Why HR?

Uh-uh, Bill Taylor.

I just read Why We (Shouldn’t) Hate HR on FastCompany.com. I wish Bill (one of the brilliant founders of FastCompany magazine) hadn’t questioned the intent and meaning of Keith Hammond’s original 2005 article, Why We Hate HR. If anything, it’s more valid today than it was 5 years ago because today budgets are tighter and employers must hire and manage people with even more care. HR is still the focal point of the problem.

I don’t think pushing the HR problem onto a company’s employees “because they are the human resources” works. I think that’s another issue and another article. Hammond was talking about the Human Resources department, not the employees. Let’s stick to the subject.

Perhaps time prompts us to recast the original question: Do we really hate HR? I don’t think so, but HR bugs us. We’ve seen all the ways that HR as an organization — generally speaking — doesn’t work very well. Some HR departments flourish and represent a return on investment to their companies; but I think the majority of us agree that most don’t. Hence our “hatred” for HR. I think that since you Hammond that big question to us 5 years ago, it seems the more important question today is, Why HR?

I don’t think there’s a good answer that supports the existence of most HR departments. Sure, some good HR departments pay off, but does any company really need an HR department?

Even if we set aside the truly productive HR departments, the problem is all the other HR departments that are unnecessary and counterproductive. Let’s look at what HR does, and how it could be done better by another corporate function:

1. Handle regulatory matters. Most companies have legal departments. The answer seems simple: Let the legal folks grow an implementation and compliance team for human resources matters. Keep the responsibility close to the department that does the work.

2. Employee training and development. Where does this role really belong? At home in each business unit or company department. Create a position that enables managers to decide how to educate, train, and develop their workers. Implement it locally, where bureaucratic nonsense is less likely to interfere. How many questionable “consultling firms” do HR departments hire and foist on business units, without the unit really wanting the service? I can count on two hands and feet the number of pedantic consulting firms I’ve seen hired by HR because they wine and dine and flatter HR execs. Let the business units decide how to invest the funds for a return the business units are accountable for. (When is the last time you saw HR reprimanded for hiring a crummy consultant or trainer?)

3. Organization design. If this is a business science, I’ve never understood why it is a separate discipline. Any business unit’s management team is responsible for structuring its operations, and it should hire the experts it needs to help it do the job. I’ve seen one disastrous organizational design after another created by people who are not expert in the business being designed.

4. Workforce analysis and data management. If ever there were an administrative role in management, this is it. I believe performance and workforce planning problems start when the department (HR) responsible for them is not measured on… workforce performance. Show me a company where HR is measured and judged based on the actual performance of all employees, and I’ll eat this column. This is a perfect role for oversight by the finance department, which also rounds up departmental budgets each year. But make each business unit accountable for its own analysis and planning.

5. Employee relations, social programs, and events. Gimme a break. Companies don’t need den mothers. Rather than pay big bucks for big programs, big mission statements, and big public relations initiatives, spend a few dollars to hire a specialist for each business unit who is responsible for monitoring and coordinating employee programs. Make sure these specialists learn your business first. Retired high school vice principals are good candidates.

6. Compensation and benefits management. Don’t waste that great finance department you have. Those people are really good at numbers. Invest in some further training and develop some specialists to handle competitive compensation and effective benefits programs. Gathering and analyzing competitive market data is not rocket science; get your department managers involved. Why does any company need an entire department — whose performance isn’t (can’t be?) measured — making decisions about competitive compensation practices?

7. Recruiting, processing and hiring. Let’s consider some facts. Last year one of the biggest online job board’s revenues were around $1.3 billion. Your HR department is the source of most of that revenue. But your company made only about 4% of its hires from that job board. Is your board of directors aware that your HR department is shoveling company cash to “recruitment advertising partners” whose services don’t work? Unless you’re one of the handful of lucky companies that has internal recruiters who get out from behind their computer screens and actually go out into the world and seek, find, seduce, cajole, and otherwise steal good workers, your HR department is costing you not only money — but your lifeblood. While critical, profit-producing jobs go undone — and HR’s performance goes unmeasured — your HR execs are telling the world there’s a “talent shortage” while we’re experiencing the greatest glut of unemployed, highly-educated and skilled workers in history. (I wrote my own “Why We Hate HR” column earlier this year: Time for HR to exit the hiring business.)

