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5 reasons why your HR Department sucks! What every CEO needs to have a great HR department.

Updated: Jan 17

In the past, when people asked what my line of work was, I used to hesitate. Sometimes I avoided answering the question at all. The reason for this is that the most common response to me working in HR went something like this:

‘Oh. Really? Erm..well, I’m sure you’re nothing like the evil villains of HR that I work with! They are awful….let me tell you about what they did recently….’

In the early days of my career, when I heard the numerous ‘evil HR’ stories I used to get really defensive. Fast forward 10 years and I used to listen, nod and ignore everything that was said, trying to ‘rise above’ the criticism. More than 20 years have passed and now I actively listen to the stories. I ask questions, I’m curious about these terrible HR people and HR departments because I want to understand why this function is one of the most maligned in a business.

In my opinion there are 5 big reasons why HR departments suck.

1. Lack of executive support

When the CEO and senior leaders see HR as a tick-box compliance function to avoid legal issues rather than a necessary part of their business strategy then the function and person or people working in it are destined to fail.

Lack of executive support for HR

If HR isn’t sitting at the most senior decision making table then it suggests that there is no real interest by the leadership to invest in their people and create positive inclusive and productive working environments.

With no investment from the top there will be limited resources and time given to whatever HR exists which impacts heavily on their ability to do their work well.

2. Lack of leadership

If a company is large enough to warrant a Chief Technology or Sales or Product or Marketing Officer then they absolutely must have a Chief HR or People Officer (CHRO/CPO).

HR leadership

The role has to be a stand-alone position, not one that also has responsibility for another function. During my career I have seen many companies have the CFO responsible for HR or the Legal team responsible for HR. It just doesn’t work.

To put it in easy to understand terms: salaries and benefits are often the organisation’s highest cost. This ‘cost’, if managed well, is actually an investment. Why would you give responsibility for the organisation’s largest budget to someone who has another priority? To get the most from your workforce you need someone focused on creating the conditions for success, not someone who is preoccupied with another area of the business.

The CHRO/CPO is a strategic role that inputs into the business goals and ensures that any subsequent HR initiatives are aligned. As the leader of the HR function solely, they can provide clear direction and focus to that team without dilution.

3. Limited expertise, knowledge or resources

HR departments are often responsible for a wide range of activities. These can include recruitment and hiring, employee relations, coaching managers, managing payroll, benefits administration, compensation strategy, performance management, learning and development, employee wellbeing, culture and engagement programs, on-boarding and off-boarding, restructuring, administration and management of HR software. This list is nowhere near exhaustive. And of course, all of the above must be achieved equitably and inclusively whilst acting as the organisation’s diversity, inclusivity and equity advisors!

lack of knowledge; lack of resource

To achieve this range of activity a department needs people who have relevant experience and knowledge. If a department doesn’t have the expertise in-house then they need to buy-in the resource. However, if there is no executive support, or the HR leader lacks focus then it is unlikely that there will be a budget available to secure external help.

Without the relevant expertise and knowledge the HR department cannot succeed.

4. Excessive focus on compliance

There are things that employers are obligated to do in order to stay on the right side of the law.

Within this category of compliance I’m including things like employment contracts, statutory leave payments and benefits, management of working hours, statutory processes such as disciplinary and grievance, work permits, mandatory knowledge training. Again, the list can be long depending on where you are in the world and what industry you work in.

HR compliance

The good news with compliance is that there are clear processes and often very clear guidance and direction as to how to do these things. These are often the low value activities that can be outsourced to local HR advisory services. Once these things are in place they are a process to manage rather than something that needs to take up all the time of the HR staff.

Allowing HR professionals to focus on more strategic initiatives such as employee engagement, talent management, learning and career paths will improve the outputs of the HR department as a whole and have a more positive impact for staff.

5. Hiring HR staff who don’t care

I’m sure that if there are HR people reading this, then they probably agree with the 4 points already raised. This last point may raise some eyebrows and some fierce disagreement.

When I started out in HR over 20 years ago the aim for HR people was ‘to get a seat at the table’. They wanted to be seen as equals to other non-directly revenue creating functions in the business. This led to a huge push for HR leaders to focus on strategy. Along the way some of them forgot that it was people, aka the staff, that would ultimately make any strategy successful.

HR analytics; HR dashboards

HR leaders started talking about analytics and dashboards and putting huge emphasis on creating amazing scorecards. To me, analytics, scorecards and dashboards are tools, they are not the end result. They are things that show us where we are or where we want to be, they do not create the conditions for success.

For a commercial business to be financially successful i.e. profitable they need their biggest investment to pay off. The salaries and benefits they pay need to translate into productivity and quality.

The easiest way to achieve this is by putting the human back into human resources. Employees are people. They have lives. They have good days and bad days. They can be amazing and awesome. They can also be disruptive and unpleasant.

disengaged worker; HR staff with no purpose

When the HR leaders and team really care about the staff and the working conditions they have a chance to create the environments that allow for productivity and quality and therefore a profitable company.

Whatever the HR role, be it an HR analyst or HR business partner or compensation expert, if their purpose at work doesn’t include creating environments for people to thrive in, or they don’t care about that purpose, the organisation will never achieve as effectively as it could do.

Working in HR is never just a job. The human aspect must come first. Treating people with respect, dignity, kindness, care and dare I say it love, is the way that an HR team shows leadership and can affect real and positive change.

HR departments can struggle for many reasons, from a lack of executive support to a failure to see past compliance activities. With the right leadership, strategy and focus, HR can be the partner that really adds value to any business. If your HR department is struggling, consider the steps you need to improve it. If you are a CEO think about what you need to change to have a great HR department. By investing in HR you really will make the most of your biggest investment - your staff.


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