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Do Managers Need HR?

Date: October 7 2001

Tell Me What You Really Think of HR...
In the course of my work, I meet a lot of people in management and many of them are happy to agree that the key to success is improving staff performance. Indeed, irrespective of whether the organization is a multi-national, a local borough authority or a charity, it is the people that make or break the organization´s success. The well-worn phrase: ´People are our greatest asset´, appears to have permeated into the language of mission statements, even if it has not always filtered completely into management behaviour. If, however, people are regarded as important then it might be reasonable to think that the in-house human resource specialist would be the managers´ best friend. However, this does not always seem to be the case, indeed some managers have told me that they are less than impressed with the service they receive from their HR departments.

During my teaching, research and consultancy I have the opportunity to meet many managers and the diversity of views expressed regarding HR is remarkable. Indeed, it can be quite amusing, and sometimes a little alarming, to ask managers what they really think about the Human Resources departments in their organizations. For example, at the beginning of HRM modules, I invite postgraduates to make a list of the ´positive´ and ´negative´ points of their HR departments. Sometimes, the list of negatives offered by managers is just as long as the positive one and occasionally rather longer.... Yet, by contrast, when I´m running HR specialist courses, or meeting practitioners for my research or consultancy work it is evident that many HR people are working very hard delivering the best services they can, sometimes with limited resources in terms of both numbers of staff and finances. An anonymous comment on the wall of one HR director seemed to articulate some of their frustrations:

We the willing are doing the impossible,
for the ungrateful.
We have done so much,
for so long,
with so little,
that we are now qualified,
to do anything,
with nothing.

Marketing HR: Inside The Organization
It may be that the human resources team is working very hard, but do they deliver the kind of services management colleagues want?

For example, if an HR team is going to be relevant and effective, it must understand the client organization it serves. I use the term client because it can be helpful to visualise HR as a service, which is used by an organization in supporting its activities, whether these are commercial or not for profit. If, instead of an in house department, the HR team were to visualize itself as a consultancy, its first action would be to do some organizational research to establish the client´s HR requirements. The report findings would then be discussed with the client and a program of tailored initiatives and timetable of actions agreed.

Senior managers may like to consider the following question:

  • Is the HR team in your organization designing services that you would be happy to pay for if they were an outside provider?
Another question, this time for the HR team.

  • How confident are you that your HR team could be successful as a stand-alone HR service?
Each organization has particular requirements and priorities to be met, so by understanding these needs HR professionals should be in a better position to deliver more focused interventions and services. This kind of approach could begin with an audit of HR activities and a survey of what is going right and wrong with human resources in the organization. It also means integrating human resources into the fabric of management and drawing on HR specialist´s skills in the strategic planning stages of any major organizational initiative. If senior managers decide not to involve HR professionals until the ´top team´ has agreed to the strategic plan, then it is little wonder that sometimes HR departments are working hard at reacting to problems, rather than producing proactive initiatives! Hence, having to design contingency plans after the event and make the best of weak operational situation.

Do Managers Need HR?
I have recently been talking to managers in a ´news organization´ and quite separately, in a ´telecommunications´ company. (The identity of both organizations has been withheld for reasons of commercial sensitivity.) These organizations have a world-wide reputation and are prosperous enough to attract some of the brightest and best people. However, in each case, I was told that the managers were encountering difficulties in co-ordinating the talents of some of their key employees. Indeed, sometimes they found that what they had was not so much a team, as a group of talented individuals all doing their ´own thing´. Even though both organizations had significant HR departments the managers had not received any specific development program to help them cope with the leadership roles they were expected to carry out. Was this a senior management omission to provide the development, or the HR departments´ omission in not getting the HR investment message across to their colleagues? With regard to staff retention and morale, the unhappy employee does not leave an organization, they leave people: the manager, or colleagues they feel uncomfortable with. More human resources awareness can therefore only enhance organizational performance.

There can be few managers who doubt that a specific course in management can enhance a person´s ability to fulfil managerial tasks more effectively. The process of learning is really an ongoing one, which builds upon practical management experience. Therefore, any manager who is responsible for achieving results through others will benefit from understanding more about the attitudes, knowledge and skills, which can be collectively described as ´human resources´.

Integrated, Organizational HR
In a competitive services marketplace, it seems prudent for internal HR functions to ensure that they are proactively involved in producing solutions or finding outside advisors, who can address their organization´s requirements. This kind of approach draws HR into the core activities of their organization, yet recognizes that realistically, they will not be able to provide a solution for every situation. Instead, the integrated approach makes use of external input as and where it is necessary. It is also sufficiently flexible to enable managers to receive advise from a variety of sources; the safety of seeking more than one counsellor.

