Reframing HR for the modern world
As my HR career has developed, I’ve become less interested ‘what’ HR does in organizations, and much more interested in ‘why’ HR does it. Who are we here to serve and what is our purpose? My preoccupation is not to keep the ‘HR business as usual’ wheels turning by doing the same old HR work I’ve always done. The outdated HR remit to police rules and processes still exists inside too many organizations. The question of why HR exists as a function within organizations remains an important one.
Whilst HR’s intention comes from a good place, fuelled by our desire to keep our organizations safe and achieve high performance, a disproportionate focus on rules and compliance can stifle energy and erode trust. It sounds ironic, but HR has too many times lost sight of the people element in our work. In my view, there are lots of reasons for this. Firstly, it can be a tough job being in HR. We are routinely called upon to deal with the most sensitive, complex and emotionally charged issues in an organization. HR can be the last people to benefit from internal support and encouragement. This can lead to HR closing ranks and focussing inwardly on HR’s needs rather than the wider business. Self-preservation kicks in. Justifying HR’s existence becomes the priority. Secondly, within the context of restricted budgets and HR needing to lead significant change to deliver ‘more for less’, this is understandable. It so often comes down to the numbers.
Lots of organizations have some HR provision in place yet the day to day working reality for people at work can be miserable and demotivating. This can include those who are working in HR! In too many cases our work cultures are shortening lives through excessive stress and burn out, fear and blame dominate the landscape. Unhealthy and toxic workplaces that do not care for people are actually shortening lives. People can feel trapped within organizations sometimes out of economic necessity and a fear that the alternatives might be even worse. How on earth was this allowed to happen? How can a lack of caring for people as human beings in our workplaces become normal? It’s that serious.
Against the backdrop of such critical challenges, HR can no longer afford to accept it is ‘HR business as usual’. There has never been a more important time to look upwards and outwards in our work. If HR does what it has always done, it will get the results it has always got. It is time for a different approach. We need to step back from the day to day HR administration and compliance tasks, and challenge ourselves to realise the potential impact we could have on the lives of people in our organizations. HR needs to discover its true why.
I believe there needs to be radical reframing of HR’s ‘why’ to discover a much more important cause behind our work. What if HR’s purpose was creating truly humanised workplaces where people are enabled to do their best work? Workplaces which send people home every day feeling happy, safe and fulfilled. Striving for this could be the goal, and what an important goal it is. How people feel at work really matters. It shapes the whole climate in which we work. Over a period of time our behaviours shape culture – both positive and negative. HR needs to be brave and lead the movement to improve the individual lives of people working in our organizations. We need to think the unthinkable. It should never really be about HR at all, it’s all about the people HR exists to serve. This should be the real measure of our success. Our organizations would become happier, more productive, and more profitable. Better numbers that keep everyone happy.
An aspiration yes, but what other choice do we realistically have? Too many of our current workplaces have allowed toxicity and poor working conditions and practices take hold, which damage lives and harm organizational performance. Do we just accept that these challenges are beyond us in HR or that it is not our remit to tackle this head on? Do we accept things are just ‘the way they are’? I’d firmly argue ‘no’ and furthermore this situation can all start to change tomorrow with a change of HR mindset. It’s time for HR to step up and be counted. Time to begin a process of turning this vision into reality. The experience of day to day working lives is what counts, rather than the rhetoric that ‘people are our most important asset’ which means nothing if behaviours are not consistently in place to back this up and impact how people feel about their organizations. The catalyst for change could start with HR, living and breathing a true people centred approach, but we cannot do this alone and need to inspire others to join a positive movement for change. It is crucial HR have influence and credibility with senior leaders regarding the need for change and the plan to get there. We cannot afford to wait on the periphery of organizations in the hope that somebody else might do this for us.
What better and more important work can HR be doing for our organizations than this? What more valuable contribution to society could we make? We’d literally transform lives. Let’s start to think about the ripple effect on communities given the amount of our lives that we spend at work. The immediate benefits for improved mental health and wellbeing are obvious, as are the improvements in business productivity and profitablity. That’s worth getting excited about. HR could have a profound impact on individual lives, on organizations, and on wider society. Places of work that provide a sense of pride, belonging and fulfilment because we really do put people first and mean it with our hearts, and through our behaviours. We put people first and mean it irrespective of whether they are employees, suppliers or customers. It’s all about people and relationships, delivered in an authentic and consistent way, championed tirelessly and relentlessly by HR. The time to reframe HR for the modern world is now. HR may have lost its way but it’s time for a course correction. All HR people working in this amazing profession should accept nothing less.