Just When Did HR Become the Devil in Disguise?

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While talent is valued, the Human Resources function is depreciated. Doesn’t that say something?

At the same time that society defends the right of individuals to display valuable aspects of their work history, the Human Resources profession seems to earn insults.

Maybe we deserve it, when you see companies restricting their employee’s right to brag about their service at a major firm. The employment contract imposed by HR in the referenced court case (Robert Half International v. Ainsworth) failed to pass muster in California, of course, where they have some of the most worker-friendly laws anywhere.

An abusive practice by one is a black eye for all

As the article about the case on Forbes.com notes:

Although the underlying lawsuit is a fairly typical dispute between employer and departed employees, this case raises questions about Europe’s efforts to erase truthful online search results (the so-called ‘right to be forgotten‘). In effect, Robert Half sought to publicly erase truthful information about former employees’ connections to it.”

Obviously, attorneys wrote the tainted contract and attempted to enforce it in California (even dumber), but employment agreements do fall into the category of “reward value” topics central to Human Resource management.

When HR people permit such unwise abusive practices, they give us all a black eye, and an already negative image is not rehabilitated by more horror stories.

Some of us remember the shocking 1970 best-seller Up the Organization. Its famously iconoclastic CEO author credited his celebrated success to his complete elimination of the HR/personnel departments that, in his opinion, simply stifled talent.

We should have seen it coming

More recently, humorist Scott Adams’s depiction of Catbert, the Evil HR Director, must resonate widely, because the Dilbert cartoon regularly features the malicious shenanigans of that recurring character.

Catbert is the Evil HR Director in Scott Adams' comic strip "Dilbert."

Catbert is the Evil HR Director in Scott Adams’ comic strip “Dilbert.”

We should have seen it coming, because I remember from long ago a wonderful single-frame cartoon showing an employment interviewer reaching a glad hand over his desk towards a befuddled applicant, saying, “You say you don’t know the identity of your father? We have just the place for you in Personnel!” The use of “Personnel” for the more modern “Human Resources” term gives some idea of how long ago that was published.

Even worse, I just finished a new military science fiction novel of the type generally called “space opera” where the author, a retired Naval Academy graduate, inserted the following conversational exchange:

If those units get out into the city, we’ll have the human resource director’s own time trying to catch them.”

Safir nodded .…“Did you know that people used to say the devil instead of the human resource director?”

“What’s the devil?” Kai asked.

“Something like a human resource director, I guess.”

A little appreciation would be nice

In a world increasingly obsessed by popularity, HR is unpopular and seen as manevolently manipulative.

What have we done to earn such disfavor?

Of course, those who specialize in total rewards can deny any responsibility for the usual offensive behavior of employment recruiters (that’s a joke … just kidding, having spent my time, etc., … ;-), but you would think that the public attitude towards HR should be more positive.

Doesn’t being the dispensers of jobs, pay increases, bonuses and such goodies win us some appreciation? I guess not. There are no TV shows, few (if any) books or movies, and only one cartoon strip with positive views of HR people.

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Yes, HR has a bad reputation.

Where did we go wrong?

My personal theories for the reasons for this would be inadequate, coming from one narrow personal viewpoint. Instead, let me open up the discussion to solicit suggestions from the many thousands of TLNT and Compensation Café readers.

No one should have a better perspective on the image of our broader profession than those who are constantly dealing with wages, salaries, total rewards, incentives, both positive and negative consequences for performance, benefits and employee engagement issues. After all, don’t we have a saying about people who proclaim, “I belong in HR because I love dealing with people”?

Where have we failed?

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.

  • David Hunt, PE
  • Malcolm Davidson

    They suffer from compassion fatigue. (and) have developed a thick skin. Often HR is merely the face of the executives behind the scenes making the key decisions. (We have to cut 10% across the board) for example. “We were just following orders…” etc.

  • What does it matter

    I agree with compassion fatigue; but, I also agree they need to treat candidates better. If I come in for 4 or 5 interviews and everything checks out and you don’t want to hire me, fine. At least call me or send me an email and tell me you’ve decided to move forward with another candidate. For me, that’s just being polite.

  • Donna

    The HR team where I was previously employed simply lied to the President and he believed every word of it. The HR crew was like a jilted lover, they had to tell their side first. They are too young to realize that people who have been in Corp America for decades have a long reach. They will run into us again and next time we may be on the other side of the desk. I resigned and miss nothing but the paycheck.

  • baffled369

    HR is no longer an employee ally – they are the employee enemy. HR is for whatever is best for the COMPANY, no longer for the employee.

    • MarthaB

      HR should always have been “for whatever is best for the company” and not an “employee advocate.” The company, not the employees, pays us. Our job is to help employees and the company get the most out of each other so that the company remains profitable and employees remain employed or at least employable. It’s not to create a Kumbayah workplace or coddle people who can’t ever come to work on time or get their work done.

  • Carol Anderson

    Really? Where have we gone wrong? We spend all our time making leaders do what they don’t want to do because it’s hard. How can we fix it? Stop allowing HR to take responsibility for leadership behaviors that are not theirs to execute. How do we do that? We stop telling leaders what to do, and engage them in designing what will propel the business forward. At least that’s my $.02.