we would not be writing about it. In the corporate world HR is the one area that has evolved the most since the dawn of the industial age.

  6. @Mike

    Thanks for sharing the perspective from the same end of the tunnel as me.

    I do think that the shift in work/skills is becoming more functional, and I would not be surprised to see a return to outsourcing of some of the more transactional fuctions once the economy scales up. It removes some expense and a nuisance factor for a lot of employers.

    What was the mythical beast with three heads, that grew back if you chopped them off? A Hydra?

    Sounds kinda like HR in your view…hard to put down and kill!

  7. Mike:
    You asked me to weigh in on this discussion. Much of what I would have said has been said, but here is my take. Because I have been around much longer in HR than most of the bloggers and blog readers I have a different perspective. Thirty years ago people were saying that HR was dead. Only it was called personnel. Recruiters went around it, managers (at least the ones doing things wrong) hated to see you come into their office and as a profession we were talking about the need to be more strategic. The amazing thing is here we are 30 years later and it is STILL dying. So I think, to paraphrase W.C. Fields, the reports of HR’s death are exaggerated.

    It actually has transformed, much more than people give it credit for. Many more HR people are strategic, or at least know what that means. Far more metrics are used today and people realize that HR is not entirely “soft” and can be measured. Much more has been outsourced than used to be. Benefits, payroll, compliance (COBRA & HIPAA), recruiting and outplacement have all been outsourced.

    However, the one thing you can’t outsource is employee relations. Even when you do a PEO (employee leasing) you still have to manage the day to day interactions of employees and managers. And that is where the rubber meets the road. And that is also why ER people also need to know the laws. Because it is in those daily interactions of managers and employees where the laws are broken and that is where most companies gets sued.
    In a perfect world you would have perfectly trained managers that would not break those laws, but guess what? That is not reality.

    Are there poor HR people in the profession? HELL YES. But there are also poor sales managers, accounting managers, finance managers, customer service managers, production managers, and on and on. No field is perfect, no person is perfect. Just as you need auditors, or quality control you need human resources.

    Do we need to continue to strive to excel? Absolutely. And we have a long way to go. It may look a bit different and have some trendier titles (Personnel->Human Resources->People Department to who knows whatelse). But for being dead. I don’t think so. Pundits and critics have been poking sticks in ol’ HR for quite awhile and proclaiming it dead. Turns out it has a pretty thick skin.

    Just my humble opinion.

  8. @BenEubanks – thanks for sharing the wealth with your colleagues. Doing that kind of stuff contributes to #GreatHR!

    @Adowling – what can we do to bolster those weak links??

    @LisaRosendahl – Widgets…great idea. Suggested using the hashtag #GreatHR yesterday to share great stories and ideas on twitter, but that only reaches the enlightened. What else can we do?

    @novice-hr right on!

    @JoanGinsberg You are a good addition to the on-line world of HR. Blogs provide all kinds of information, but they promote dialogue (or provoke it, sometimes!) And Joan, blog on!

    @Laurie – thanks for the comment! You are 100% correct that that eventual fate of HR rests in the hands of the practitioners. There are few who do more to call attention to the need for changing HR than you, and you have my total awe and respect for all that you do. You are #GreatHR (even while being #PunkRockHR!)

    @WallyBock – i suddenly feel this need to go check my clothes closet for any lurking plaid jackets….. Seriously, I agree with your comments on the functional bifurcation in HR, especially with in larger organizations. Not so much in smaller organizations which often times require (or should be requiring, sometimes the stuff just ignored) a more nimble type of HR generalist to lead the function.

    Really enjoy your insights. Thanks for dropping by!

    @JenniferVMiller i think …Chrysalis

    @TimSackett so you are saying HR doesn’t invest in developing strategic HR people…that sounds about right.

    @Karla_porter you have a kick ass job! Thanks for visiting!

  9. I am extremely freakin lucky. I AM the HR department where I work. I get called upon by by the CEO, VP’s and department managers as a consultant all the time. I’m respected and sought after. I’m expected to have an impact, add value, be a change agent, thought leader and solutions partner. I also get to answer the phone and be a consultant to any of the over 1,100 businesses that are members of the organization that need assistance. Just wanted you all to know it couldn’t be better.

    It’s what you make it. If you don’t like the operation take the time to write a business case for change and a proposal for the solutions.

