Distant HR, bad HR...

July 6, 2015 Geoffroy De Lestrange


If you don't read Lucy Kellaway's articles in the Financial Times, you really should. Her "Dear Lucy" Agony Aunt column is at the same time fascinating and witty, as she gives common sense advice to readers writing about problems concerning all sorts of work life topics of various importance, from sexism to email greetings

Yet one of her last articles on Dress code regulation made me react. Not on the topic itself, but on one specific sentence: "The most usual sort of drivel is intermittent, comes from someone distant, usually in HR, and is routinely ignored by all." For non-native speakers like myself, "drivel" means "silly nonsense" according to Oxford Learner's Dictionary.

In this one single sentence, Ms. Kellaway sums up all the prejudices that HR still has to overcome today:

  • HR is perceived as distant
  • HR seems to concerns itself with drivels
  • in relation to this, HR appears to considers drivels to be important
  • as a consequence, HR is ignored by all

Of course, I had exactly the same perception of HR a few years ago but I really hope that the general feeling about HR departments is evolving, given the highly important missions that are - or should be - under their responsibility. Just to mention a few:

  • they ensure that the company employs the right person with the right skills at the right position and the right time, and develop metrics to prove this
  • they help developing skills in relation with the company strategy
  • they are in charge of creating an environment to foster employee engagement
  • they are responsible for spreading the company culture 
  • they check that employees are diverse enough
  • they check attrition rate and try to find hidden talents within the company

How come, then, that such a celebrated journalist from the world's reference business paper still considers HR this way? I think the word "distant" is key here. We can define the following rule: the more distant HR will be perceived, the more it will feel the need to justify its role with seemingly unnecessary activities

When I mean distant, I refer to the relationship between HR and operations. Just to give one extreme example: I have in mind the case of a company that was facing huge troubles due to the financial crisis some years ago. In the midst of this tempest, employees received the company internal magazine, which was explaining how everyone was trusting the company to get better. Of course, this generated a burst of bitter laugh as everyone was all aware of the real situation on the field. Corporate HR and internal communication somehow destroyed their reputation that day and I do wonder why local HR and management did not decide not to distribute this internal magazine...

The worst thing in this example is that I'm sure this corporate HR department was convinced to be doing something useful. That's the real issue: if HR doesn't work in close cooperation with the field, they are at risk of making such mistakes.

I can give 2 examples in opposite directions: on the negative side, just google "weird team building activities" and you can read how far some so-called consultants would go in their mad creativity... and you'll wonder how some HR departments make to sign for such things! On the positive side, I remember the case of an international bank which developed a global training programme around risk management in order to foster a culture of risk awareness and prevent dangerous situations that some of its competition had been facing. This, I believe, is a great example of HR working in close relationship with the field and developing a truly useful development plan that had a direct impact on the company business.

Working in talent management, I see numerous cases of great HR teams heavily involved in making operations more efficient via quality recruiting, efficient onboarding, targeted learning, fair performance reviews, strategic succession planning, collaborative knowledge sharing... Yet how come HR in some companies still has the need to prove themselves? The answer, again, lies in the understanding of the company's business. The more HR knows about the strategy and the market environment, the more efficient they will be. The further they are from it, the more they'll avoid engaging themselves with operations and will continue "concerning themselves with drivels".

Any examples of close cooperation between HR and operations you'd want to share?

About the Author

Geoffroy De Lestrange

Product Marketing & Communication Director EMEA at Cornerstone OnDemand

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