How exactly do we still call HR ‘human?’

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Before we get going on Human Resources in this post, let me give you a little bit of contextual background on my deal. I had worked for eight-nine years in different jobs — good managers and terrible ones, as most people experience — before I decided to go to graduate school in 2012. I’m from New York City, but had lived in a few different places. My wife and I moved to Minneapolis for graduate school, and I focused on organizational change and Human Resources. I was interested in these things. To me, the biggest strategic advantage in any business is people, and typically, Human Resources is tasked with ‘owning’ that. My graduate school experience was a mixed bag at best, and it led me to a job down in Texas doing marketing (so not Human Resources at all) in a company where most of the senior people thought ‘marketing’ and ‘sales’ were synonyms. That went OK for a while, then I got fired in November 2015. I’ve had kind of a star-crossed ‘career arc’ as far as traditional paths go for the past 2–3 years, but right now I’m predominantly doing freelance and that’s paying the bills and/or getting me to weddings I need to attend this summer. All’s good.

As I worked within and learned about Human Resources, though — and later, as I sat across from a Human Resources lady and got fired a week after my 35th birthday — I’ve constantly thought about this one question over and over: How are we still calling this department ‘human?’

The decline of Human Resources: Recruiting and hiring

If you know anything about Human Resources, you probably know this: they’ve been trying to get that oft-referenced ‘seat at the table’ for decades now, but most executives barely care about the department. It’s (a) not typically revenue-facing, (b) should focus on compliance, (c) isn’t typically staffed with ‘go-getters’ and ‘sales guys’ and (d) it’s kind of the ‘office cop.’ In most places I’ve worked, senior management kicks a lot of fire drills and cover-your-ass projects down to Human Resources. Some places do this better. Most do not.

The No. 1 non-compliance task of Human Resources tends to be recruiting and hiring. They typically ‘own’ those processes — at least up to the point where the hiring manager swoops in and does the final steps. I’m not even really sure recruiting should be housed within this department, but at most places it is — and change is hard, so for most people, it will continue to be housed in Human Resources.

If you’ve ever been through any recruiting or hiring process in the last 10 or so years and you’re not some super-coveted executive where everyone is puckering your posterior, you probably know that it’s a real mess out there. The hiring process is broken in more ways than you could possibly count. We treat ‘sales leads’ — who might make one purchase with us total — as these breathless Gods we need to serve, and we treat new hires — who might work with us eight full years — as people who need to fill out 27 screens of information after they’ve already given us their resume and cover letter.

In short, technology murdered recruiting — and that was able to happen because of Human Resources.

Look, this is a generalization — but the deal tends to be that Human Resources isn’t necessarily staffed by the most business-focused, technologically-savvy people. In most places I’ve worked or been through a hiring process with, it’s older women — or hot young things — who kinda hit their targets for the execs and focus on compliance and paperwork and checking boxes. I wouldn’t say it’s tech people or ‘innovators.’ As much as I hate putting people in boxes, this is typically how Human Resources teams are constructed.

So you’ve got some lady with a potential cat sweater deal and a cloth bag proudly proclaiming “Coffee is my spirit animal,” and she’s supposed to fully understand the algorithms driving an Applicant Tracking System? She’s supposed to know how the pieces fit together? She’s supposed to take two poorly-contextualized conversations with some Temple of Busy-loving hiring manager and know what he/she needs in a new hire?

Of course not. All those concepts are impossible.

But because we all have tasks to achieve and boxes to check, we proceed anyway.

So you take a process that should be rooted in core tenets of being human — having conversations, learning about each other, gaining new knowledge, seeing where value lives — and you totally rip the human elements away in favor of technology, process, protocol, compliance, and moving people through mostly-pointless checkboxes of canned interview questions.

Again, then, I’d ask: how is Human Resources being ‘human’ in this way?

The decline of Human Resources: People analytics

You’d think personnel files and data on performance, raises, reviews, etc. would be a big strategic advantage for a company. Let’s say you’ve had a series of product managers in a specific role. Some have been good, some awful, some great, and some average. If you could align data around traits, backgrounds, managers they worked with, projects they worked on, etc … perhaps you (or Human Resources) could create a model for the ideal product manager for your company. And you could also know what type of person should be managing this ideal type. So now you have a real pathway to productivity in that role, right? That’s like, a huge business advantage — to have the right people doing the right things at the right time.

OK. What I just described is called People Analytics, and unfortunately it’s probably years away — because it violates every tenet of psychology. Imagine going to an executive and saying “We have all this data on this role and managers and we really know how to optimize it.” Here’s what most incompetence-fearing executives just heard: “Your expertise and experience mean less now, because we’re using data effectively towards productive decision-making.” You know the first thing that exec is going to say to Human Resources? “Eff that, Judy. I trust my gut!” We’ve confused “formal power” with “knowing what’s best” for so long by now, we all have our heads squarely up our asses. As a result, People Analytics will take a while to catch on.

In the course of all this happening, here’s what is happening to Human Resources: you’ve got a department that should manage people, i.e. humans, and their effectiveness and productivity at their jobs. Instead, here’s what Human Resources does:

Again, Human Resources … but not a lick of the above is actually human. It’s process. It’s protocol. It’s compliance. It’s lack of strategy. It’s cover-your-ass moves. It’s not human, though. It doesn’t make people better.

As for Bullet No. 3, I once got told by someone in Human Resources that their job was to protect the senior leaders, not the everyday employees. I’m fairly certain that’s illegal to say to someone, but let’s gloss that over for right now. It’s still a miserably ridiculous thing to even utter. And Human Resources people say stuff like that all the time.

The decline of Human Resources: Who advocates for the people?

I could wax poetic here about the decline of unions and what that all means, or the rise of morally-bankrupt target-chasing executives and what that all means, but let’s not. We’ll keep it simple.

See a pattern above?

Work isn’t doing it for people anymore.

Not in the conventional sense.

And that’s a very complex quilt with a lot of issues and turning points and it varies by individual, but here’s one thing it comes down to that we’re all missing the boat on: if Human Resources isn’t acting in human ways, who’s out there advocating for the people? Who’s making their life and experiences better?

All those bullets above come from that core question, IMHO. If you’ve got no path to respect or opportunities for growth, of course you’re going to look for something else. Of course you’re going to be sad and want out.

That all starts with the first word of Human Resources being totally ripped from it.

How can we fix this, you ask? It’ll take a while — and a lot of attitude shifts — but we can begin by trying to empower the tasks that HR performs.

Your thoughts and/or ideas?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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