How to be successful in HR

More less than positive press for poor old HR people over the last couple of weeks.

It seems however hard it tries, the profession’s image problem just won’t go away.

First up was research released by the CIPD, which suggested that HR’s often overly bureaucratic approach was getting in the way of building trust in organisations.  Too many rules and regulations, it seems, are giving people the impression that the business doesn’t trust them to get on with their jobs.

HR Zone stirred the debate up further by publishing a thread from the social sharing site Reddit, which if taken at face value, illustrates that employees don’t respect HR’s ability to hire (and fire) the right people and feel it definitely isn’t on their side.

Add to this a tranche of surveys over recent months accusing the profession of lacking business nous and being hopelessly out of date and it’s surprising more HR people haven’t given up and thrown in the towel completely.

Now you may or may not think all this flak is fair – and there are of course many HR people out there doing a fantastic job.  But there’s no doubt HR is often perceived in a negative light.  So what can the profession do to set the record straight and position itself as a valuable asset to the business?

Build your personal brand

HR people often don’t stand out in organisations.  They are typically seen as the enablers, rather than the drivers of initiatives and as a consequence their contribution  gets overlooked.  Writing in a recent Ashridge Business School blog, Gerry Miles suggests that “there comes a time in all HR leaders’ lives when they need to stand up and be counted”.  It’s all too easy, he says, to hide behind a facade of being the ‘coach’ to the organisation – but senior executives want to know if you have what it takes to be regarded as their equal.  On a practical level, building your brand in the business means everything from developing the right relationships and getting your voice heard at senior level to keeping your profile high both within and outside the business (by contributing to industry panels, attending and speaking at conferences, blogging about current HR issues …..).  It’s an area that HR people are often uncomfortable with – but those who are prepared to invest time in developing their personal brand will find that the respect and authority they command will quickly grow.

Develop processes that are enablers not blockers

Organisations have to have policies and procedures – but in its enthusiasm to keep the wheels running smoothly, HR can sometimes go overboard on bureaucracy.  As a result, line managers get frustrated when they can’t get their hands quickly on the information they need or are not allowed to manage their teams in the way they want to.  People feel controlled rather than empowered and quickly lose enthusiasm when they find their bright ideas or out of the box thinking is stifled by a rigid approach to ‘the way we do things around here’. The CIPD’s research on ‘Cultivating Trustworthy Leaders’ suggests that too many rules and regulations create environments where individuals at all levels have little opportunity to earn trust by showing they can be reliable. The key is to build processes that bring consistency to the way people are managed, but give managers the flexibility to manage their teams in a way that works for them.

Focus on the right things

We’ve all worked in organisations where ‘initiative-itis’ has taken hold.  Sometimes, there are so many initiatives going on that by the time they reach a conclusion, no-one can actually remember what they were meant to achieve in the first place.  HR needs to get back to basics and make sure it is focusing on the right things.  It’s about making sure people-related issues are on the agenda when business strategy is being developed (rather than when it’s a done deal) and developing the approaches and processes that will help the organisation deliver its objectives.  HR also needs to get better at challenging ideas and interventions that it can see will be a distraction or are not the right way forward.  Too many people in the profession are ‘pleasers’ – going along with initiatives because they want to keep everyone happy.

Keep up-to-date

In an ambiguous and constantly changing business environment, HR people can’t afford to rest on their laurels.  If professionals are to earn the respect of their peers, they need to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the wider world of work, in the industry they work in and within HR.  This doesn’t have to mean going on expensive training courses.  It’s about reading the professional press, attending HR conferences and events and keeping abreast of best practice in people management.  Networking is also a great way to find out what other organisations are doing and to make connections with people who are leaders in the field.  HR also needs to get more curious about what’s happening in its own organisation what trends are affecting the specific field it works in.  There’s no substitute for getting out behind the desk, talking to people and developing a mindset of curiousity.

Take the lead on technology

Lack of understanding of the potential of technology is one of the biggest criticisms levelled at HR people.  HR software has developed apace in recent years and sophisticated, cost-effective systems are within reach of pretty much any company.  These systems have the potential to reduce administration, cut costs, streamline processes and give organisations the up-to-date data they need to inform business decisions.  HR, however, has been slow to embrace this technology – often because they don’t understand it or mistakenly think it will be time consuming and expensive to implement.   Research has shown the profession is particularly suspicious of some of the internal social media tools that are now coming to the fore and has failed to recognise the important role they can play in improving communication, driving innovation and creating engagement.  HR needs to get over its technology ‘phobia’ and take the lead on introducing systems that will enhance performance and productivity across the business.

What do you think?  Are the criticisms of HR fair?  And what else can the profession do to improve its image?

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