One day, some time ago, I woke up feeling differently about HR. No longer could I brush aside snubs about the profession I loved, or agree with the idea that somehow we are there to support the organisation rather than play an integral part in its growth.
I am an HR person, and a proud one at that. But outside the profession, HR continues to be seen as the poor relation in many businesses. On the face of it, this makes no sense. David Ulrich, who has done more research on the subject than almost anyone, says that his examination of data covering 90,000 respondents over 30 years suggests that HR professionals have dramatically increased their competencies in all areas during that time.
The problem may be that as HR professionals we are simply not good enough at celebrating what we do and the difference we make. I spoke to a range of experts, commentators and practitioners in my quest to understand what’s holding us back. And each of them had some highly pertinent thoughts on the topic.
Take Angela O’Connor, now CEO of consultancy The HR Lounge, who has spent more than 30 years in public sector HR. “Good HR makes a huge difference to individuals, teams, organisations and communities,” she told me. “If you understand your business and your people and are able to influence at all levels, you will make a positive impact and have a great career. We need more people to celebrate what we do.”
Her point, echoed elsewhere, is that HR has become bogged down in a debate about its exact role – including whether or not it should be part of the board – which has done little to raise its reputation or improve its presence. As Dr Stephen Moir, an experienced strategic HR professional who has worked across local government and the NHS and now executive director of resources at City of Edinburgh Council, put it: “HR’s internal debates about role, influence and impact are not helpful. HR needs to be confident and positive about the outcomes it helps businesses to achieve. Self-awareness matters, and having humility about where things can be improved is important – but not to the extent that HR continues to castigate itself.”
Gillian Quinton, executive director of resources at Buckinghamshire County Council, added: “HR will only have impact if it believes and has confidence in what it can do to help businesses thrive. I struggle a little with the concept of HR loving itself as that appears a little too self-congratulatory. But ultimately, HR must believe in its ability and be confident in its delivery, and through that will come the gravitas and impact it deserves in the organisation.”
“The internal dialogue of many HR professionals is the biggest obstacle,” HR and change consultant Rhyan Anderson told me. “How many times do we start a sentence with an apology of some kind? If we don’t believe in ourselves and the difference we make as a profession, how will anyone else? You don’t hear the finance director asking for a minute of someone’s time – because everyone wants to hear what they have to say.”
In July, I started a blog called #loveyourhr, which has so far had more than 9,000 views and 6,000 visitors. My goal was to give HR a bit of a facelift and reach out to anyone who wants to understand the value of our work. I hope it will be a place to highlight positive experiences, and the work of outstanding HR professionals. But more than that, I hope we can all take part in a dialogue that will increase our confidence and build our profile. That way, in future, asking what HR does and why will seem a remarkably silly question.
The last word, fittingly, goes to Sue Evans, interim HR director at West of England Combined Authority and former PPMA president: “If you don’t believe in yourself how can you expect others to believe in you? HR should step into the limelight and be prepared to sing – not literally perhaps, but certainly have a presence on the stage. It is critical to the whole production, not a bit part.”
Michelle Harte is head of HR at West Midlands Employers. She is currently planning a #loveyourhr conference for 2018