HR – Hell’s Little Gift to the Working Man

I enjoy reading my weekly issue of BusinessWeek, although from time to time they present a story which displays obvious bias, poor investigation, or which simply makes one wonder what universe the writer inhabits. All three traits showed up in a recent article gushing with praise for Bill Conaty at GE. The article was a strange and perverse mix of self-praise, hypocrisy, and flatulently unctuous pontification. In short, the article was an accidentally useful guide – on things to avoid if you want your company to find and keep the best people.

The first warning sign in the article was a loud and obvious one; Conaty praised himself almost non-stop. Conaty presented himself as some kind of wise, all-knowing sage, without once considering the universal facts that no one knows everything, we all make mistakes, and no organization is built by just one person’s effort. The BW article seemed to just take Conaty’s perspective as Gospel, without a single criticism of even obvious errors and contradictions.

One of those contradictions, was Conaty’s admonition not to get too close to the CEO; “Don’t Be Friends With the Boss“, he warns in bold print. Yet the only two specific sources noted in the article besides Conaty, were CEOs, and quite obviously close buddies of Conaty. Conaty did not just break his own rule; he completely ignored it, then tried to pretend he was some kind of ‘Working Man’s Friend‘.


Enough about Conaty, he’s frankly just one more overpaid narcissist. But his arrogance highlights a major problem in American Business; how the heck do you find, train, reward, and keep the best people? And if you are a regular employee, how do you deal with workplace questions and situations, without getting labeled as a troublemaker? The problem is based in employment law, in poor training of managers in many businesses, and in the arrogance of the Boardroom. The solution begins with those companies willing to scrap what does not work, and who rebuild an effective employee development program with a functional and realistic approach.

The development of the Human Resources department came about initially, as a way to standardize employee hiring, development, and transition. This provided a legal defense against claims of personal bias or subjective treatment, allowed – in theory – operations managers to focus on running their departments, and provided company executives with performance metrics and costs. However, as time passed the process became increasingly bureaucratic and ossified, and a cult of empire-building within a company’s HR department also became a common problem. The HR managers found they could influence, even control, the hiring and development of staff in other departments. Operations Managers were denied participation in the recruiting and selection of key employees. The HR department in many businesses became obsessed with documentation, with detailed requirements for even routine requests, and the cumbersome process delayed and even derailed key projects. The close cooperation between HR and the top executives generated mistrust of company motives by employees, and the actual process of cutbacks and layoffs were often performed in a manner which disrespected loyal and hardworking employees, making the remaining staff even more cynical and suspicious of intentions, preventing effective cooperation. In many companies, the brightest and most effective employees deliberately avoid any contact whatsoever with HR, and many effective managers deliberately circumvent HR practices when they seek out new talent or have to address a personnel issue. I must emphasize that after a quarter-century working low-to-middle management, my experience tells me that in the heavy majority of cases, the problem begins and lives with HR, which generally refuses to acknowledge its responsibility, much less work to reform. Operations must exist in the real world, while HR usually exists in a completely artificial construction.

I want to stop here and make clear, the very great difference between Human Resource professionals and the monster which HR as a whole has become. An HR professional would be that person who seeks to simplify processes, to meet the needs of operations departments and advance the company’s goals and ideals, and who understands the need to sometimes stay out of situations unless asked for assistance. And who understands that assisting people is not the same thing as taking over. When I mentioned earlier that companies often fail to train their managers for some of their duties, that includes HR managers who learn rigidity instead of flexibility, who become unwilling to understand where their own authority and expertise ends and they must trust other people’s professional standards and experience, and who cannot adjust their perspective to see the different needs of separate departments.

So, what to do? My answer is admittedly radical, yet I think it would work well, given effective planning and cooperation. First, get rid of the HR department, per se. That doesn’t mean get rid of the HR people, though, but that they should be given orientation and then assigned to work as Administrative people, physically located in their departments of responsibility. Doing so would accomplish three key goals:

– HR people would have direct contact with the people who are affected by their decisions, and they could be approached informally for minor questions;
– HR people would have direct access to and control of all relevant documentation;
– HR people would, through discussions and ordinary course of work, learn the priorities and needs of the department long before an issue came to need attention.

That ordinary course of work for HR people would also allow them a key advantage they do not know enjoy; they would be more able to coach managers in the skills needed to avoid the sorts of problems which vex companies the most. That is, direct and regular communication with floor personnel and the direct management would help provide early consensus on how many employees need to be hired, what qualities should be sought, and in what time-frame. Managers could be taught and reminded how to effectively document employee performance, exemplary recognition and disciplinary actions, training, career development, and – when necessary – exit interviews and department resource allocation. The physical location of an HR officer in each department would also prevent the appearance/reality of too close contact with high executives, would equip HR managers to report accurate working conditions to the Board when necessary, and would encourage employees to treat HR as an ally rather than an enemy.

I have a lot of ideas, actually, on how HR should be reformed to better serve the needs of the company and the employees. But each case is distinct and unique, and unlike Bill Conaty, I know to stop when I reach the limit of my knowledge.

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