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September 16, 2013 / Mervyn Dinnen

No-one Likes Us. We Do Care.

No one likes us2

As long as I’ve been around the HR profession there have been regular bouts of navel gazing. You only have to look at some of the most-shared HR blogs and join in the usual conference chats about seats at the table, making a difference and the need to change. I’ve facilitated discussions about the purpose and value of HR, whether we should do away with it and how to demonstrate the value.

I’ve often said that I know of no other business function that beats itself up so. I know of few sales people who responded to the PPI mis-selling scandal with a long hard look into their soul to question the job and personal values, and neither did I see a wave of accountants post-Enron self-flagellating over whether the finance function had lost credibility and could no longer be taken seriously as a business function.

Any who did have self-doubt would doubtless strive to show how the profession could improve to stop a repeat, with those guilty of wrong doing not just being wrong, but also rogue outliers and not indicative of the overall standards of most of the profession.

In my experience though the HR function never quite seems to have the same self-belief, which may be why it can sometimes be seen to overreact to perceived attacks on its credibility and value.

Hence my lack of surprise at the brouhaha caused by this week’s online opinion piece from the Daily Telegraph’s Deputy Women’ Editor, Louisa Peacock – It’s Official: Lucy Adams Has Killed off the HR Profession Once and For All.

There are plenty of blogs and responses from both the online community and the online HR media on Peacockgate* and I don’t particularly want to add to the she was wrong/no she wasn’t/yes she was debate, however much of the immediate response seemed to me typical of a group who maybe lack the necessary self-confidence needed to brush this kind of thing off and hence end up taking offence at what they see as an attack.

What’s often missing from this kind of debate is perspective and context, so here are a few observations:

  • The piece did not appear in the business or finance section but in the Women’s section. It queried the career suitability of a profession which is 70% female and was portrayed as a women’s issue and not necessarily a business issue.
  • Although it was written by the Deputy Editor of the women’s section, part of the problem for the HR profession may have been that is it was written by someone seen as one of their own. Someone who learned her trade in the HR media, has covered CIPD conferences and interviewed many leading HR practitioners.
  • It appeared in the online edition of a staunchly right of centre broadsheet newspaper. One who editorially challenge wastage of public funds and the BBC in general, who broadly support Beecroft and the stripping away of red tape around business, are seen as business friendly and often publish opinion writers (Jeremy Warner, Allister Heath) who ideologically appear to favour much looser employment rights. An HR function being profligate with public money would be in the firing line from an editorial viewpoint.
  • It was an opinion piece. Not quite a Littlejohn or Clarkson, but as with many such pieces it is there primarily to provoke debate, promote sharing, create a noise, get traffic to the site. Some criticism has been levelled around the lack of supporting evidence – but this is fairly common with such pieces. Take something that’s happened, frame it slightly out of context and then use it to prove a different point is a modus operandi for many opinion pieces in the media (and some blogs for that matter). Whether it is the journalist or the sub-editor driving the narrative is unclear and hence I wouldn’t necessarily draw conclusions. **

Before I fall too far into the trap of over intellectualising, the reaction to all this displayed a siege mentality, but not necessarily one with the passion and belief that would indicate success…hence the name calling and umbrage.

I think the CIPD missed an opportunity to take the passion and desire to debate that was displayed by its members as a platform to open a wider conversation. After all, the main thrust of the piece was over career choices for young women so here was an opportunity to use it as a springboard to positively showcase the HR profession.

They could have produced a blog almost immediately, not criticising but summarising and showing an understanding of whatever points were being made. Reference the fact that any profession will have its rogue elements and that bad (or less than best) practice won’t be defended or tolerated, but also isn’t necessarily indicative of the rest of the profession.

Then let members debate, adding their views on the CIPD blog platform. No profession is one spokesperson but is the cumulative views of its members and hence they were in pole position to reflect the views of their members on this. Hell, why not look for a right of reply, a follow up post on the Telegraph site espousing the positives of a career in HR, why and how CIPD members make a difference to working lives.

As Neil Morrison says in his recent blog on this issue

…as a profession we should showcase good performance and role models AND we should hold bad practise to account. It isn’t a weakness to admit that HR is a profession in need of improvement, it’s a strength. And when we do, when we show the critical skills of self-analysis, you know what? We make people take us a whole lot more seriously

It’s often said that people rarely talk about good customer service but will always talk about bad customer service, and the same is probably true with HR. There’s plenty of good stuff out there – it doesn’t mean that the bad stuff doesn’t happen, but that you need to work a bit harder to get the good stuff out in the open.

