Time to appreciate the human (resources) touch

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London 

IT IS not hard to take a pop at the human resources function . . . if, of course, it is still called that. Once known as the staff department, the name evolved through personnel and human resources to the current hip jargon: the people department or the talent management department.

Critics mumble about “human remains” — petty bureaucrats taxing the organisation in various ways. Overhead not contribution. Business-prevention experts. But wait until something goes wrong with payroll, or there is a series of litigious disputes over a sacking, or a severance package has to be worked out. HR suddenly seems indispensable.

People in HR get to know a lot of stuff. In organisations where exact salaries are a mystery, HR knows them all. They know those who can’t/don’t/won’t do appraisals, and where there are strange pockets of absenteeism and turnover.

What effect do, should, or could HR teams have on the corporate value chain? They moan all the time that the HR director is not on the board and has to report to the finance director. They complain that everyone says “our staff are our greatest asset”, yet nobody really believes it. They gripe that what most of them do is force managers to manage — make those who won’t, or can’t, do the simplest of supervisory tasks, such as setting goals and giving feedback and support.

So what is the potential impact of HR? Consider this department by department.
Finance. This is usually concerned with the management of specialists — how to select those who both can and want to run things; how to turn technical experts, brilliant at their hypothetico-deductive thinking, into people who can communicate well with their many stakeholders.

Finance people are the first to express surprise that in internal surveys they come near the bottom for helpfulness, clarity and efficiency. They can be taught to manage with skill and charm.
IT. Some HR people have a good understanding of ergonomics and the implications of the heavy use of particular technologies. They can also help IT people collect and analyse data that means something to others. Many know that one of the greatest oxymorons in business is the concept of the “user helpline”, where flustered and bewildered workers are patronised by egocentric IT people with little or no business understanding.
Manufacturing. HR can do a great deal to help here, from the design of teams to the design of work environments. Physical factors can soon become stressful, affecting attention and vigilance — and with that come accidents and a drop in productivity. HR should know where the results of interventions are better attributed to particular psychological, rather than physical, factors.
Marketing. Many in HR have backgrounds in psychology and understand the issues of consumer behaviour. They also know about advertising effectiveness and the presentation of ideas.
Sales. While we all know the characteristics of a good sales person — organised, resilient, socially skilled — we also know the huge drop-out rate in sales departments. But HR people know about the service-profit chain and how good managers engage staff, who engage customers, who will return for more.

Of course HR people have their own sources of expertise, such as payroll, hiring, training and appraisal. They often get a bad name for the latter two. Managers, particularly senior ones, really resist “having” to go on training courses. Most say they are a waste of time (and money) and, in effect, then prove this to be true. The poor HR manager is expected to find a magic-bullet, half-day, sheep-dip course that gives people skill and insight and that can be immediately and demonstrably related to improvements in the bottom line.

The real reason most (senior managers) resist training is that they fear exposure — being shown to be lacking in essential knowledge and skill. Training means being observed and tested, which can be a horrid experience.

And, of course, it is HR that runs the appraisal system . . . universally loathed and despised. The good manager understands the philosophy behind it — set goals, manage expectations, give feedback, provide support — whatever the system and its forms require. But the weak managers resist and blame everything on HR. Asked to provide an alternative to the system, they spend all their time criticising, yet most can do little more than mumble angrily.

So learn to appreciate your HR department. They have a tough job and, yes, they really can make a fundamental contribution to the bottom line.


Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London

 

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