HR professionals shouldn't have to walk a tightrope. Liz Ryan has written a passionate plea to companies everywhere, arguing that human resource professionals need room to re-invent their jobs. Her prescription, in a nutshell, is fewer forms, more innovation. A human resources vet since “Cyndi Lauper ruled the airwaves,” she doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what HR has to deal with these days. HR departments have both an image problem and a work overload to contend with, she says, and they’re often put in an impossible position:

Now HR people are besieged. They are embattled. Employees hate them, management hates them, and jobseekers hate them most of all. It’s no fun being an HR person with many, many employers today. HR people are the bad guys. They make the rules and enforce them, they’re forced to take away perks and benefits and they lay people off on a regular basis. HR people still talk about Engaging Employees with the Mission, creating cultural Pixie Dust, and making their organizations Employers of Choice, but they don’t say it with as much force as they used to. If they did, their co-workers would laugh out loud or suck their teeth in disgust.What went wrong, Ryan contends, is that management for the most part simply stopped listening to their HR staff’s best ideas. Turning HR into the “policy police” didn’t help either, in her estimation. Her article is a sobering read, but she also articulates a shining hope for human resources:

I look forward to the economic uptick that will lower unemployment and remind CEOs why they ever hired forward-looking HR people.  I can’t wait for the day when employers are fighting over talent, when sharp and human-focused HR leaders don’t despair for their profession. I’m eager to hear how innovative HR managers will spur collaboration, non-linear thinking and team-and-individual greatness in their shops.

That last sentence in particular is an excellent summation of the contribution that great human resources staffers can make. Let’s hope Ryan’s article gets in front of the right people. In the meantime, Kris Dunn has his own ideas for how HR types can make things better right away, and it starts with a little tough truth. A human resources professional, Dunn believes there are five lies in HR that are holding back departments everywhere. The worst myth, he thinks, is that HR is responsible for employees’ work/life balance. He remembers Jack Welsh stirring up a hornet’s nest at the HR conference in New Orleans last year when he said “there’s no such thing as work/life balance, there are work/life choices.”At the time, his remarks were seen as insensitive, particularly to women in the corporate world who take time off for family. But Dunn says:

The truth: Employees are responsible for their own work/life balance, and if they want more money, promotions and fame, they’re going to have to work harder than those around them…If you happen to be a team member reading this, the reality is that the business world is chaotic, and everyone’s winging it, to a certain extent. Most companies try to staff at levels relative to the work at hand (more revenue always helps in that regard), but it’s always going to feel like a free-for-all at times.

This is tough-love stuff, for sure, and his other top myths aren’t any easier to swallow: companies always want to provide the best possible benefits for all employees (“if we had any guts,” he writes, “we’d tell employees: ‘We’re not Mom.’”); excellent performance is always rewarded financially; companies always want the best and the brightest; everyone’s always equal in the workplace.

It’s possible to not agree with all of Dunn’s points and still take away an important message: when it comes to making their jobs better, there are simple (if radical) things that HR professionals can do to help themselves. Until employers embrace Ryan’s human resources utopia, that may be the best start for beleaguered staffers.

10 March 2010

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