Bill Taylor says, “The real problem is that too many organizations aren’t as demanding, as rigorous, as creative about the human element in business as they are about finance, marketing, and R&D. If companies and their CEOs aren’t serious about the people side of their organizations, how can we expect HR people in those organizations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?”

I don’t agree. I think successful organizations are very rigorous and creative about getting profitable work from their employees, their managers, and their business units. The problem is, those organizations don’t expect as much from HR, hence HR is usually not overseen, not measured, and not judged for its performance. It’s the department no one wants to be responsible for. It’s the department that is not subjected to outcomes analysis. Anything goes. And we know it does. That’s why we hate HR — though we shouldn’t. After all, HR does what the board of directors permits it to do.

The best HR people I know find ways to embed themselves into business units. They become part of a business team. They don’t hide behind “company overhead.” More than anything else, it’s the success of those precious few “HR folks” that makes me ask, Why HR?

I still haven’t heard a good answer.

[I originally wrote this column for FastCompany.com, which published it under its Leadership section. It got little notice. Something tells me the Ask The Headhunter audience will have a lot more to say about the topic.]


The Monster-ous quality of choice

A recent post, Congress to Employers: You’re not proctologists, drew a comment that reveals the dangerous new cracks in our employment system  — and hints at the problem employers need to address if the quality of hiring is to improve.

In a comment on that post, dated October 19, 2009 at 6:52 am, reader Nic says:

This to me is all about people fuelling their new crackpot ideas for business modelling and human resources; and in my view, it is all lunacy. What does this really mean? The quality of employee has declined drastically over the past 20 years. Does this mean a further dumbing down?

I don’t think the quality of the employee has declined. Rather, the quality of the selection process has declined. It has become so automated that it is now counterproductive.

The personal judgment of managers no longer filters the best job candidates into the final interview process. The first cut of candidates is made thoughtlessly using key word searches and is further dumbed down because the pool itself is limited to people who list themselves in data bases. Gone are the candidates a manager seeks out for their rare and relevant qualities.

The Human Resources Soup Kitchen waters down the quality of the hiring process by ladling resumes out of the huge job-board swill pot — and those are the candidates the hiring manager is permitted to choose from. That’s where the “talent shortage” starts. When your head is stuck in the swill pot, all the world is a mediocre candidate — and you always have an excuse for mediocre hiring: We use the latest technology but today’s candidates just suck!

I was recently on Minnesota Public Radio to discuss trends in job hunting and hiring and to take questions from listeners. Joining me was an executive from Monster.com.

A caller who runs a management consulting firm challenged Monster’s Doug Hardy over the “task matching” — or “keyword” — method of scanning resumes for matches to jobs.

Listen to the question and to Hardy’s response: Read more

Unfair interviews are best

In the previous post, we’re discussing how to commandeer a job interview so you can actually help an employer see how you’ll do the job. If the employer has a brain, you’ll get the job.

On that thread, readers Bonnie and Janet point out an interesting “policy” that many HR departments have. They don’t want you to do anything out of the ordinary in your interview. HR wants you and the hiring manager to stick to the interview script.


Because that makes the interviews fair for all candidates. Ask the same questions and use numerical scoring to ensure everyone is treated the same. You know — just like you do when you go on a date. Treat everyone the same so they all have an equal chance of getting a marriage proposal from you.

Say what?

This is where HR gets totally idiotic. “People are our most important asset.” My ass. “We celebrate diversity.” My ass. How can a company hire the best people when it treats everyone the same? If you go on a date with a clod, should you invite them on another date — to be fair–, just like you would someone who was absolutely wonderful?

I repeate: This is where HR (and perhaps the law) go goofy.

Five minutes into an interview, I can tell whether a candidate is capable of discussing the work on a much higher plane than other applicants — and you can bet your bootie I’ll take the discussion in that direction. Because the candidate earned it. I’ll ask different questions and I’ll engage more enthusiastically. I will use highly discriminatory judgment. (Remember when “to discriminate” was a good thing? Discriminate: “to make a distinction”, “to use good judgment.” When people ask me, “How can I stand out from my competition?”, I tell them that an employer had better be able to discriminate between high quality and low quality.) I’m celebrating the candidate’s ability to be totally unfair to her competition — because she blows them all away and that’s the candidate I really want to talk to further.

