Why do we love to hate HR?

Why do we love to hate HR?

How top executives feel about HR pretty reliably reflects what’s going on in the U.S. economy. When the economy is down and the labour market is slack, they see HR as a nuisance. But sentiments change when labour tightens up and HR practices become essential to companies’ immediate success.

Recent complaints about the HR function have touched a nerve in a large, sympathetic audience, particularly in the United States. The most vocal critics say that HR managers focus too much on “administrivia” and lack vision and strategic insight.

These feelings aren’t new. They’ve erupted now and in the past because we don’t like being told how to behave—and no other group in organizational life, not even finance, bosses us around as systematically as HR does. We get defensive when we’re instructed to change how we interact with people, especially those who report to us, because that goes right to the core of who we are. What’s more, HR makes us perform tasks we dislike, such as documenting problems with employees. And it prevents us from doing what we want, such as hiring someone we “just know” is a good fit. Its directives affect every person in the organization, right up to the top, every single day.

The complaints also have a cyclical quality—they’re driven largely by the business context. Usually when companies are struggling with labor issues, HR is seen as a valued leadership partner. When things are going more smoothly all around, managers tend to think, “What’s HR doing for us, anyway?”

This doesn’t mean that HR is above reproach. Quite the contrary: It has plenty of room to improve, and this is a moment of enormous opportunity. Little has been done in the past few decades to examine the value of widely used practices that are central to how companies operate. By separating the effective from the worthless, HR leaders can secure huge payoffs for their organizations. But it’s important to understand HR’s tumultuous history with business leaders and the economy before turning our attention to what the function should be doing now and in the future.

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