In the foreword to a new research report, Ralf Schneider, founder and principal of consulting practice 2B, offers some stark advice to HR professionals about transforming their role in the organisation: “New operating models, roles, tools and processes require new skill sets, and, perhaps more importantly, new mindsets. To achieve this, the HR function has to ‘grow up’ and run itself like a business operation.”

The report in question, Raising the bar in HR recruitment, issued by recruitment company Oakleaf Partnership, suggests that the way in which HR hires its own staff is in itself flawed and is hampering the function’s success and reputation.

But, while some of the statistics make for worrying reading – for example, only 11% of all hiring managers in HR are happy with their hires 12 months afterwards – what does the suggestion that HR needs to “grow up” mean for HR? The arguments about whether or not HR directors should have a seat at the board table and that HR is not commercial enough have been raging for as long as most professionals can remember. But how might these preconceptions affect your career, and what can you do about them?

Negative assumptions

The first thing to consider is where the preconceptions lie in your organisation. Helen Straw, managing director and founder of HR consultancy The Personnel Partnership, has had to face up to negative assumptions from staff on the ground: “Some of my friends call me ‘The Grim Reaper’ as they know that I have had to dismiss employees. However, it is not always bad news. HR is also about having huge amounts of compassion for the employees that you are working with when they are facing difficult times, either at work, or in their personal lives.”

Other HR professionals speak of the opinion of those the very top of the organisation. Scott McArthur, director of Sculpture Consulting and a former head of HR, has worked with clients in public-sector organisations where, he says, “the chief executive considered the HR director to be little more than an administrator”. He adds: “If the CEO does not have an HR background, then they simply don’t ‘get’ what we do, so they’ll bash us.”

Key points

  • HR isn’t commercial enough.How has improved engagement or better recruitment processes improved customer service, for example? If you have experience elsewhere in the business, use that knowledge.
  • HR is just an overhead. Think about business deals that would not have happened without HR’s support. Demonstrate areas in which HR has added value, for example in improving relations between staff and unions.
  • HR doesn’t deserve a seat at the table. Whether you are on the board or not does not have to affect the impact HR can have on the business. Stop obsessing about it and make things happen.
  • HR just makes people redundant. Think about the good news that you can broadcast about what the HR function does. Don’t make every communication you send out something negative.
  • HR just says “no” to everything. Treat people as individuals rather than a collective. Blanket policies may be suitable for legal issues, but there are other areas where you can be more flexible.

Too often, says Neil Morrison, group HR director at publisher Random House, the knee-jerk reaction is to focus inwards and question why HR isn’t getting the recognition it deserves, rather than having the confidence to make real changes to how the organisation works in line with what the business needs. “HR could do a lot about the preconceptions people have of it with the way it communicates by improving its own internal PR. If every message you send out is ‘You can’t do this’, then staff are bound to feel negative towards the function.” It is therefore important that you also focus on the positive news stories.

Is HR commercial enough?

One of the most common preconceptions about HR is that it knows nothing about business. But while there are hundreds of case studies of projects spearheaded by HR that increased sales and improved the bottom line, it continues to haunt even the most senior HR professionals. According to Morrison, too many HR professionals believe that being “commercial” is simply doing things more quickly, cheaply or efficiently. “In fact, it might be that being commercial in your organisation is challenging the way things are done,” he says.

McArthur agrees, referring to the swathe of large-scale outsourcing deals where HR professionals have negotiated long-term, expensive contracts that save money but do little to raise engagement. “There are organisations that spend £200 million on an outsourcing deal but aren’t prepared to spend £2 million on an engagement programme,” he says. “The key to commercial HR success is engagement.”

Another presumption about HR is that it is only there to safeguard the organisation, a gatekeeper, or even “a necessary evil”. This was certainly Straw’s experience: “I have heard that ‘HR is just an overhead’ – obviously from a manager who doesn’t understand how HR can actually add value to the business, or even add profit to the bottom line.”

According to Helena Parry, a director at HR outsourcing company Ochre House, experience elsewhere in the business can trounce this assumption. “HR professionals with the most commercial awareness are those that have also done a stint elsewhere in the business before going back into HR,” she says. “I think we’ll see the HR director role become much more business-critical because the people agenda has become so important.”

Treating employees as individuals

Part of the problem, says McArthur, is that HR is often seen as the “blocker”, or the “gatekeeper”, especially when it comes to dealing with the rise of social media; it simply issues blanket policies and if one person transgresses, then everyone is punished.

Morrison believes that, in cases such as this, HR tends to “deal with the collective rather than the individual”. “HR is not about running a sausage factory where employees are part of a process and need to be ‘dealt with’,” he says. “Better to deal with that individual, rather than ending up disengaging 99% of the workforce.”

Simply acknowledging what HR can do and acting upon that, rather than reflecting on the preconceptions of others, could have a positive effect on its reputation, believes Richard Colgan, managing partner of Oakleaf. He concludes: “HR does not devote enough time to developing itself or take itself seriously enough. Every hire they make should be an example to the rest of the business. If HR started to walk taller and improve its perception of itself, that would be half the battle.”