Staff engagement and the failure of HR

The Human Resource (HR) function has a fatal flaw in its very conception. It is a flaw that limits the ability of HR to foster better staff engagement. It is the inherently schizophrenic nature of the role – in that it has two typically contradictory functions, controlling the employment contract on the one hand, and developing the organisation and its staff on the other. These two functions sit on the shoulders of the executive like the good and evil angel, whispering contradictory messages. Keith Hammond of Fast Company is even harsher in his judgement:

The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil – and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change. HR is the corporate function with the greatest potential – the key driver, in theory, of business performance – and also the one that most consistently underdelivers.

The contract role

The dominant HR role in many organisations is the contract role – hiring staff, determining remuneration, and providing the structures for performance management, promotion and rewards. As employees typically represent the greatest expense in organisations, the HR function is focussed on controlling and reducing that expense. This focus engenders a litigious and adversarial mindset. Contracts are nailed down and policy and procedures proliferate. The HR function is the natural adversary for unions, and these two, often get locked into mutually destructive behaviours, as eloquently described by Peter Drucker:

Management and union may be likened to that serpent of the fables who on one body had two heads that fighting each other with poisoned fangs, killed themselves. (Peter Drucker).

I believe this has a broader impact on many organisations in fostering a “theory x” approach to management – perceiving staff as unmotivated and needing to be coerced to perform.

“All the world’s a stage…”

It is not the people themselves. The HR people I know are great people. I am sure they are nice to their children and pets, but in the organisational context, they, like most of us, become, in a Shakespearian sense, actors walking on to a stage. The stage is set, the lines prepared and action roles on from scene to scene. Over time, the financial focus that HR people become fixated on shapes their worldview. Tom Peters suggests HR are “mechanics rather than visionaries”.

Even the name is a problem. A resource is something you store until it is time to use it – like firewood in a shed. In this video Stephen Covey points out, that on balance sheets, people are represented as an expense, while machines are an investment. He calls this the paradigm of the industrial model.

HR and employee engagement

If you access an annual report, or a sustainability report, chances are, that the main strategy for employee engagement is an engagement survey. Look to see if you can find anything behind it. More often that not, in my experience, there is nothing substantial to find.

We know that surveys such as the Gallup poll reveal low levels of engagement worldwide. What would be an effective level of engagement? What percentage of staff would need to be engaged to contribute to high levels of intrinsic motivation and performance?

To improve, we have to learn from those rare companies that exemplify great engagement.

The way forward

Incrementalism won’t do. I believe we need a rethink of the structure of organisations. As outlined in an earlier post, engagement needs be a core organisational capability.  By organising into three main functions, engagement, production and support, organisations are better equipped to engage with stakeholders. The engagement role can include HR, marketing, customer service and communications. Bundling them together, and heading them with an engagement champion will help to balance the contractual and developmental functions of HR.

I would love to know who, in your opinion, are exemplars of employee engagement.

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One thought on “Staff engagement and the failure of HR

  1. I concur with the reasoning behind Peter’s post. In my opinion, too often the HR department is seen as a vehicle to control the “human” resource rather than support the humans with the resources they need to perform. I cannot remember the originator of this idea, it is something I have read in human resoure theory but they suggested that it would be better to rename the Human Resource Department the Resource for Humans Department. This clearly links the role that I believe HR should be taking with 21st century knowledge workers to ensure not only financial success but success against multiple benchmarks for stakeholders. I would like to leave a closing question for others to consider. There is a wealth of current research which suggests the new way of working with employees through engagement as Peter Bruce has documented in this blog breeds successful business. I am yet to see a plethora of popular thought with a research basis which suggests the 21st century knowledge worker prospers in a “mechansitic” environment generally based on Fordist principles. If there is research along these lines could you please share.

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