Restoring the humanity to Human Resources

By David Clutterbuck and Caroline Sheridan

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Even a casual glance at geo-politics tells us that the world has a vast leadership deficit. As many as half of the world’s population live in countries led by sociopaths (perhaps more).  

Human Resources can’t be blamed for the ascendance of flawed political leaders. But it does have some responsibility for who becomes the leader of enterprises. The question is How, with all the advanced HR tools and techniques at our disposal, do bad leaders still get to the top? The answer appears to be that much of HR practice actually makes it easier for sociopaths and other unwise leaders to rise. The more rigid a system is, the easier it is for the unscrupulous to manipulate it. 

The problem with so much HR process is that it substitutes for conversation at the human level. And it distorts the conversations that do happen. The standard performance appraisal is a case in point – a mechanical exchange loathed by both manager and managed, it reduces almost everything to numbers, creating an environment where honest exchange is nigh-on impossible. The increasing use of HR analytics (sometimes called banalytics because much of the data is “so what?”) also takes HR away from its basic humanity. The way we think and behave is heavily influenced by whether we experience the world around us through abstract phenomena such as numbers or scores or through relationships. So we can also ask Is HR in danger of losing its humanity? 

We believe that HR is at a crossroads. It can continue along the path of being numbers-driven until it becomes just another minor function of Finance with a relatively short-term horizon on the business. Or it can rediscover its humanity and realise its potential to enable the longer-term survival and success of the business. 

We can also make a strong case for a redefinition of the role of HR as the connectors in the organisation. 

From this perspective, connection takes many forms – all of them vital to the health of an organisation in a complex, chaotic world. Let’s look at some of them: 

  • Connection with core values. The NHS now has more than 200 trained ethical mentors; staff able to support colleagues in thinking through whether they have an ethical dilemma and, if they do, how to approach it. By contrast, many banks responded to the scandals of the past decade by running compulsory ethics training and compliance that has arguably had little effect on attitudes and simply encouraged some creative minds to find new workarounds. While HR doesn’t have to set itself up as the moral guardian of the organisation’s values (especially where there is a separate Compliance function), it can create conditions that tap into most people’s innate need to feel that they are a good citizen, where ethical conversations become part of the normal working agenda.  
  • Diversity management. In a similar manner, attempts to overcome institutional barriers to equality of opportunity have often floundered. Some organisations have abandoned implicit bias training, because it doesn’t work. The main reason for that is that it is presented in the abstract. Whereas co-learning partnerships between senior leaders and more junior employees from less privileged backgrounds clearly does have a major impact, not just on the individuals involved, but on the organisational systems that underpin inequality.   
  • Connection within the work team. Much of the policy and process HR has designed for teams in the workplace decreases human connection and cooperation. Individual bonuses and individual-focused development make teamwork – now increasingly essential in all organisations – more difficult to achieve. Traditional, individual-based performance appraisals add to the problem. HR has generally been slow to shift to the principles of BEAU (Business Evolving As Usual) teams, where the employee takes responsibility for gathering their own feedback from their stakeholders and using this to create a regular cycle of performance and learning objectives, on which team-mates and the team leader provide coaching as needed. 
  • Connection with the wider world. There is a vacant chair at the top table in most organisations – one that has the voice of future generations. If HR represents the people aspects of the business, who said that perspective had to be limited to just the current employees? Given that most employees will have children and grandchildren either now or in the future, is it rational to consider employee well-being as applicable only to the time they are with the organisation; or to ignore the well-being of their current and future families?  
  • Giving the unheard voice. Organisations are surprisingly good at ignoring or suppressing “inconvenient” opinions or information. Yet this information – whether generated internally, externally or as a mixture of the two – is the stimulus that generates the awareness that the organisation needs to adapt continuously to its environment. Narcissistic leaders are typically poor at encouraging contrarian views. HR has the greatest potential to do so and should be an exemplar for enabling isolated individuals, whose voice does not rise over the organisational static, to come together, where they can be heard above it.   
  • Connection in conflict. Traditional HR policies around grievance and disciplinary matters push people apart, not together.  They are adversarial, not constructive and while they might lead to a legal solution, they rarely arrive at a real one, i.e., where both sides feel heard and involved and agree between themselves how best to address their differences.  Rather than being driven by numbers, workplace conflict is often driven by process, the typical grievance procedure usually representing a clear triumph of form over substance.  By pushing resolution by mediation instead, HR can bring the person back into the process, compelling the parties to deal with each other as human beings in difficulty, not a faceless enemy on the far side of angry correspondence.  The very high settlement rate of workplace mediations (well over 80%) speaks volumes for the merits of letting (indeed, making) employees treat each other as people, not just cogs in the grievance machine. 

Traditional HR, encumbered with policing roles topped up with pop-science diagnostics and succession plans that no-one believes and which are obsolete before the ink dries, is increasingly unfit for purpose. But the uncertainty and volatility of today’s world of work offers us the chance to remake the HR profession. And maybe it’s also time to look at what we call ourselves. Does “Human Resources” still capture our collective identity? Or should we be looking to rename ourselves as Human Connection?