I have no interest in being fair to job applicants once it’s time to judge them. And the purpose of an interview is to judge. I want the best ones and I want to treat them differently. I want them to be totally unfair to their competition by showing me skills, aptitude, attitude and motivation that sets them apart. That makes them stand out.

I’ll change my interview questions as a discussion progresses in an effort to find the very best candidate and in an effort to give that person an edge on getting the job. I think any interviewer who doesn’t is a danged fool running his organization headlong into mediocrity.

I don’t want to recruit or hire fairly. I’m glad to behave differently toward people who demonstrate that they stand out postively from their competition.


Shoot first, start a war later with HR

I continue to enjoy Mike Urbonas‘s blog because the guy has an eye for bureaucracy masquerading as expertise. Got a problem landing the job you want? It’s probably because you’re listening to bad advice. Got a problem filling a key job in your organization? Make an executive decision, and start a war with the Human Resources department later.

I’ve got a lot of friends in the HR world, and I respect them greatly. Then there are the HR bureaucrats that I refer to as personnel jockeys. And that’s who Mike highlights in his excellent mini-expose Just Ivy Leaguers for these Bush League Recruiters? Briefly, Mike critiques Boston Globe columnist Pattie Hunt Sinacole’s Job Doc column Beyond the Ivies. Sinacole advises a manager and the person the manager wants to hire — and tells them to go convince the HR department that the manager should be allowed to hire the candidate he wants to hire.

Does that sound like a big deal? Yah, it is. Managers should hire who they want to hire, not who HR dictates. Sinacole recommends that the manager might be able to hire who he wants by bending himself into a pretzel and playing games with HR. She suggests the manager’s challenge is “to influence his peers and his HR department.”

Urbonas sees this a little differently: “It raises the question as to the role recruiters should play in the hiring process.” I agree. The manager can solve his problem simply by telling HR to butt out:

  1. Hire the candidate and tell HR to process the paperwork.
  2. Tell HR to stay out of his recruiting and hiring, since he — not HR — is responsible for his department’s success. When HR is willing to take responsibility for the manager’s department, then HR can hire who it wants.

In other words, shoot now (hire the candidate) and start a war with HR later (change the hiring policy and eliminate Stupid Hiring Mistakes). I believe in cooperation between departments in an organization. But I also believe that he who holds the bag should decide what’s going in it — in this case, who the manager is going to hire.

Sinacole is an HR consultant who has worked in the HR world a long time. No surprise that her advice is to appease HR. My advice to the manager: Tell HR to get out of the way and hire who you want. My advice to the person the manager wants to hire: If the manager cowers before HR, head for the hills or soon you, too, will be getting whipped by HR.


How to Say It: HR should report to PR

While many companies take pride in how they interact with the professional community from which they recruit, others are clueless about the damage human resources (HR) departments inflict on their corporate image and reputation.

Sometimes a reader’s question reveals what’s wrong with Amercia’s employment system. This is one such story. In the June 23, 2009 edition of the newsletter, a reader recounts “phoner torture” at the hands of a personnel jockey — who lays waste to the employer’s credibility during a “phone interview.” And loses the candidate. The candidate wants to know, how should she tell it to the hiring manager? Good question.

But this raises more significant questions. It kinda makes you wonder about the board of directors at this company. After spending enormous sums on public relations (PR) to create a positive corporate image, does the board have any idea that HR is trashing the company’s credibility? Do hiring managers have any idea how HR treats the professional community from which those managers need to recruit people?

My guess is no and no. The board thinks HR is handling human resources, but it’s also in the business of public relations. As an important interface to the company’s professional community, HR’s staffers are in a position to inflict serious damage to the corporate image. Maybe HR should report to PR just so there’s some oversight of HR’s behavior out in the real world.

So the reader asks, How should she tell the hiring manager what just happened?

How to Say It:

“I enjoyed talking with you last week. Thanks for inviting me in for an interview. I was looking forward to meeting so we could discuss the job, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Someone from your HR department called me. It was a very disturbing call. I’m sorry to tell you this, but I believe it’s important to be frank. As a result of that call, I’m not sure I’d consider a position with your company. Is your board of directors aware of how your HR staff portrays your company and how it treats job applicants?”

You can read the whole story in the newsletter along with a bit more detailed advice in the How to Say It section.

Is it too risky to take such a strong position? Or is it risky to fool with a company that doesn’t monitor how HR interacts with its professional community?

