HR is Still a Pink-Collared Ghetto

Illustration by Dreamstime.Illustration by Dreamstime.

I planned to write this last September, so let’s pretend that I did rather than wondering why I didn’t. It’s a critically important topic, and I hope that you’ll listen to the whole linked replay of the underlying discussion. We’re at a critical time in the HR profession, and your future depends on what we do now.

The September 16 2010 HR Happy Hour was a terrific program with guests Leighanne Levensaler, Vice President of HCM Strategy at Workday, and Jennifer Fitzpatrick, Director HR & Talent Management at Chiquita Brands International (now with their very cool, animated home page).

Hosted as always by Steve Boese and Shauna Moerke and sponsored by Aquire, this particular program focused on the future of the HR profession and of that organizational function. I wish I could participate live in every Happy Hour (rather than just catching up via replays), and I certainly hope that you’ll try to do so, but I made a special effort that week because of the topic and the guest speakers.

Chiquita is a Workday customer to be sure, and Jennifer showed herself to be an HR leader worthy of our respect, but this show was much less about Chiquita or HR technology of any sort and much more about where the HR profession has been and where it’s going. You can catch the replay, and I urge you to do so, but of immediate interest for this post were the comments that just poured out of my mouth when we got on this subject: the pink-collared ghetto.

An HR flashback to the 1960s

Listening again to the replay, I’m a little embarrassed by how vehemently and extensively I inserted my point of view and commentary. But my passion on this topic comes from a sincere concern for the future of the HR profession and of my many, younger colleagues working in HR whose own futures are on the line.

When I first began working professionally, at John Hancock Life Insurance in 1967, all HR executives were male, predominantly labor lawyers by training with a smattering of failed line executives. All the personnel ladies were just that, ladies, most of whom had no college degree but had risen through the ranks from secretarial and administrative positions into increasing positions of responsibility for the various personnel functions.

One big exception to the personnel ladies were a fair number of industrial psychologists, at least at the largest companies, who were degreed, often PhD’d, and most often male. Another exception was the growing number, again at just the largest firms, of actuaries and other degreed professionals working on those increasingly complex and pesky total compensation plans.

A lot has changed since then, but not enough. HR is still dominated in numbers by women, admittedly with many to most having degrees and even advanced degrees. Compensation is better, and there are a lot of important areas of specialization. But something that was true then is still true now, to the detriment of the profession and, if you believe that HRM matters, to the success of our organizations. All too many HR pros still haven’t a clue what drives success in their businesses.

Why are non HR people brought in to lead HR?

One result of that lack of business acumen is the frequency with which organizations pull someone from another part of the business, from another discipline, to be the chief HR executive.

Would any public company appoint as their CFO someone with no financial street cred? As their head of supply chain someone who really never cut their teeth on the subject matter of supply chain. Hell no! But when it comes to HR, there’s a belief abroad in the land that it’s fair game to bring in someone from another area to lead this function.

The other side of the coin is that it’s extremely rare for a true HR professional, someone who has spent the bulk of their career in HR, to be appointed to run a major line of business or to rise to CEO. Any why is that? Perhaps because it’s believed — and may in fact be true — that HR pros really aren’t business people.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with a group of HR leaders and, when I asked the question “what are the three most important drivers of your firm’s financial outcomes?” I got deer in headlight looks when the answers should have just poured out.

Ask that question of CFOs, and the answers are right there. Ask it of line folks, of sales leaders, of almost anyone else in a C-position at a profit-making organization and they do know the answers even if they almost always add their own spin that elevates whatever they do to the first position.

I’ve written a lot about this topic from different perspectives (here and here for starters), but it wasn’t until this particular HR Happy Hour that I thought about this issue in terms of gender, in terms of the fact that women so dominate the HR profession.

Men still dominate the top positions in HR

Attend a local or regional SHRM meeting, and that domination in numbers is absolutely clear. It’s even obvious at the annual HR Technology Conference. But review the annual list of the top HR executives from HR Executive and it’s equally clear that males dominate the top positions.

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So where do we go from here in terms of the HR profession? I do know that much to most of the administrative/compliance work can and will be automated and/or outsourced — if not with HR’s leadership and HR rank and file cooperation, then it will be done from over our heads. Much to most of the hard-core specialist work, from total compensation plan design to labor law, has long since been outsourced to various consulting speciality firms, and the rest will follow, except at the very largest firms.

So what’s left? Strategic HRM, aka talent management. And here there’s a growing belief that with very smart software, with a ton of embedded intelligence, with help from specialist consultancies and outsourcers, there’s not much left that can’t be owned and executed by managers at every level.

I’m first and foremost a systems person, an enterprise software person, who stumbled first into payroll, then personnel, then human resource management, as my appreciation for both the importance and complexity of this domain grew, along with my passion for excellence in HR technology. Things will hold together just fine for me, and many of my vendor clients are hotbeds of talent management vision and technology, but I doubt very much that today’s average HR professional will have the future they want and deserve unless they become business people who lead and practice HRM.

Maybe then the profession, although likely to be much smaller in numbers, will attract more men and become more gender-balanced in term of its leadership roles. Enough said.

This was originally published on Naomi Bloom’s technology blog, In Full Bloom. Reprinted with permission.

  • Helen

    I’m trying to figure out if this article is about a gender imbalance in HR or the fact that HR has a hard time understanding what the business ticks… or is Bloom suggesting that lack of business acumen is a result of lack of men in the HR profession.

    I get that a gender imbalance is not ideal. But I loathe the heavily veiled argument that HR is not strategic because it has more women (or on the flipside, men do not choose the HR profession because it’s not strategic).