No, HR will not and should not save the world

HR has been in the thick of it since the crisis began, facing a situation of a nature never before envisaged and of a magnitude never before experienced. In the permanent overflow of function, in the front line as never before, we do not take much risk to say that the businesses have globally limited the damage, the HR function has been for a lot.

While we can only be pleased to see HR finally in the spotlight, whereas until now the function was more accustomed to the shadows and ingratitude, I am a little worried for the function which, surfing on its new glory, sees itself perhaps a little more beautiful than it is.

Will HR soon be useless?

Several months ago I read this article, a bit provocative but which asked real questions: will HR have its place in the new world of work?

Talking about the new world of work, I think that we should temper the ardor of the most idealists. The world of work has always evolved and will always evolve, so it is always new, it all depends on the date of reference that we take. Moreover, if things change following the COVID episode, there is a good chance that, as is often the case, the mountain will give birth to a mouse. We’ll see what the future holds, but when we see how much it slows down remote working and hybrid work, we shouldn’t expect a big revolution.

That said, the article highlights a point I had often mentioned during the crisis, especially at its most difficult moments for employees. Yes, HR has done miracles but :

1°) The real question is to know why they had to do it, why they had to be to this point in the overstepping their function.

2°) If they found themselves in this situation it is a little or a lot their fault

3°) Refusing to ask the two preceding questions will lead to the HR function taking on the role of pyromaniac firefighter.

HR has done the job of the managers

That HR has been at the forefront of taking care of employees only makes sense. Well, not that much.

That this subject is their responsibility is obvious. But from there to having to be in the thick of it on the ground, no! Indeed, the responsibility is on the HR side, but the implementation and daily follow-up is the job of the managers, who have been totally absent.

I don’t mind hearing that some of the middle management has been on partial unemployment but still…

I want to hear that given the seriousness of the situation managers have been caught up in the need to keep the machine running and have neglected the people…but in this case what is their role?

The truth is that everyone has known it for years but nothing changes. Businesses promote people to management positions who are not cut out for it. Just because a person excels in their operational role doesn’t mean they can move up, but we still think that success in a past job is a sign of success in a future job that has nothing to do with it.

So, in this model, businesses lose quality field workers and gain bad managers (double punishment). On their side, employees reluctantly accept this position which is the only way for them to progress in terms of career. Everyone loses and the state in which managers have emerged from the crisis should nevertheless encourage us to take a closer look at this subject.

If you are interested in the subject, look at how by changing its process of detection and promotion of leaders, the U.S. Army arrived at the following result: 34% of those promoted as a result of this change would not have been promoted with the old system.

Everyone is aware of this problem but we were trying to live with it, for lack of anything better. But the crisis has highlighted all the limits of the current model and if HR has found itself in the front line it has been largely to do the work of others! We have to pay tribute to them for that, but it should never have happened and must not happen again in the future.

HR has a job: theirs

I am far from thinking, as the article does, that HR will become useless in the new forms of organization that will emerge, but we must not fight the wrong battle: their role is precisely to do their job, not that of others. And therefore, among other things, to put in place real managers! That is their responsibility.

There are projects whose design and execution belong to HR, and there are enough of them for a function that is systematically understaffed so that it does not have to use its energy elsewhere. Then there are projects whose design belongs to HR, but whose execution, due to scalability, belongs to managers: engagement and care are part of this, and unless we can imagine putting an HR person behind each employee, we urgently need managers who know how to do this and who are equipped accordingly.

We can also talk about remote working. If it has been a discovery for too many employees not trained to work remotely, for managers who, because they cannot supervise the work, prefer to supervise the workers, if it was only seen as an HR benefit and not as a way of organizing production, whose fault is it? There have been so many brakes and carelessness on the subject for years that the transition to forced remote working could only be painful.

It’s a good thing HR was there when the boat was rocking, but let’s make no mistake: this HR function in overdrive and omnipresent in the field is an HR function that is not doing its job during this time.

But, on the other hand, if HR is content to make up for the shortcomings of others without making sure that these shortcomings disappear, then we can ask ourselves whether it is useful.

The HR pyromaniacs firefighters?

By keeping alive a system that either doesn’t promote the right people to managerial positions or doesn’t give them the means to do their job, by putting the brakes on remote working or hybrid working, to name but a few, HR has a heavy responsibility in the fire it helped to put out. Today they can say that the hardest part is behind them and that we can go back to the way things were before or say “never again” and change things.

But I’m afraid that some people are complacent in this situation where the inadequacies of some people give others the opportunity to show off even if it’s not what is expected of them.

In the meantime, where some see the superheroes of the crisis, I see people who have just repaired their past mistakes. With a certain self-sacrifice and sense of duty, but there are things that could have been avoided.

What HR do we need?

So you’ve understood that I completely disagree with the article I mentioned above. HR will be needed more than ever, but which HR?

If I think that seeing HR over-invested in the field was a form of failure, I think that the link between HR and operations must be strengthened, but exist differently. Last year, while commenting on the employee experience barometer, I made a number of remarks that I can summarize as follows:

1°) Employee experience is seen as an HR topic

2°) Among other things, it is expected to deliver operational performance

3°) HR has no leverage on the subject.

So there is a problem.

HR champions the “work context”?

Today, the employee follows a path designed and largely managed by HR, from the first contact to offboarding, including onboarding, training, mobility, etc. If the employee path includes ten or so items, nine belong to HR and one escapes them: when the employee works. 10% of the items but 95% of the time the employee spends at work.

At this point, what happens is that a talent is recruited, trained, and pampered by HR, and then thrown into the deep end: operations. At that point, he has to collaborate with colleagues, follow a manager, use tools and follow processes. This is what I call the context of work. Each of these points can be destructive not only to the employee experience but also to performance. Each of these points can either ruin or sublimate the work of HR, but let’s face it, they most often ruin it. And the work of HR is not seen in the performance of the business, or not at its true value.

HR must influence this work environment. But how? We’ll talk more about this in future articles, but by acquiring skills from the world of operations, and by strengthening their collaboration with the business and IT departments. Perhaps we need to completely rethink the HR/operations management relationship. The solution has yet to be invented, but time is running out. Otherwise, by focusing on shaping talent without influencing what is done with the talent in question, we will have an HR that is off the ground and whose impact and existence will be increasingly questioned.


If HR has been on the front line during the crisis, it has often been to compensate for failures that are not theirs…but which they caused.

But what good is HR if everyone is doing their job well? Well, to do an HR job and, ideally, to influence operations in a way other than firefighting so that their work has more impact.

Image : Super Hero by chaiyapruek youprasert via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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