An integrated approach:
  • The practical involvement of HR staff (or specialist external advisors, if the organization does not have a dedicated HR team) in strategic staff planning.
  • A recognition of the organization´s culture and, as necessary, a re-evaluation of policies where they are more a part of ´tradition´ than modern practice which meets the organization´s current needs.
  • Training and development: Team leaders and managers should receive appropriate training so that they are in a position to make informed decisions regarding their sections/departments staffing requirements. This can include internal courses, and external management development via business schools, or an appropriate management-training company.
  • External providers such as, recruitment consultancies and law firms.
  • External advisors such as, business schools, and professional bodies such as the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development).
  • Also, experienced professionals who have decided to work part time, such as men/women electing to invest more time with their family, or those who have decided to ´retire´ from full time working, but who have many years experience to offer.
The HR Super Person!
The above list simply recognizes that the HR role is wide and far reaching and is not intended to be an exhaustive list of everything an HR professional may be called upon to do in all situations. Hence, finding an HR professional who can do everything might be a rather challenging recruitment assignment. It could be compared with trying to find an accountant who is also a sales person and a qualified lawyer... The internal human resources team therefore need to discuss, with their management colleagues, those areas, which they can deliver, and those where some external input is required.

Imagine for a moment what the ´job description´ for an HR ´super person´ might include. (I would be the first to admit that what follows is not a full and definitive list of everything HR professionals can be called upon to do.)

Someone who can:

  1. Assist the senior management team to plan the direction of the organization.
  2. Research the organization´s environment and prepare industry comparisons on rewards and motivation to design policies which establish/ retain good staff morale.
  3. Design and then communicate human resources policies to all sections of the organization.
  4. Design staff evaluation procedures and appraisals so that training and other human relations requirements can be identified.
  5. Provide, or facilitate via external providers, staff performance training so that people gain/ retain leading edge technical and managerial knowledge and skills and thereby enhance organizational performance.
  6. Study and identify staffing requirements so that the organization can be proactive in planning recruitment and retention strategies.
  7. Design recruitment and selection campaigns, which attract high quality applicants and present the organization in a favourable manner to both internal and external stakeholders.
  8. Interview and recommend potential new employees, liasing with managers to ensure a good team/ organizational fit.
  9. Provide up to the minute employee relations legal advice on every issue from recruitment to dismissal and anything in between.
  10. And on and on... The HR person should also complete all the above tasks in an exemplary manner and without contravening EU working time directives.
Without HR...
Some organizations have taken an alternative approach by out sourcing the HR function completely. This enables the organization to ´save´ on internal staffing costs and draw upon external advisors as and when required. BUT, there are significant disadvantages to such an approach. I can already sense the wave of: ´He would say that wouldn´t he´. However, there is a strong case to be made for having HR person/s co-ordinating activities from the unique perspective of your organization. Still not convinced? Then perhaps you might be persuaded by the Chairman of a successful recruitment consultancy who I interviewed about this matter in the short section below:

Nieto (2001) "The absence of an HR department does not, of course, remove the need to have sound HR policies and practices in place. For example, if an organization decided not to have an IT department it does not mean that they would no longer need to use computers. Hence, if there is no HR department the responsibility to design and deliver HR plans and strategies has to be taken on by other members of the management team. How well this type of arrangement works out in practice depends on the quality of HR training the management team have received and any external advice they buy in. Even so it is arguably beneficial to have some dedicated staff overseeing HR developments and initiatives. This view is even supported by the chairman of a recruitment consultancy firm. George Karavias, (Park recruitment partnership) told me that he had actually advised one large company to re consider its out source policy and that it would be in their best interests not to be so dependant on external firms for their recruitment search and selection services! I wonder how many other consultancy firms would be this honest and forthright in advising a client?" (p57-58)
From: Marketing The HR Function, Chandos Press: Oxford.

The strategic planning of how and where to source HR services is an organization specific decision, so what I hope to have set out in this article is a range of alternatives for managers to consider. The delivery of HR can be drawn from a variety of sources including internal department staff, external advisors and providers. If the right mix is selected and delivered effectively then the net result should be improved performance, whether that is translated as profits, service delivery, or other organizational criteria. Managers also have to recognise that in one sense everyone is involved in HR management because most tasks require the co-operation of other people, which means responding to individual personalities, variations in attitudes, knowledge and skills.

M. L. Nieto August 2001


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