Is HR letting itself down?

The can be no doubt that the HR function is currently undergoing rapid and accelerating change. Our current environment has meant that the future of work has been pulled forward. For example:

  • The importance of working out how to structure your workforce.

  • Creating a thriving culture in adversity.

  • Improving the health and well-being of employees.

  • The use of office space.

  • How to use people analytics.

  • Flexible working arrangements.

None of these things are new, unless you haven't been paying attention, but it has been progressing at a snails pace for the last decade. This seems to be true for the HR function overall. The adoption of People Analytics by HR and therefore by businesses more widely is still woefully slow. For many years, the sector has hailed itself as the new age of HR, but it is like Waiting for Godot. I was struck by what people at opposing levels of seniority have recently said to me. The first, an experienced board member with an enviable track record in Commercial functions and in HR, said that people initiatives will need to be driven through the business rather than HR. She was inferring that as a department, HR does what it is told by other disciplines, rather than setting out a plan and getting others bought into it.


“HR is finally getting a seat at the table, but the change is not going to come through them. If you want to make things happen, you need to appeal to the business, not to HR”

— Experienced Board Member


The second, a neuroscience graduate from Oxford, believed that the role of HR was to primarily represent the interests of the business rather than their employees and this made her reticent to consider it as a compelling career choice.


Whilst being cautious of generalisations, I am inundated with evidence that Human Resources is failing on both of its core objectives; improving the experience of employees in its widest context, and improving organisational performance. It has been in the spotlight this year and has largely delivered against the practical requirements dictated by the situation. However, in many ways this reinforces the core problem; HR teams are typically effective at dealing with what gets put in their in-tray, but are rarely proactive to take control and lead the agenda. It doesn't do it, therefore no-one expects it, the expectations are low and the vicious cycle continues.


So how can the cycle be broken? By following this simple 3 stage process, you can quickly transform the impact HR has in your organisation:

  1. Create simple objectives that measures HR against organisational performance. This could include Human Capital Return On Investment, or even the simpler Revenue or Profit per employee. This should immediately grab the attention of every CEO or CFO and raise the expectation of what HR is expected to deliver. If you lead HR, imagine having a conversation with your CEO or your board about you are helping deliver the business objectives and this is how you are measuring it. Imagine how much easier it will be to get sign off for your initiatives.

  2. Work out a plan that delivers again these things. It might include what has already been done, but it will force HR to think more broadly about how it can contribute to the business. The company conference, training and development, and office management may still be a priority, and what is done will be based on whether it delivers against the business objectives. Typically, new initiatives will be required and should break the HR team out of its traditions

  3. Measure and monitor regularly. Just like your marketing, sales, operations and finance colleagues, report regularly on progress and whether the initiatives are delivering against their objectives. This will keep the function on track and hopefully looking for new things that might improve the business. It forces HR to take a more rigorous approach, it means other departments can input advise and help.

When there is so much going on, it can seem like the hardest time to step out of the day-to-day. Just like a sales person hustling to hit targets, it can feel counter-intuitive to take a step back, evaluate and work out how to do things better. However, it has never been more important for HR than now. You don't get many chances to re-imagine how you operate, and with the spotlight on it, now is the time. The window of opportunity is short. If it doesn't happen now, I fear it never will.