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HR’s Future: ‘People Persons’ Need Not Apply

I strongly dislike the phrase “put the human back in human resources”. In part because it has become an unimaginative cliché and also because it usually sits atop a passive-aggressive treatise pleading with HR people to stop being such heartless, paper-loving bureaucrats and realize that employees are people too.

The premise underlying these arguments is usually that doing HR well is really just a matter of caring about people. This is nonsense, and does our profession a significant disservice. To see what this belief has wrought, ask 10 HR students why they want to work in HR, and I will wager money that at least 7 of them will say “ Because I’m a real ‘people person’”. Sigh…..

‘People Person’ Quota Reached

Personally, I think HR reached our ‘people person’ quota long ago. We don’t need to keep adding ‘people persons’ to the ranks. What we need are business people that understand how to make their organizations successful through smart, progressive people practices. Period. End of story. Is the ability to understand and communicate with people valuable also? Sure, and not just in HR. But if you are more interested in helping individuals reach their potential or find happiness than supporting organizational success, then you would probably make a terrific coach or counselor, but you should not go into HR.

That might be a controversial statement, but I stand behind it. HR has a credibility problem in part because while many in the profession have been seeking a “seat at the table”1 for a decade or two, we continue to accept, or even encourage, the idea that being a “people person” is enough to make you cut out to work in HR. The result has been a profession in which (*harsh truth alert*) many practitioners are not prepared to deliver if given that proverbial seat at the table. We rant and rave about the value we can bring to the organization, but quietly accept that most of the people streaming into our profession are doing so specifically because they like people and want to help them, not because they are interested in supporting organizational results. Don’t get me wrong- I think it’s great that these emerging professionals want to help others, but it is at odds with what many of the most influential voices in the HR profession espouse as its primary goal and purpose. How on earth can we expect to be seen as partners aligned with the business if we do little to question the outdated narrative that we’re just a big ol’ club of people lovers?

Why Are You in the HR Field?

Think I’m wrong? Consider this very interesting research discussed in a recent i4cp presentation ‘The State of the Talent Manager’. It shows responses from current HR practitioners in response to the question “Why are you in the HR field?” The top response?

“I want to help people grow and develop”

A not-so-close second and third?

“I want to help my company maximize its profitability” and:

“I want to help balance the needs of an organization and its employees”

Pretend for a second that you are the CEO of an organization- would you hire someone, or an entire team of people, who are more interested in ‘helping people grow and develop’ than in working to ensure your organization’s success? Without doubt, those aims will sometimes align (hurray!), but frequently they will not. That is, this isn’t a subtle distinction. It is substantive difference of opinion, and we should be talking about it more as a profession. Are we really comfortable advancing the notion that we can add strategic value to the businesses we are part of, while many of our HR colleagues are in fact far more interested in supporting individuals than organizations? This is a very important conversation indeed.

Looking Beyond the ‘Human’

Doing HR well today involves a great deal more than just caring about people, and we need to acknowledge and communicate that. Make no mistake; I am not saying that liking people is a bad thing for HR pros, just that it is definitely not the most important qualification to work in HR. I certainly think that one must find people interesting to enjoy and excel in HR, but the days in which we cast ourselves as party-planners and employee counselors is over. We need to evolve, and we need to talk to each other about what that should look like. No one is ever going to take the ‘human’ out of Human Resources, but we need to think bigger than that singular word allows. Great HR involves so much more. We’ve spent a long time, and a lot of energy, trying to convince our organizations of this, but it seems that we may need to redirect that effort inward, and ask our HR colleagues, and ourselves, what we really want.

1. Everybody take a shot!

Photo credit: stachelig via Flickr Creative Commons

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great stuff Jane! Our business is helping organisations & individuals improve performance specifically to achieve business goals so we deal a lot with HR, line managers & C suite. The best HR people we deal with are those who have applied themselves to understanding the business goals of the organisation & worked hard as partners of line managers to help achieve those goals. When this happens we also see managers who really value what HR can provide.

    Always look forward to your blog. Cheers John

    May 5, 2013
  2. I love this! I recently tackled the same subject from a slightly different angle and it proved to be one of my most popular posts. You can read it here:

    May 7, 2013
  3. Once again, Jane, another fantastic post. Truth be told, many years ago, I too said that my interest in moving into the HR profession was derived from my desire to “help people”. But you know what I found out? That wasn’t the reason…at all. I thrive on helping the organizations by maximizing their human capital, I’m now in a different space, the HR Tech world, and I’m seeing the possibilities from a new perspective.

    You’re absolutely right…we talk so much about getting a “seat at the table”. So when we find that seat – or better yet, someone pulls out a chair for us – we’d better be ready to deliver.

    May 7, 2013
  4. Jane, you do a good job of “putting it out there.” I very much agree with your statement that, if you want to help people, go into coaching or counseling. That statement resonates with me, particularly as I am working on a presentation to a local OD group, trying to tie the discipline of “performance improvement” to the discipline of “OD”. As I reflected on the group members, it struck me that most of the 100 or so in the group consider themselves coaches first, either internal or external, but few bring seem to bring experience in the systems side of OD.

    I have found myself formulating a theory that the “D” side of HR provides tools and resources that serve HR well, in terms of focusing on performance improvement. But reading your post has me thinking about whether even the “D” side really gets the business of HR, particularly as much money as is spent on the coaching industry.

    I always like having my own thoughts rattled just a bit 😉

    May 8, 2013
  5. ChristopherinHR #

    Simply one of the best writes I’ve seen this week Jane. Always good to rethink our positions and get down to interests – what we’re really supposed to be about. Thank you for writing.

    May 10, 2013
  6. Bravo! You are spot on Jane.

    For me, I see there being a few key parts: First, to think about organisational strategy and be key to its development (ie, answering the ‘where are we going and how are we getting there’ question); Second, to create a culture and programs that will facilitate the organisation’s people executing that strategy – which will of course encompass selection, T&D, performance management, reward systems and – indeed – caring (otherwise known as ‘effective management!).

    May 12, 2013
  7. Lenviev LR Ng #

    Oh my, you really hit the nail on the head. I’m not that much of a people person but rather a friendly-but-emotionally-detached, logical, abstract-thinking and (hopefully) objective person. Out of all the disciplines, I lean towards HR because I just think it’s essential to manage and channel human resources into the right places to maximize proficiency. I also focus on strategic management and take a look at all the other departments as a whole. That said, I’m kind of worried and indignant as I can never be as sympathetic, diplomatic and caring as other people who work in Talent Management in my university organizations.

    July 23, 2013

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