In case you missed it, May 20 was International HR Day. To celebrate it, the CIPD tweeted five reasons ‘to recognise HR right now’: putting people first, enabling remote and flexible working, championing physical and mental wellbeing, encouraging virtual collaboration, and supporting people and organisations to adjust to the new normal.
Nothing much to object to there – it’s motherhood and apple pie. Yes. And that’s the problem.
Like a great deal – most? – of management advice, what is proposed is true but useless; preaching, as Jeff Pfeffer puts it.
One clue is that you can’t imagine many people arguing a case for putting people last or stubbornly upholding the old normal. More deviously, the five reasons for celebrating HR are actually nothing of the sort. They are really abstract desired outcomes – practices that companies ought to have – pretending to be inputs – processes or principles that companies and organisations actually observe.
But they don’t: the banality of the desiderata is in inverse ratio to their occurrence in real life. As such, the list declines reasons to despair of HR, not celebrate it.
Managing with rather than against the grain of human needs is not a new prescription, nor a controversial one. As big-name researchers from Herzberg (‘to get people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’) in the 1970s and 1980s to Pfeffer (The Human Equation) in 1998 to Julian Birkinshaw (Becoming A Better Boss, 2013) have emphasized in their different ways, effective work arrangements that enlist people’s abilities and motivation are a better and more sustainable route to economic success than downsizing, contracting out and relying on sharp incentives and sanctions. Countless research studies say the same thing.
And it is true today. At the recent launch of a joint RSA-Carnegie Trust report on the question, ‘Can Good Work Solve the [UK’s] Productivity Puzzle?’, top representatives from the Bank of England, the TUC, McKinsey and the RSA all agreed: yes, it can and should. There are simply no downsides.
Except that it doesn’t happen. Despite the lip service, ‘good work’ is almost exclusively honoured in the breach rather than than the observance. Standard management practices unambiguously put shareholders first, and people last, literally.
In today’s economy, companies create full-time ‘good work, at a good wage’ (the RSA’s hopeful formulation) only as a last resort. They rely instead on contingent workers who can be turned on and off at will and are increasingly managed by algorithm, thus dispensing with another tranche of the workforce. Pay is wildly unequal, even though studies again show that wide dispersion undermines teamwork, involvement and attachment to the organisation. Tight supervision and micromanagement kill trust and initiative – and even where, pushed by coronavirus, companies have moved to home working and virtual collaboration, the latter are almost comically sabotaged by the increasing use of digital surveillance to monitor and control remote employees. Meet the new work, actually a return to the old work, where all the risk and responsibility is borne by the individual, none by the corporation.
Given the yawning mismatch between the ideal and the grubby reality that most employees think their company doesn’t care about them and they don't care about their work, the obvious question is, where on earth is HR in all this? If it and its nominal agenda are so comprehsnsively disregarded, why does it even exist?
There is much hand-wringing within HR and the academic literature over this. Every few years HR is called on to ‘reinvent itself’ or ‘make itself more relevant to business’ in one of the top management journals. But cynicism continues to grow, along with ineffectual programmes and surveys with no follow-up. ‘I do whatever the CEO wants,’ one HR head shrugged to HBR in 2015.
But the frustrations of HR can be explained if you think of it, at least in its current form, as a figleaf. In Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon describes HRM as a by-product of the industrialisation of service organisations along command-and-control lines. HR departments, he says, ‘grew up to treat the unwelcome symptoms of command-and-control management and have steadily expanded as the symptoms have got worse’. HR is, bluntly, damage limitation – yet another example of management consuming itself in trying to do the wrong thing righter (Ackoff), or doing more efficiently that which shouldn’t be done at all (Drucker).
As with so much of management, the way forward isn’t for HR to invent new things to do, but to give up doing old pointless ones. Managers should quit obsessing over individual performance and instead pay attention to the system that governs it. If they stopped demotivating people, removed conditions that get in the way of doing good work (‘So much of management consists of making it difficult for people to work’ (Drucker), ceased measuring activity rather than achievement of purpose and above all did away with incentives that distort priorities and divert ingenuity into gaming the system – bingo! the need for most of what passes for HR today (performance monitoring and surveillance, inspection, culture and engagement surveys, appraisals, courses on coping with change and other fake subjects that add no value) would simply evaporate. When the system changes, says Seddon, so does behaviour; as people act their way into a new way of thinking, culture change comes free.
That’s what an organisation that puts people first looks like. But it’s a result, not a cause. And you may have to kill off HR to get there.