Realism vs. Idealism: Why HR Should Tilt at Windmills

I’ve worked in HR for decades and I want to tell you a secret.

For all our chatter about the transformation of HR, the new and elevated role of the HR leader, and the name change from CHRO to Chief People Officer, we are still, by and large, doing the same shit, in much the same way, that we did it (back at the dawn of time) when I took my first gig on an HR team. 

That’s a broad sweeping statement of course. Many of you will ridicule this sentiment and cry that it’s a bit of a generalization. “Take a look at the innovation happening amongst contemporary HR professionals!” you may say.  I don’t completely disagree with that viewpoint; there certainly ARE people and organizations moving HR forward as captured in this excellent Fast Company article by my friend Lars Schmidt – “7 Ways HR Looks Different in 2020.”  As he points out “HR is a spectrum. While the majority of the field is somewhere in the middle, the leading edge of HR is having a transformational impact on business.” He also acknowledges that modern people teams/practices are a “subset” of that spectrum.

It may appear as if the visionaries are tilting at windmills. Yet some of the enemies of progressive HR are all-too-real and not imaginary at all. I love it when HR professionals take a quixotic approach even though it’s usually not easy. Yet why do those who push for HR change struggle? What holds more from pushing conventional and outdated practices and thinking to the side? In my estimation there are 4 types of people who keep our shoes nailed to the floor:

Those who decide they “don’t need” HR  

You know these people and these organizations. It makes sense when a small business with less than 10 employees realizes they don’t require a full-time HR leader (the wise ones of course engage a consultant or tap into resources as needed). What’s a bit more mystifying though is when larger organizations opt out and decide that the people-driven side of the business is not worth any attention. Just the other week I had a conversation about a multi-state employer with 150+ employees and zero HR resources. They do not have one single dedicated HR staffer and the Controller “handles” HR.  So while I’m fairly certain (hopeful?) employees are getting their paychecks, with no proactive people strategies it’s probably not the greatest place to work. 

Those who “hire” HR

These are the folks who get the HR they desire – and deserve. They’re also the group that keeps the practice of HR about as relevant as it was circa 1985. You can usually tell when a job posting for an HR Leader has been devised by the CFO/COO/CEO; there’s a laundry list of “tasks” related to compliance, benefits and maybe even payroll – usually capped off with “responsible for employee engagement.” These are the business owners/C-Suite folks who believe the role of HR is to navigate the complexities of employees’ medical bills, host pizza parties and run an “employee of the month” program.  

Those who “direct” HR

There is no one who holds her team and organization back from modern workplace realities than the #LegacyHRLady. While she’s often a lovely person, Linda the HR Lady was trained how to practice HR 30 years ago and sees no reason to change. She’s fearful of technology, sees no need to automate or streamline outdated busy-work processes, and  firmly believes that “HR’s role is to protect the company.” She has long been convinced that every applicant, employee and manager is forever looking to “get away with” something nefarious so she adds policy after policy to her already voluminous Employee Handbook while simultaneously devising ways to “catch” employees breaking the rules.

Those who “do” HR 

Linda the HR Lady has, of course, trained others who have come behind her and so now Chad, Heather, Jason and Julie are “doing” HR in much the same way. Oh sure, they may be using a new-school ATS with automation, and they’re accustomed to being in touch via Slack throughout their workday (unlike Linda) but they still maintain a distorted view of the role (and value) of HR. Rather than viewing the possibilities the future brings, they quickly became entrenched into legacy HR work by inserting themselves into every EE performance discussion and monitoring the breakroom refrigerator. These are the folks who develop a great sense of self-importance when they assume the power of rejecting job applicants or insist on personally delivering an “employee write up” to Shanna in A/P because she came to work with purple hair.  

It’s like quicksand; continuing to suck us down. 

So for those of you mired in the cautious and sober world of hum-drum HR I encourage you to ponder:

  • “What would the ideal practice of HR look like?”
  • “If I strive to make things better (for HR) how can that also make my workplace, and the world, a better place?”
  • “Is this change I envision really impossible…or is it, in fact, possible?” 
  • “What’s holding me back from acting for change?”

The phrase “tilting at windmills” often infers that one is pursuing something foolishly impractical; on a quest for something unreachable.

But, my friends, isn’t a bit of tilting worth the effort? 

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