Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Human Resources or Human Beings: The difference between 'things' and 'people'

Among my reading lately was an article on LinkedIn (which is why I cannot post a working link here) on the subject of getting “your” Human Resources Department to work properly. Obviously the article is aimed at managers and possibly at Human Resources staff, but it made interesting reading. The main thrust of the article was that many HR Departments are not functioning well or efficiently. The author flagged up several areas of concern, among them a ‘disconnect’ between the people they are supposed to be sourcing, developing or disciplining. In part this is because there are differences between what ‘Corporate Management’ think the department does, and what the HR Manager thinks it does, but there may also be a lack of certain skills within HR, or even a lack of communication between ‘cells’ within it. 

Many years ago now, I held the “HR” management function for my then employer, a Fire and Emergency Service. It was a very interesting task, and something of a major challenge, but I enjoyed it in the main. The foregoing will tell readers that I'm old enough to remember when "HR" was called "Personnel" and frankly, the change of title is part of the problem. Suddenly 'people' became a 'resource' and thus 'objects' or 'goods'. The very word ‘resource’ suggests some sort of warehouse from which ‘workers’ can be drawn at will, and which, when worn out or no longer required, can be discarded. Treat people as objects and soon their motivation to do anything more than the absolute minimum goes straight out the window. They also become very reluctant to discuss anything at all with anyone from ‘HR’ lest it be used against them, or used to impose new responsibilities or workloads on them. 

One of the points the article raised is that a properly functioning HR Department is also about ‘developing’ skills for an employer. For many corporate employers this is an ideal situation, but all too many don’t make proper use of the possibilities it offers. Coming from a uniformed service background, it is a function that is often separated from HR under the label of “Training and Development”. For a service such as mine it was and is a key function, and it can quite easily fit within a HR remit. However, I would also caution that it must be managed by someone who understands the difference between managing the kitchens of a hotel and being able to manage a fire station with multiple functions. While some skills of management are common and therefore transferable, some of the technical skills and knowledge required to make a good Station Manager/Commander/Officer in a fire service are unique and cannot be gained through an generalised management course. Once again, my experience of trying to explain some of this to HR managers leads me to think there may be a reluctance to accept that a NVQ for managing a shop or office is not a suitable qualification for managing a crew or station in an emergency service.

As I said earlier, I am a retired senior fire officer, and one of the things one learns in 'command' is to know your people, know them, trust them, and know what makes them tick. Far to many of the HR 'professionals' I have encountered in my latter years of employment didn't understand this and could frequently undo years of trust and respect by imposing some new system or policy without consultation. This is often compounded by a refusal to discuss anything of concern to individuals with the person. Many HR Managers I have encountered in recent years insist the person must take their concerns to “their Union” so it can be aired at a “Union Consultation”. In my view, this is not the right way to handle something, the “Union” often has a wider agenda, and the individual’s ‘issue’ may not fit it. As someone who was, at best, a reluctant member of a Trade Union (I disagree strongly with their direct involvement in political ideology and links to specific political Parties), I resented being made to join one (and continuously have to explain why I refused to make a ‘donation’ to an affiliated political party) just so I could get certain concerns about the manner in which contracts were being ‘adjusted’ without consultation or appeal.

I lost count of the number of times I have been told by HR managers that the department was there to 'provide support and services to 'the management' and not to 'staff'. An employee encountering that is likely to immediately clam up and avoid disclosing anything beyond what is demanded of them. I have also found that many of those I encountered didn't know the Employment Laws as well as they should. They often made something worse when they did take a wrong turn, by trying to blame the employee, or by creating a situation which brought about a conflict with the Unions. For me the worst moment came when I was told by an HR 'Director' (who had replaced a uniformed senior officer with many years experience and success at keeping the staff happy and onside) that “no one in the fire service should expect to have a career in it” and that the “average length of ‘career’ should not exceed 12 years”. The individual concerned did not understand the fact that the fire service relies heavily on experience as well as qualification. In fact, quite clearly, there was absolutely no interest at all in even being informed of it. Remove the experience element and you have a recipe for disaster, which, unfortunately, has been borne out in reality since that discussion.

In fairness, senior management can often put the HR personnel into an unenviable position of having to implement policies which they may know will cause hardship. The management is abusing their HR Department in this case, and using them as a buffer between themselves and the difficulties their policy may cause. A typical example is the ‘policy’ that imposes some operational requirement which those who will be affected by it know is going to cause them to come into conflict with the public. Having been there, I can tell you it is useless trying to raise those concerns, so you are faced with either disobeying the policy and hoping to get away with it - or letting the proverbial wheels fall off. Either way you know you, and you alone, as the “resource” involved will be blamed, and will be punished for it having gone wrong. No wonder “HR” are frequently seen as the enemy.

It is my experience that all to often, HR managers adopt an 'adverserial' approach to legitimate staff concerns and generally ramp up the conflict. Sometimes this is down to 'management' decisions requiring the shedding of staff, but more often than not it is down to sheer bad  communications skills and sometimes to clumsy efforts to change employment contracts by stealth. For many the concept of 'consultation' is to send round a letter stating something is to be ‘changed', and when the staff object, tell them to 'like it or leave it'. As you may gather, my experience of modern 'HR' is not a happy one. There is, I feel, too much emphasis on the ‘resource’ and not enough on the people. Too much generalisation instead of addressing some of the real problems and difficulties - like bullying, or constant playing of the ‘minority’ card to cover poor skills or knowledge gaps, and not enough attention to addressing identified problems rather than, as was common in my last employer, blaming everyone for the problems created by one or two individuals instead of dealing with the individuals concerned. I still remember with enormous anger having notices plastered everywhere setting out “our core values” (the same one’s I, and every other uniformed employee had worked to our entire careers) and threatening disciplinary action if we failed to adhere to them. I should mention that the very same people who put these up everywhere, were the worst offenders in breaking them …  

The author of the article that set me off on this listed ten suggestions for improving Human Resources functions. Four of the listed items would, in my view help. They included breaking down the tendency toward isolating skills within the department, adopting a more consultative approach, getting to know peoples’ needs and development ambitions and being less remote. I think that the first step is to have an HR manager who actually understands the 'operations' the 'Human Resources' he manages are engaged in, what stresses and strains those impose on individuals and then to find ways not to compound them. All too frequently, the HR Manager is someone from outside the organisation who has little, if any, knowledge of what the resources they are managing actually do. While it would be impossible to know in detail what each and every post does and how it does it, it would help to actually talk to the individual before attempting to change it. Consulting the Union doesn’t cut it, since the Union representative probably doesn’t know either. 

How do we fix the disconnect between what management think HR does, what HR think they do, and what the staff think HR is there for? It will certainly go a very long way if "HR" stops treating people as 'assets' in the manner of 'goods' to be pigeon-holed, costed and measured all the time.

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