HR: value-add or vapour

[framed_box]A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced his altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted: “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I’d meet him an hour ago, but I have no idea where I am.”

The woman below yelled back at him: “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 25 feet above the ground. You are 51º21,32.87 degrees north latitude and 0º21,32.87 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be in IT,” he shouted down to her.

“I am. How did you know?”

“Well, everything you said is probably technically correct, but I have no idea what you’re telling me, the fact is I am still lost, and frankly you’re not helping me much at all.”

“You must be in HR,” she shouted up to him.

“I am,” he yelled down. “But how did you know?”

“Well,” she screamed up to him “You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’ve risen due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is, you’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”
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I recall an article that came out 5 years ago, “Why We Hate HR” which ricocheted around the Internet, one of Fast Company’s most widely read articles.

HR functionaries may posit that they create value by saving the company money; hiring less expensive talent, using less expensive vendors, negotiating lower costs with their talent partners–prudent fiscal management, helpful to increase revenue–or is it?

If there really is a “war for talent”, part of what HR does is understand how to attract talent, motivate them to join, create careers around opportunity and culture, and build relationships with strong talent.

Let me offer some HR observations and thoughts:

  1. Don’t squeeze cojones
    If you want cheap, hire an inexpensive service provider, there are plenty of them. Just don’t expect a consultant or search firm to lower their fees to match a lower level. Negotiate, absolutely, but within reason. Squeezing-anywhere-only fosters ill-will and indignation. One of the hardest things to do is talent search; find people who will fit into a company role and culture, shape and design a job that is understood, know the criteria and represent the company’s values objectives and culture to attract good people. Servitude at a low price is always available, just don’t mix it up with strategic forethought and counsel.
  2. Don’t get frozen in the headlights; make a decision
    When the company wants to engage a search firm, HR gets involved, and that is where the wheels often get jammed. HR should be able to understand the role, the process. history, time frame, job description and competencies, and work with the service provider to solve their talent gap. Senior HR people will usually prefer to collaborate with a firm that knows what they’re supposed to do, and delivers quality results.

    In rickety companies, things often spiral down the HR ladder-leaders are too busy to get involved with external talent. Little is decided, as little is asked, and little gets done. I just had a case which took one month (it should have taken a few days, tops) to get a perfunctory but necessary sign-off from HR. Emails from business heads,calls, voice mails and emails from me, to no avail. As an external consultant, I don’t rank high, I know that. But one month for a senior search-and for no reason I am aware of (and there may be, of course) is often not necessary. It happens, but if it does, say so..

  3. Take responsibility, for crissakes
    Senior HR people spend years studying their industry, and know more on the issues of compensation, development, leadership and how to counsel as regards C level talent than most others in a senior ranks of business. The HR buck stops with the HR leader, as it would with any business unit.

    I had one recent situation with an HR manager who was unfamiliar with both the internal legal language of their job offer, nor experienced enough to talk the candidate through the share options and benefit clauses before she signed the offer. The HR leader was usually in town, but too busy to help clarify and close the deal, so it was left up to an inexperienced manager to speak with a potential SVP hire–and it went miserably off track. No comfort, insight nor professionalism was given, and reflected poorly on the [Fortune 500] company. The HR manager took the brunt of the blame, but the HR leader was thoughtless, clearly not up to the job, had risen to her level of incompetence years earlier, and would have been better off on an assembly line in a chocolate factory, no hard strategic decisions needed, just knowing where to lick one’s fingers discreetly..

  4. Partner with your partners
    I sometimes don’t get a full debrief before I start a search, although I always ask. Black clouds gather when, in the beginning phases of a search, the company papers over the real issues, create a JD that is lopsided and want only CVs, not insights. I’ll usually find out the problems; I have to. But it slows down the process appreciably, and makes me wonder whether a good candidate is walking into an untenable job. I was recently asked to start a search, and it became apparent after a short time of research and diligence that there were tremendous internal rivalries, and this new hire’s sole reason was to push out an incumbent and take over his job. I don’t need to know everything, but that’s not a hire; that’s warfare. If there is no open collaboration, and the job appears to be a lacuna instead, I do no favours by sugar-coating such a situation. If the company is unclear or not candid about the upside and downside of a job and division, it won’t work. If you’re going to partner, do it with arms held open; no one will bite.

Let me be clear that many people in recruit are bottom-feeders, selling a product akin to faulty mortgages, and they deserve little, if anything, as they are capable of little. I started in exec search driven in large by my dislike of headhunters, and their unctuousness. Another column for another time.

But this is an article on HR. No doubt I will raise hackles with HR people reading this. If you’re the progressive and insightful HR kind, apologies profusely given. If, however, you’re tight-fisted, short-sighted, indecisive or close-mouthed, be scared, be very scared.

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