Dr. Liz Houldsworth
In the opening episode of the new drama Slow Horses, a wrongly disgraced Mi5 officer takes some comfort when he visits his nemesis and, on finding him in a room full of filing cabinets, realises that he is no longer a practicing spy and has been ‘relegated to Human Resources’.
Such depictions in film, TV and written word are not uncommon. A well-known piece by Hammonds in 2005 heralded ‘Why we hate HR’; parodying the function for its technical jargon such as ‘internal action learning’ and arguing that it was not a role for the brightest and best, typically populated by those who were not the ‘sharpest tacks’. More recently Douglas Murray in the Telegraph was indignant at discovering the role of HR manager to be one of the most desirable and highest paid.
Having worked and researched in Human Resource related fields for over 20 years I recognise this as a continuing, and key, debate. With the Masters students I teach at Henley Business School, I make the point that for most organisations people are both the largest single element of operating (variable) costs and the single resource that can generate value from the organisation’s other resources. Managing any organisation cost-effectively therefore requires knowledgeable, careful and skilful human resource management.
Put simply, for the majority of businesses it really is all about the people. The news that HR managers might now be one of the better paid jobs perhaps suggests that organisations are finally putting cash behind the hyperbole that ‘People are our Most Important Asset.’
For the specialists we teach, who choose to go into HRM as a profession, it is important for them to understand the kind of ignorant assumptions that they may face, but it is also important to understand the motivation of these bright and enthusiastic individuals who have chosen to invest their time and money to qualify to work in the HR profession.
A common misbelief is that HRM Is for individuals who like working with people. As many other commentators have pointed out, HRM is not about being nice to people. A former colleague once said to me: ‘I used to think HRM was easy, all about people, but these ‘soft’ things are really hard.’ Done well, HRM is carried out by business-focused individuals who make difficult decisions and lead effective change programmes in ways which don’t attract negative media attention. To take one recent example, a US mortgage company recently sacked 900 staff by Zoom, attracting massive negative publicity and harming the business.
One of the reasons my students cite as a driver for selecting a career in HRM is that they want to make a difference to people’s working lives. This impact might be through the shaping and maintenance of the organisation’s culture, or by responding in a timely fashion to fast-changing needs. Such a fleet-of-foot response is not synonymous with the self-important bureaucrats seen through Murray’s distorting lens. Had HRM generally been populated by such individuals we might still be waiting for the health and well-being programmes that supported so many millions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent implementation of hybrid working.
Of course, as with all the other functions of any effective business, production, finance, IT or marketing, HRM has a normal range of individuals from those who are naturally brilliant at it and are heavily relied upon members of the top management team, to those who are incompetent drudges.
But for the most part serious organisations, and commentators, recognise HRM as more strategic and deserving of its seat at the table. In the more sophisticated organisations, there is a clear understanding of the transition of HRM away from being a largely administrative function to becoming a more strategic function. Of course, there is still a bureaucracy around hiring, payroll, pensions administration, etc. It is important that these things are handled competently and consistently (if you are not sure about that, think what would happen if people didn’t get paid the right salary at the right time).
But there is much more to the role. To take a crucial example, recruitment is one of the core skill areas within HRM. Get the right people in and many other management problems become much easier to resolve; get the wrong ones and the organisation is building up near and long-term future problems for itself. In organisations of any significant size, recruitment is a holistic resourcing strategy and HRM specialists are expected to manage the flow of resources (people) into, through and eventually out of the organisation.
Human resource planning may be an area which has less of a trendy image than other areas of management – and will be unknown to many casual commentators on HRM. It requires detailed data collection, analysis of changing external circumstances (most recently Covid, of course), understanding the likely availability of internal and external labour markets (think Brexit) and the organisation’s likely future demand for labour. Without effective thinking – consider the travel industry at present – businesses will swerve within weeks from being expensively over-staffed, to being desperately short of appropriately trained employees. Anyone thinking this is a low-value activity should try telling that to the people struggling to get away for their Easter break because of a lack of baggage handlers, or to farmers unable to get their produce picked or hoteliers without chefs or waiting staff.
Depicting the individuals who specialise in order to do this work as presumptuous dullards is perhaps what got us into these situations in the first place. A country should indeed encourage young people to excel and be great at things that are important, and roles in human resource management are high on that list.
The writer is the Programme Director of Henley’s MSc International Human Resource Management.