The Death of Human Resources

The HR Department still exists in Corporate America, but as an advocate of employees and defender against senior management abuses, the HR profession seems to have gotten away from the role it once served.

I am not quite sure when this happened. I have worked in the private sector for twenty years in many industries and company cultures. I have witnessed first-hand how Human Resource professionals act less as an agent of protecting employee rights. I have been downsized a number of times, when companies merged or when the economy turned sharply down as we are witnessing now. Through all of the periods of significant downsizing, right-sizing, re-engineering, off-shoring, outsourcing, and Union-busting, the HR profession has reminded relatively silent, despite the significant negative long-term impact to the American economy.

Another area in which the HR profession seems to want to remain silent, in my opinion, is in the area of employees being mistreated by Senior Management. This trend is even more alarming given the active role that HR served in the past in its defense of employee rights. In the past, HR seems to have been much more proactive in support of employee rights by ensuring that employers were in compliance with EEOC regulations, while defending employees against harassment, wrongful terminations, etc.

In the past few years, it seems much has been written about HR seeking a seat at the management table. But the critical question that begs asking is, how can HR earn that seat at the table?

The opportunity for advancement for American workers is another area in which Human Resources seems much less active than in the past. Employee human capital development programs like training and development, coaching and mentoring, and other employee development programs seem much more likely to be outsourced, or managed by corporate training departments, if they are still being offered at all.

One area in which HR seems to have become much more active is in the role of administrative gatekeeper, by processing paperwork, routing resumes, etc. Worst yet, HR is now tasked with enforcing draconian senior management directives by monitoring employer behavior by tracking employee personal email, the websites employees visit at work, the time employees spend out of office, on leave, vacation, etc. The term “draconian” applies to such management behavior as: not reimbursing employees for work-related expenses like travel, monitoring employee email, phone calls, and Internet activity even beyond what is expected, restricting employees from leaving early certain days to pick up children from school/camp/aftercare, etc. allowing employees to work in a “timeshare” basis, forcing employees to come in to the office 5 days a week.

When has HR actually driven cutting edge policies on flexible work plans, job-sharing, issue resolution/conflict avoidance, job rotations, retired employee hire-back policies, etc?

Is there still a belief that HR should be the functional area within the American business enterprise to humanize the employee experience in work environments? Are there still rights to be had by employees in the employee/employer “contract?” Are we truly at the end of one employer for a career IBM culture of the 1950s.

Who will speak for the employee, if not HR? The answer is no one. Is it safe to assume that the American workplace of the 21st century could do away with HR altogether (through outsourcing or elimination) and the impact to the American enterprise would be minimal?

Where was the outcry from the HR profession when banking and financial services firms were initiating scandalous abuses by charging clients excessive fees, falsifying financial documents, and running their businesses into the ground. Where were the senior HR managers when companies imploded in a whirlwind of ethical impropriety exhibited by the likes of Tyco, Enron, Adelphia, and Global Crossing?

HR needs to establish processes to monitor unethical behavior of a company at all levels, including senior management. They should push senior mgmt that it is in their best interest to be involved in monitoring work done by outside consultants, accounting and auditing firms that are engaged by senior management on a project basis. Why wasn’t HR the consistent whistle-blower against corporate excess of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000? The answer is that HR no longer possesses the sort of relevance that would enable it to have an impact.

HR staff should have to work on a rotational basis in cross-functional departments, and should conduct focus groups with front-line staff to understand the challenges these people face in serving the business. They should create Idea Generation programs to gather input from employees at all levels on how to improve the company’s processes, behaviors, benefits, employee programs, etc. Quarterly Town Hall meetings are an excellent tool for HR to leverage in order to enable senior mgt to report on the state of the company to all employees on a regular

I suggest that HR professionals do some soul-searching by asking themselves why they ever decided to enter the profession in the first place.

The challenge for senior-level HR professionals that wish to reverse these alarming trends is how can HR resume its role as social conscience and activist within their organizations? Stated differently, how can HR revisit the “HUMAN” tendencies that are required in world-class organizations? From a strategic standpoint, becoming a world class employer known for hiring, retaining and training/developing the best talent will give companies a true competitive advantage to help the firm survive through the most extreme economic downtowns as we are experiencing now.

Doing so will enable senior HR professionals to obtain their much coveted seat at the management table.