Six myths about the role of an HR professional

Do you believe you are strategic, bring soft skills to the table and will survive AI? Think again, says Jelena Petrovic

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There are many myths surrounding the strategic role of an HR professional, which directly relate to the questions of who the HR professionals are really working for, what they are trying to achieve and whether they will survive the development of AI. If HR professionals recognise the myths considered in this article, they will be able to start enhancing their strategic capabilities.

Myth one: senior HR professionals have a strategic role in business

Indeed, many HR professionals think that creating HR strategy for successful implementation of a merger or acquisition (M&A) is strategic. Yet, from a board perspective, HR strategy is an operational matter. Operational does not mean less important; it just means a different focus with a different outcome

Business strategy focuses on the entire organisation, on a big picture – how all the parts of the organisation come together. Business strategy also normally results in a repositioning of the company in the market.

HR strategy focuses on the people aspect and is about making the business strategy happen through people – in this case, ensuring a smooth implementation of an M&A. If an HR practitioner influenced a decision about whether to enter the M&A, then it would be considered strategic. But if HR only implements such a decision, then it is operational. Thus, for the HR professional to be truly strategic, they need to have the correct understanding of what strategic means and be involved in creating business strategy. 

Myth two: HR professionals care about people and business

HR professionals would indeed typically state that they care about people. Yet, employees are often frustrated with HR, as HR practitioners tend to focus on addressing the consequences of bad business strategy decisions that might have been avoided if HR were there when strategic decisions were made. Organising wellbeing seminars for employees to tackle the increased levels of employee stress is an example of an HR attempt to address people-related issues. However, one could argue that stress is often a result of a business strategy that was created with no consideration of the people implications, or a toxic culture created at the top.

HR should instead play an active role in avoiding the cause of stress in the first place. Care for people should begin with HR influencing business strategy and not stepping in when this is already in place – or, even worse, maintaining a toxic organisational culture through the activities that prevent reputational damage for an organisation. Being just implementers of business strategy, HR is not really working either for people or for the organisation. Has there ever been a case where HR prevented an M&A over people issues?

Myth three: HR professionals bring soft skills to the board

What do these skills exactly refer to? Are they about interpersonal skills – about being able to deal with people? If so, why is it assumed that HR professionals possess better interpersonal skills than board members of different professional backgrounds? No board director would be able to contribute to the effective work of the board without possessing soft skills: boardroom dynamics require that one understands how to deal with others and navigate stakeholder relationships at the most senior level. So soft skills are something that all successful board members have, regardless of their professional background.

Myth four: senior HR professionals should play a central role on the board regarding EDI and executive succession because they, more than anyone else, have the relevant data about people in the organisation

What kind of data are we talking about? Diversity, strictly speaking, is not just about observable (demographic) characteristics, but about the different psychological characteristics (personalities, values, ways of thinking) of individuals. And it is not HR professionals but line managers who work with employees on a daily basis. Line managers therefore (should) know best the characteristics of people with whom they are working. So, the question here is about what data is relevant for both business and individuals – and whether the HR professionals really have it. 

Myth five: once an HR professional has a seat on the board, they will be able to influence business strategy

HR professionals tend to believe that their ability to be more strategic relies on them having a seat at the boardroom table. However, having a seat on the board only gives an HR professional a positional source of power; without an understanding of boardroom dynamics this source of power can be difficult to turn into influence. 

Myth six: HR professionals will not be displaced with the next generation of ‘agentic’ AI, because the world of work will always need the human touch

This begs the question of what HR professionals actually do. If you ask an average employee, their experience of HR is typically related to its operational role (eg, ‘hearing from HR’, logging a grievance or getting answers about payroll, training or similar). And we also know that AI can, and already has, replaced many operational aspects of the HR professional role.

We often hear that the only real way to judge the value of HR professionals is to take them away; robots may be preparing to do that. So, if HR practitioners do not evolve to become more strategic, AI, as it develops, may cause the profession to perish altogether.

Jelena Petrovic is a principal enterprise fellow and associate professor of strategic leadership at Southampton Business School, University of Southampton