  10. I love your 7 types of HR practioners, because I think it helps frame why Laurie is thinking HR is dead or dying. We have too many within the profession that are flat out victims and too many that are flat out experts – but don’t know how to turn their expertise into Rock Star status. What it comes down to is, we don’t teach our HR Pros on how to use their influence to drive business decisions – the same way we develop and mentor our other business unit leaders.

    If you look at some of the top HR practioners in the business, many came out of other business units – not up through the HR ranks. Let’s face it, we aren’t launching the space shuttle out of the HR department- we all have skills easily learned. So, we better all get much better on influencing and using our expertise to better the business.

    Otherwise, Laurie will be right…

  11. I’m not an HR person. I don’t play one on TV. And I sure don’t claim any special expertise in the area. But I’ve been involved in business since I left the Marines in 1968 and I’ve tried to observe the currents of change.

    Right now I see two very different kinds of HR function. Sometimes they’re at war with each other. Sometimes they get in each other’s way. Sometimes they just share the same space and try not to be the one who has to make the next pot of coffee.

    One kind is spawned by the explosion of laws, regulations and options in things like pensions, equal opportunity/non-discrimination, benefit packages, etc. At its best this is a sophisticated form of risk management. At its worst, it’s a kind of semi-powerless hall monitor.

    The other kind of HR is that part that deals with real humans in their natural habitat. This includes recruiting, compensation, training, and development. At its best this HR is devoted to making sure that the human beings in a company are ideally suited to carry out the strategic mission. At its worst, this kind of HR dresses in a loud plaid jacket and hawks the latest HR fads.

    Some of today’s HR problems arise because these two kinds of functions require different mindsets and different toolsets. If I had to make a recommendation, it would be the following.

    Eliminate HR as it’s now structured.

    Take the laws and regulations folks and split them up as support staff to legal and finance.

    Take the other group and make them the “People Department,” headed by a VP of People and their Development and sits at the proverbial table.

    That’s my two cents as of today. By tonight things may be different.

  12. Great post and awesome way to take this conversation to the next level.

    I still think HR is dying — but maybe this patient can be saved??? It’s not up to me, though. It’s up to the practitioners and the seven different types of HR people listed in your blog.

    Do HR people want to save and revitalize our field?

  13. I’m with Ben! I am printing this for future use, since I hope I soon have an HR department that needs to read it! This was extraordinarily well-thought and rational.

    I am still a relatively newbie to the online HR world, but I think that the medium tends to encourage explosive, knee-jerk posts about feelings of the moment, instead of more lengthy, reasoned analysis. Perhaps if people had to wait a few days to get to a computer, we could have less ranting and more productive movement on an issue.

    I have been encouraged to blog, and may do so. In the meantime, If I can help ANYONE lift up – please ask!

  14. I LOVE, LOVE your post and also the comment that came from Beth Carvin! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I too was reading and following Laurie’s post regarding this topic and the whole time, I couldn’t agree more that HR is not dead. As someone’s who is new to HR, I love the profession and I think that HR is as important to an organization as any other department for the same reasons that you have mentioned. As a HR community, it makes no sense to me why we would sit there and predict and even worst, doubt our own competencies. Instead of constantly trying to prove our own worthiness, why don’t we stand up and show everyone what HR is really about and how great it is!

  15. Mike – this was an awesome post! I’m with Ben too – this is one that needs to be shared. I think you have given me the inspiration to finally start the blog I have wanted to do for so long 🙂

  16. What a well thought out and balanced post. Love the HR types and will be right beside you in raising HR to the heavens. Now that sounds silly but you get my point. Let’s lift away. How exactly? Not sure but maybe one way it to write more about the great things happening in our very own depts, companies, etc. Let’s campaign, make widgets,….. 🙂

  17. Dude, A++ post! I’m with Ben on printing this and sharing it with the group.
    I think its up to those of us with a passion for, as Ben says, Cool HR or New HR to drive the change. The unconference is a good start. Getting our teams involved in the HR community outside of our own companies and cities and showing them there’s a real HR Community out there trying to drive change. We arent that stuffy Personnel Department anymore, we have something to offer the company. HR is far from dead as a whole, factions are dying but its more losing the weak link.

  18. I am printing this and giving it to my HR department for some Friday morning reading. Absolutely LOVE the list of 7 types. Keep up the great work, Mike!

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