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Is HR doing too much?

As recognition of the importance of human resources grows, is HR taking on too much?

‘No’ says Jane Brydon, HR director of Heineken UK

Let’s be honest. The world of HR, and specifically the role of HR, has been changing for some time now. Is HR about people? Yes, absolutely, but today it’s so much more. HR’s role has necessarily expanded because the purpose of organisations has widened.

HR is no longer just about policy-​making, but about advising leaders on the role companies play in society; about how they create cultures where they encourage their people, from all backgrounds, to bring their whole self to work.

Some might say we’re creating new labels, such as diversity or inclusion, as some sort of badge to promote ourselves, but how is this doing too much when you’re working towards creating cultures that drive performance?

Is it a challenge for HR juggling more elements? Maybe. But I’m not convinced it’s any harder

Crucially, HR isn’t moving into the soft stuff. This is the hard stuff. Expectations from all stakeholders are changing. Looking at what infrastructures we need to support our people isn’t HR creep, but HR essential. You can set all the standard key performance indicators around hiring and retention, but they won’t mean anything without having a culture and the right leadership behaviours in place that support it.

At Heineken, we talk about so many things, such as the importance of sleep and good mental health as the building blocks of creating a great at-​work culture. We run diversity and ambassador networks, open to all; female representation at senior levels grew to 20 per cent between 2017 and 2018, up from 12 per cent in 2011, and our ambition is to hit 25 per cent by 2020.

We also run training for leaders about how they can be “present”. We involve employees when making change that impacts them. This is what I call real transformation of HR, not HR sitting in a darkened room.

Role of HR is about adapting to new challenges

It’s easy to try and put HR functions into buckets and say they’re now trying to do too much, but ultimately, nowadays, you can’t think in silos; they all interact. The role of HR is actually to ensure they educate leaders and managers about understanding these connections too.

Is it a challenge for HR juggling more elements? Maybe. But I’m not convinced it’s any harder. They’ve not got any harder individually; it’s more how they come together. The agenda hasn’t changed, just the context in which we do our work.

So, I don’t believe we’re really over expanding our role. The role of HR is essentially the same, to hire, develop, retain and move on the best possible people. Perhaps it’s easiest explained like this: our actual hiring strategy hasn’t changed at all in the last five years; the objective is still to get the very best talent. But how to stay successful to meet those objectives has changed massively. It’s just that the world in which we operate has become more complex.

The real role of HR is to adapt; our role is to respond to new challenges and so this means having to think differently about new topics. If the environment you work in changes, we as HR professionals simply need to work differently. If that’s seen as taking on too much, that’s fine with me. I wouldn’t want it any different.

‘Yes’ says Claudia Bartram, head of organisational development and HR at Look Ahead

I’ve worked in the profession for 22 years and in this time have seen the role of HR expand from pretty much the three narrow areas of recruitment, payroll and disciplinary management to everything from change management, health and wellbeing, engagement, diversity and inclusion, and so much more.

While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – one of the real benefits is that I feel HR now acts far less like it “processes” people – I do think there is an argument for at least looking at what this means for the discipline.

These days HR has to be good at so many disciplines, but I don’t think many HR professionals are or can be. It’s incredibly hard to be excellent – for excellence is what is ultimately expected – in all areas and there are areas within HR, such as reward, that are arguably specialisms in their own right and which need their own expert head of department.

I do believe HR should be looking to be better at a tighter number of core areas, including disciplinaries and redundancies (they still happen), learning and development, and recruitment.

The latter two have both changed enormously in recent years, both from a technology and deployment point of view, and they require a much greater level of technical proficiency, whether it’s creating smoother online engagement strategies or having better experiences for applicants. Learning and development too is a discipline that needs to be delivered in much more inventive and innovative ways.

HR still ultimately needs human touch

I understand board members might well expect HR to have a broader remit, to be able to contribute at the top table. But I also feel there is sense in mastering the key areas that matter, and speaking expertly on these, rather than very broadly and not very well about lots of things.

While technology is helpful, and some might say it gives HR the ability to be better and more expert at these new demands faster, I’m less convinced. Yes, it creates great data, but I don’t yet think it’s there when it comes to making HR more “human”. Artificial intelligence and chatbots are fine when it comes to helping to answer common questions, but there’s a lot about HR that still requires a human perspective and human judgment.

The benefit of being in HR for some time is that it gives you experience of knowing exactly what’s the latest buzzword or trend, or what works and what doesn’t. With the benefit of experience you have the confidence of knowing what three or four key HR areas really matter at any one time and really make a difference. You can edit back without being sucked into thinking you have to do everything.

I sense it’s tough for the new crop of HR professionals; these are people who will be expected to deliver on a much wider remit than used to be the case, which can probably feel overwhelming if they don’t have experience and a generalist background to draw on.