And a healthy dose of context and perspective is a good starting point…

(* If you read this Louisa, I am joshing, treat it as a badge of honour 🙂 )

(** Later that evening I was at an event where the editor of the FT gave a short talk around the journalism profession and how it was reacting to the digital challenges. Listening to some stories from earlier in his career reminded me that not every piece that gets published is necessarily as the journalist originally intended)

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3 Comments

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  1. interimity / Sep 16 2013 9:10 AM

    The Louise Peacock piece is poisonous and misogynistic and you’ve done a great analysis of its context. Notwithstanding that, I still would like my professional body to have taken the initiative, even without that article and others, on the role of the professional HR function. The fact that other professions haven’t defended themselves as you rightly point out doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.

    I have no idea what the PR strategy has been to date for the CIPD, but I have had a personal response from Susannah Clements when I posted on her blog. They have decided to let this all die down for a few weeks and start a campaign of profile raising later. Does this mean that they have not had a campaign in place to date? I fear it does. There is also a concern that they do not wish to seem to be undermining Ms Adams by making any statements now which might reflect adversely on her, as well as no wish to get involved in (their words) ‘tit for tat trade of points’.

    I agree that, at the very least, the CIPD missed an opportunity to open up debate for members even if wider and more public statements were seen by them to be potentially difficult for Ms Adams (who I am not even sure is a CIPD member).

    The working world has gone to hell in a handcart – zero hour contracts, unpaid internships, minimum (not living) wage contracts which are subsidised by benefit payments, outsourcing of core functions to the lowest bidder and ridiculous and damaging senior reward strategies are just some examples. All of these sit within the HR remit. No-one else came forward after the meltdown (including the economists who surely should have known better) but perhaps now is a time for the CIPD position us as the champions of business practices that focus on growing businesses sustainably with longer term objectives. And which are ethical. To which, we as members, are held to account and not allowed to practice if we fail? Just a thought.

    • simonheath1 / Sep 16 2013 4:31 PM

      Whatever the ,motivation behind the Telegraph article (and I’ve written about it in my column at Office Insight here http://officeinsight.org/author/simon-heath/) it’s fair to say that sooner or later every industry sector or profession is going to come in for a kicking in the press, whether justified or not. We’ve had phone hacking and payments to public officials for the media, expenses and lobbying for Parliament and the whole gamut of misdemeanours for the financial sector. 24/7 rolling media means everything is under the spotlight and seen as fair game. Wikileaks, rightly or wrongly, are holding those in power to account and exposing dubious, if nor downright, criminal practices carried out in the name of democracy. It does not however follow that we’re all guilty by association. A balance and measured debate is always going to prove more helpful than knee-jerk reactions (as Neil Morrison has pointed out) and HR, like any other role in modern working life needs to be actively seeking to learn and improve. There were a great many cautionary voices in the years leading up to the credit crunch and there continued to be so as the edifice was coming down around our ears. There are many reasons why these voices were not heard, not least of which was a general desire to keep the money machines pumping out easy money. This provides a perfect context for re-framing of the arguments around how we scrutinise the businesses in which we work. It is an issue of personal and collective responsibility. Public consensus is that we want “business” to be ethical. Ethics is a “people” issue. People act irresponsibly. Systems and technology do not. As experts in people at work, HR should be uniquely placed to embed the right behaviours and hold to account those who undermine those ethics. The professional body representing the profession should carry that message to Government and work with legislators to build an appropriate legal framework to support forensic scrutiny that goes above and beyond the rather fluid position taken towards whistleblowing.

  2. Gareth Jones / Sep 17 2013 3:13 PM

    This article is just typical of lots of media fodder – journalists writing about things they are generally clueless about to achieve all the things Mervyn points out here. CIPD responding?! Please, it’s not worth the effort. It would only make the whole thing more farcical and fuel the media ego. Ms Adams never saw herself as an HR professional anyway. She took the stance that many who find themselves in the senior ranks of HR take – the abused become the abusers, choosing to suddenly distance themselves from the profession that put them there in the first place and say things like “I don’t consider myself an HR professional. I consider myself a commercial business person.” Hmmm yah righto…..

    Bottom line? If companies and individuals are blathering on about ‘HR’ then they’ve missed the point – it’s about people, not the function. The bodies who do all the work. Other functions don’t have this issue simply because they know they, and their organisation, have not forgotten what they are about – sales is about, well sales! Not the process of it per say. Finance is about cash, investments, profit, eps blah blah. At the end of the day it’s the organisations who are accountable. They get the quality of HR function they deserve. They either give a toss about poeple (not HR) and recognise the value in recognising it or they don’t. Sadly, there are still too many companies out there that are good, and continue to deliver good ‘results’ to shareholders, despite treating their people like shit. So they have people blindness and no incentive whatsoever to change their view.

    People are really our only point of competitive advantage. Period. Even the likes of Dyson are nothing more than shed dwellers without the people to develop, build and sell their ideas.

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