Sunday, August 16, 2009

In defence of HR

Concluding a sequence of posts on HR with a defence of the people who run that function ! I’ve been unduly harsh in some of my earlier posts – to be fair, there’s much to be said about what they do well too.

HR is the most difficult function in a company, in many ways. In, say finance, 1+1=2 – you can’t argue about that. When it comes to dealing with people, as we all know, 1+1 is never 2. How do you deal with something that’s essentially unpredictable ?

Its very sexy to say we should have freedom , no rules, and openness. But the dividing line between freedom and anarchy is a thin one. Take travel expenses. Put a hand on your heart and say that you have never ever mixed personal stuff with official work and claimed it. Never ? We do this even when the Nanny is watching. Imagine if there’s no Nanny. The world isn’t full of Mahatma Gandhis whose iron self discipline can obviate the requirements of rules. For lesser mortals like us, the rule book is inevitable.

Why the complexity ? Its only because organizations are complex places to run. When an organization is small, its easy. But when it grows to say 10,000 employees in far corners of the world , how else to run it on even keel but for the dreaded “employee bible”. I like Netflix’s idea that growth in size and complexity are not necessarily cause and effect. It’s a seductive idea, but in my experience one I haven’t seen in practice.

So , all you HR folks, you have a difficult job. A thankless job, for you are often likely to be criticized and seldom praised. But you can do a few things to help yourselves.

One of the cardinal sins that you often commit, is that you manage by process, instead of people. Everything becomes a form. As the organisation becomes larger and larger, HR folks tend to go deeper and deeper into their cocoon. They wall themselves up, under the guise of confidentiality. They become slaves to the computer – peering into it and answering emails, sending forms, collecting them, analyzing the data, etc etc. Rajalakshmi and Wang Xiao have become Employee no 9432 and 8769.

So let me , in my usual arrogant way, preach something. Junk your computer. Get out from that walled room. Go walk around. Talk to people. Remember HR starts with a H – the human being. Rajalakshmi is not 9432; she’s a lovely girl. Give a shoulder for her to cry on. Listen to the angst floating around. Help a guy who’s going through a difficult period. Break some rule to help out somebody in distress – she’ll value you for life. Bend things a little if that’s the right thing to do. Try and hint to a tyrannical boss that he can change, at least in a small way. Offer to help the line manager deal with chronic absenteeism. Show empathy. But , above all, get out of that chair.

Oh boy. Don ‘t we love HR !