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  • What’s In A Name?

    We say that we are strategic, but don’t truly understand our businesses’ competitive market place. But worst of all, we can’t decide what to call ourselves. Maybe we should ask Marketing for advice.

    Recently, a friend asked me why Human Resources keeps changing its name.  An employee of a mid-sized U.S. university, he noted that through his nine-year employment there, the H.R. office had also been called: People Management, Human Capital, Talent Management, and Personnel.  He may have listed other titles, but my mind was already trying to figure out how to answer the question.

    It occurred to me that the issue isn’t really about changing the name plate on a door, but rather how H.R. portrays itself to the outside world – to colleagues, clients, supporters and detractors.  Simply put, we can’t decide what to call ourselves because we can’t decide what we do.

    Personally, I describe H.R. as having three primary components:

    Operational, which is the administrative glue to all things employee related.  The paperwork that enables employees to get raises, be transferred, promoted, receive benefits — basically all transactions required to make the employee programs work, from recruitment to compensation to job evaluation to performance management to succession planning.

    Business Focused, which is really Strategic with a different name, primarily because I find “strategic” to be misused throughout the HR world.  How do we achieve our business goals through our staff base?  And how do we enable our staff to deliver on our business goals?

    Consulting, whether internal or external, this function understands both the operational and business focused sides of H.R., and blends the two together to create corporate-wide programs, ensures that programs can function properly within the environment, and that they evolve in sync with the business.

    If we can break down H.R. functions into three pillars, essentially of how we function, then why can’t we decide what to call ourselves, and ultimately how to portray ourselves? There are a couple of easy answers, and a few that require some soul searching.

    The easiest response is that we want to be all things to all areas of a business.  And, since generally there is few H.R. staff filling multiple functions, we end up having to wear multiple hats.  But other cost-centers, such as Marketing, are in similar positions.  So why isn’t Marketing having an identity crisis?  Simple – Marketing can articulate what it does.  It has an established scope and defined functions.

    Marketing is very upfront with what it does, how it does it, and its impact on the business.  That is something that H.R. hasn’t yet been able to do.  We’ve started to talk in terms of R.O.I., but generally within our own department and function, rather than the business as a whole.

    We want to be ‘strategic’, but more often than not do not truly understand the intricacies of the business.  Marketing understands potential markets, growth opportunities, and how the business fits into the overall market place.  Unfortunately, too many H.R. people do not.  They can articulate how the employees in the company function, but would be hard-pressed to understand the uniqueness of the talent within the greater market place.

    But perhaps H.R.’s greatest challenge in defining itself, and ultimately standing behind one name, is that H.R. still thinks it isn’t accepted within business.  And it is true; in many environments, H.R. isn’t accepted as a true business partner.  It is lacking credibility.   I have never understood why H.R. thinks it should be given that coveted seat at the Executive, C-Suite and Board tables without truly having earned it.   The best I can guess is that H.R. gets so mired in the operational functions, that the crucial business focus is lost.   We spend so much time saying ‘look at us’ and ‘include us’, that we don’t show business why they should listen.

    In Ontario, Canada, H.R. went through something of an identity crisis over the last couple of years when the Provincial government was debating making H.R. a regulated profession.  The primary controversy came from proposed legislation intended to make individual people accountable for their professional conduct.  H.R. people were up in arms – why should they be individually responsible, to the point of being personally liable, for actions they were required to take by their employer?  People felt the potential intrusion of professional regulators into their personal lives crossed a boundary, and were quite vocal about the inappropriateness of the proposal.

    Personally, I thought it was a great idea.  Other regulated professionals are held personally responsible, with regulating bodies, professional standards and, if anything does go wrong, professional liability insurance.  Doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. are all regulated professionals.  Governing Directors of organizations are being held personally liable for management being legally compliant.  H.R., in my mind, was on the cusp of being accepted as a profession in the business world – a group that had an established methodology to its day-to-day work, and expected that its practitioners rise to the occasion.

    Ultimately, the legislation died when the session of government ended in preparation for a provincial election.   Many H.R. people rejoiced – the ‘government’ couldn’t interfere with how we do business.   For me, this was not only a lost opportunity, but also a significant disappointment.  We’d finally had an opportunity to have a base definition for our profession, and it was gone.

    So we’re back to square one.  A different name every couple of years for a group of people who cannot agree on what our value-add is.  We now call our senior staff “business partners” when really they advise a defined internal client base.  We say that we are strategic, but don’t truly understand our businesses’ competitive market place.  But worst of all, we can’t decide what to call ourselves.  Maybe we should ask Marketing for advice.

    Filed Under: Management


    About the Author: Jessica Pelt is a Business Advisor and Organizational Consultant. She focuses on improving your organization through design, innovation, effectiveness and operational efficiencies. Jessica's value add is her multi-disciplinary approach to and understanding of organizations, combined with her unique ability to blend concepts and ideas with daily operational requirements.

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