What should this reader say to the hiring manager?

Wanted: Big small candidate

What really goes on in the room where job ads are written?

I saw a listing for a security specialist the other day. It listed a  bunch of high-level requirements and looked interesting, though I noticed they also said “heavy attention to detail.” Is that a  realistic expectation for someone who has a more strategic thinking mind?  Can you “pay close attention to detail” and “see the big  picture” on a regular basis? Don’t people tend to have a pull toward one or another?

Maybe I am just a slacker, but as I go on in my career, I am agreeing more and more with the “Strengths” movement that I should focus on my strengths and spend a lot less time wrestling with my weaknesses. While some attention to detail is clearly necessary in any job, I am not convinced that I will ever be as detail focused as someone who thrives on that.

Do you have thoughts on this? Am I wacko or are the job listings?

It’s called the “kitchen sink” approach to job ads. They are usually written by personnel jockeys after they “review” a manager’s requirements and “add” their “insights” about the company’s needs. They throw in everything they think the company “wants.” Big small candidates are perfect because they satisfy two important company goals (in many companies).

Ever go to an interview and realize that the job you read about in the ad has little to do with what the manager wants to talk about?

Bingo. You’re not applying for a job. You’re applying for an ad. Problem is, managers are trying to fill a job. And personnel deparments don’t hire security specialists. They only hire other personnel jockeys. Ooops.

How to hire (or find a job): The 3% solution

Where do companies find the people they hire? (Hint: Dumpster diving is alive and well in Human Resources.)

4% come from Monster.com
3% come from CareerBuilder
1% come from HotJobs

These figures have not changed since these job boards have been online. 90% of companies surveyed have contracts with Monster.com. 80% with CareerBuilder.

60% of corporate recruiting budgets are spent in online job advertising. (Source for most data in this post: CareerXroads 2009 8th Annual Source of Hire Study.)

The single biggest source of hires (30%-40%) is personal referrals. But spending on it is virtually nil. A top HR exec at a Fortune 50 company complains to me that he has no budget to go out and recruit through personal contacts because execs from the big job boards wine and dine his top execs — and the bulk of the available budget is thereby dumped into the job boards. He’s livid. There is no budget for The Manager’s #1 Job.

But that’s not the main reason the board of directors should heave its own HR operation into a dumpster. Read more

A company’s greatest weakness

In yesterday’s Career Journal (a publication of The Wall Street Journal), #1 of the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions was once again dissected, analyzed, and solved.

What’s your greatest weakness?

In the annals of interviewing, we know a wag once offered the best answer ever heard — “Chocolate.” — and that’s when it was time to retire that corn-pone question from the canon. But it lingers.

The question itself reveals what is perhaps an employer’s greatest weakness — stupid interview questions. “My greatest weakness is intolerance for psycho-babble that passes for a job interview. Do you want me to show you how I’ll do this job, or shall we move on to what animal I’d be if I could be any animal?”

The Career Journal addresses this interview hurdle thus: “The key? Thorough preparation.” Preparation for what? To come up with yet another clever answer that the interviewer hasn’t yet read in some interview book? I suppose one could prepare diligently by reading the hundreds of books that offer clever answers.

Then the article offers this pinnacle of organizational idiocy: Read more

Hey, how about a quickie?

Ever wonder why companies take forever to make a hiring decision? You send in your resume, have an interview (or several), they tell you they like you, promise to get back to you in a few days… and a month later they still haven’t made a decision.

Travelodge seems to have come up with the solution: Quickie interviews, which, I shudder to guess, must result in quickie job offers, no?

Travelodge invites people to come to a “speed dating” event, where they talk to HR reps for a fast 3 minutes. Travelodge’s rationale is simple: People make decisions about whether they like someone in the first few minutes after meeting them. Talk fast, get hired.

Ruth Saunders, the Resourcing Manager at Travelodge (gimme a break — yet another goofy HR title?), says, “We will recruit over 1,000 new managers by 2020 and it is imperative that we continue to find new and innovative ways to recruit in order to find the right people and satisfy this unprecedented demand.” Scrub ’em up; get ’em ready.

Sorry if I implied Travelodge hires as quickly as it recruits, but the company has made no statement about how long it takes to decide whether you are one of the right people. I wonder if the company’s HR department will rent you a room by the hour while you wait…