Humanizing Human Resources

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

human resourceshu·man

  1. of people: relating to, involving, or characteristic of human beings
  2. compassionately kind: showing kindness, compassion, or approachability 


  1.  source of help: somebody or something that is a source of help or information
  2. ability to find solutions: adeptness at finding solutions to problems

hu·man re·sourc·es

  1. employee recruitment and management: the field of business concerned with recruiting and managing employees
  2. Personnel:  people who work in a business or organization, considered as a whole

Let’s see if we can connect some dots.  For the past decade I’ve observed a broad spectrum of change in the human aspect of human resources.   This is not an indictment of the people who work in this field; it is an examination of the shifting role of human resources and how businesses and employees have responded to it.

Business must change and adapt to thrive.  Organizations follow suit—accommodating the needs of the business.  So far; so good.   But there is a dark side.  The evolution of management styles and business practices has transformed the role of human resources and the way human assets are valued.  Not all of them are good.

In some companies Human Resources are turned into henchmen for senior leadership. Their main role is to find new ways of cutting people, compensation and benefits for a company that is willing to forfeit long-term value for short-term cost reductions.  Tasked with carrying out directives that reflect less than credible—but nonetheless legal—business practices, they become organizational roadblocks, a necessary evil avoided and feared by employees.

Part of HR’s job is to protect the corporation.  The government has a long list of labor regulations like Equal Employment Opportunity, Fair Labor Standards, Occupational Safety and Health, Family and Medical Leave, and ERISA, that must be administered and that’s what HR people are good at.  These regulations are required by law and promote good governance.

Processes manage the relationship between employer and employee by providing structure, guidance, a healthy work culture (I love that phrase) and a clear set of goals.  An invested leadership will define and uphold these principles and create strategic partnerships throughout the company.  A healthy corporate culture has strong human capital, a wide range of resources, and management excellence that includes human resources.

Apart from regulation compliance, the quality of HR should be tied directly to the quality of the culture and management they support.   When the management discontinues its investment in people, HR’s job is reduced to protecting a group of failing executives that devalue human assets and strip the company of employee resources.

The Changing Face of Human Resources

human resources, HUMANWhen I entered the workforce, HR was called Personnel or Employee Relations.  Human Resources came along much later, created to acknowledge the changing business models and the value of employees as an organizational resource.  The name change upgraded the image of a once bureaucratic department.  The expanded role created strategic business partnerships that actively engaged them with employee issues.

In the early 90s my employer, Digital Equipment Corporation, felt the massive shift in technology with catastrophic consequences for employees.  The company of 120,000 employees that had never done a lay-off would reduce its workforce by over 50,000 people.   Security guards stood outside HR-staffed conference rooms as people were slotted into 15-minute layoff meetings.  They emerged in shock, hurt and angry, many in tears.

The era of working at one company for life was over as technologies experienced financial upheaval.  This drastic alteration also shifted the role of human resources.  It became mechanical, outsourcing many functions and reducing internal HR roles.   The economic downturn would take a decade to recover and even longer for the mechanical model to reverse itself.  Loyalty and commitment were no longer valued.  Workers had become expendable.

The HR Roadblock

When HR is assigned the role of Gestapo it creates a culture of fear and a feeling of no recourse.  This is a manifestation of corporate malfeasance.   The perception across the company is that human resources are harbingers of bad news.   The truth is that their hands have been tied and their positions neutralized.

One of my favorite places to work had a solid HR team effectively engaged with management and the workforce.  It was a great company until The Change happened.

Catbert, the evil director of human resources, Dilbert, Scott Adams

Catbert: The Evil Director of Human Resources

It started when they hired a senior executive jettisoned from his previous company with a boot in the rear and a million-dollar exit package. The internet buzz on this man was universally unfavorable.  No matter where I looked I read detailed examples of his egregious abuse of power.  The board hired him anyway.  It wasn’t long before he began recruiting his cronies.  Within six months the management team was made up of castoffs just like him.

One of them was the Vice President of Marketing and my new manager.  To him we were legacy employees; he wanted his own people.  It’s business.  It happens a lot and none of us should be surprised when it does.  The high tech industry is notorious for its revolving doors.   There is no good way to do this, but there is a right and a wrong way.

Shortly after he was hired; my colleagues and I received an email from him (a coward) listing our performance shortcomings, our inability to align with his vision and his intolerance for both.  It was harsh, hurtful and, for what it’s worth, badly written.  He never spoke to any of us again.  We were in shock.   I volunteered to speak with the VP of human resources, a woman I knew and respected.  I was mistakenly optimistic.

I sat in front of her with his toxic email and placed my outstanding performance review (written by my previous manager) along with my stock options and performance bonus letters on her desk.   She was impassive.  She showed no surprise and asked no questions.  Within 30 seconds I knew the following:

  • I was going to be laid off
  • Her hands were tied, her role stripped of value
  • The email was sanctioned and intended to create a paper trail
  • She genuinely felt bad that we were in this uncomfortable place

Within 60 seconds I knew that she knew that I knew.  She politely asked what response I needed from her and I politely replied she had already given it.  Bottom line:  HR’s first obligation is always to the company, even when it pushes the boundaries of personal and professional ethics.  Companies know employees do not have deep pockets; in fact they count on it.

I did not blame her.  Companies can take the human out of human resources, but it remains integral in human resource professionals, even when they are compelled to follow directives from unprincipled leaders.

The Business of Staying Human

It’s a good time for companies to re-invest in the human aspect of businesses.   People-focused organizations provide systems for sharing suggestions, employee recognition and feedback.  They underwrite employee creativity.  A good human resource organization promotes alignment, creates accountability and drives organizational engagement.  Most important, it attracts and retains top talent.  In a competitive knowledge-based economy companies with the best talent win.

Stay HumanHR should be viewed as a catalyst for positive change and given a seat at the CEO’s table. They are the in-house experts on performance management, talent acquisition and retention, organizational development, change management, and compensation.

If their role is minimized they become administrative police and impediments to growth.  Their jobs are reduced to executing the layoffs required to downsize a failing company, delivering multi-million-dollar parachutes to out-of-favor executives and arbitrating employee issues, knowing the employee will never come out ahead.

A company that invests in human resources invests in human beings.

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