HR has always gotten a bit of a bad rap. We’re the ones there for many first days, promotions, and lending an ear, but also bear responsibility for giving bad news, breaking harsh truths, and enforcing any change management. It’s a rewarding and gratifying career, but it’s not for everyone.

Think about it. The US version of The Office, is one of those iconic television shows that continues to captivate fans. It tells the endearing narrative of a small team of workers employed at paper company, Dunder-Mifflin. The characters and storylines are a little far-fetched, but one coworker almost always gets the short end of the stick.

Toby from HR.

Toby is openly disliked by the boss, barely tolerated by those around him, and is otherwise invisible in most other cases. The joke is that Toby from HR is HR, an ever under-appreciated, but completely necessary department. But how did we get here? In an increasingly competitive world, where people are one of the only differentiators left, how are the folks entrusted with finding, hiring, managing, guiding, training, onboarding, and engaging them somehow less important than some other disciplines?

Why has HR traditionally gotten the cold shoulder, and why is there article after article on the topic of guiding HR leaders to a seat at the table? One study compared HR leaders to the leaders of other functions. They found that the average overall leadership effectiveness of HR leaders is 6 percentile points lower than the average of others. Meanwhile, Korn Ferry reports that 47% of organizations did not offer HR-specific leadership development programs.

HR History, Explained

In the early 1900s, companies were doing essentially what we’re doing today—trying to figure out how to retain employees and improve performance. Like today, reducing turnover, additional compensation structures, and collecting grievances were largely this group’s purview.

“By the 1930s, human resources started to become and be seen as advocates for employees and the reason for that, frankly, was because companies were trying to keep unions out. The idea of being able to tell people at the top of the company: ‘Hey, the workers are unhappy about this’ really mattered because they cared whether workers were unhappy because they thought they might unionize otherwise. In that period, HR developed this kind of reputation as being the workers’ advocate and that’s probably true up to 1970.”

--Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School

But as federal labor laws began to adopt union policies as legislation, post-war unions saw a decrease in power, and, as a result, HR’s role started to shift. Rather than the protector of the employees, they became more like the defender of the company. After all, there were regulatory issues, compliance matters, and plenty of worker protections passed in the interim decades. Enforcement and compliance became HR’s main job.

Today’s HR Leaders find themselves struggling to straddle the gap between fulfilling their employee guide and manager role, while also ensuring the company is also fully compliant with labor laws. Perhaps that’s why we dissect the qualities that make great HR Leaders so frequently.

Though they vary individually, the strengths and weaknesses of HR leaders do have similar trends. Just as we know there are commonalities within the strengths of HR Leaders, there are also clear patterns when it comes to weaknesses.

Common Strengths for Successful HR Leaders

A Priority on Learning and Development

Great HR Leaders value learning, both in themselves and their employees. They take the time to join professional associations, attend conferences, take classes, and read books to further their knowledge of working with other people.

Concepts like mentoring, coaching, training, and all the techniques that help workers become successful within the organization and their career begins on the desks of HR representatives. Additionally, HR leaders are often the first person to contact new employees, and they serve an important role in ensuring those hires are successfully integrating into their role.

Company-wide, HR departments advocate for organizational mentorship and coaching programs that help employees excel and increase engagement. And, HR has the reputation of being a resource for workers to turn to with feedback and concerns. Those who work within HR generally discover the career because of a genuine interest in helping others succeed, and that translates to the responsibilities they take on.

Is your organization one of the 47% who doesn’t offer #HR-specific #leadership development programs? @ClearCompany breaks down why you should:

Advocate for Employees

The HR department was built to bridge the gap between the employer and employee. While it has changed over the years, great HR Leaders know that it still holds a large share of their job. Sometimes business leaders see HR as the employee’s voice, and they are, but employers also gain protection through its existence. When a worker has an issue with coworkers, leadership, or employment terms, they are directed to HR where they will receive guidance and advice. The same is true for executives. When a decision is made, it is HR who will navigate the communication and anticipate the backlash.

We’ve seen the opposite occur many times in recent years, often making headlines. However, a great HR leader understands that advocating for employees, whether in the form of more autonomy or compensation or for a safer working environment, is an investment in both the employees and the company.

Understand Compliance

HR professionals specialize in everything from compensation and benefits to employment law. Employers lean on HR to ensure the organization is meeting regulations and remaining current on local and national expectations. Employment is filled with rules and nuances and the HR team is the knowledgeable resource executives trust to keep company hiring and management processes compliant and secure.

Legislation regarding work and employees are constantly changing, not only on the federal level but on a state-by-state basis. A recent example being the new anti-harassment training laws going into effect in several states, most notably New York and California. Great HR Leaders stay on top of these changes and ensure their workplace and their people are compliant.

Common HR Weaknesses

Ignore the “Finance Part”

A survey of over 400 senior-level HR and finance executives found that the collaboration between finance and HR is nowhere near where it should be to benefit most organizations. The results found that when it came to ACA compliance, a serious concern for both departments, 33% of financial leaders expect HR to go over budget. The survey results point to negative views of the HR department’s work in regards to budget and finance as a whole, signaling discord that goes deeper than regulatory concerns.

This goes back to the old idea of HR or “personnel” as a cost center rather than a revenue-producing part of the business. While this is technically true, as our economy shifts more and more to digital and intellectual work, talent is truly the differentiator. Just as the perception of HR as a money pit needs to die off, average HR Leaders would do well to understand how their work impacts the bottom line.

For HR, it is important to understand how financial data and analytics should influence hiring and management decisions. Yes, you have to spend money to produce productive employees, but the efficiency of funds is key for both the health of the business and the satisfaction of workers.

“While finance views HR as an unnecessary cost, HR thinks finance is out to squeeze every penny they can find. Bottom line is both departments function as gears powering a larger machine. Individually each department provides services to the company, many of which overlap. When HR and finance function cooperatively the company moves into a new era of efficiency, production, customer satisfaction and most importantly, profit.”

-Christine Sauter, HR Project Officer at StarkHR

No Strategic Foundation

HR has garnered a reputation for being a bit slow to adopt new processes and, in turn, slow to get tasks completed. However, HR is absolutely a strategic function. For example, there’s a discussion around how to better hire talent or manage top performers, but how those strategies relate to overall business strategy sometimes goes unconnected. So much so that the department is often criticized for a general lack of business acumen. Agree or disagree, any HR function can benefit from more collaboration with their organization’s operations teams.

Incorporation of HR data and analytics is also an important step in connecting HR to the company’s strategic direction. Data informs better strategy within HR but also speaks a more common language throughout departments, especially operations.

As HR and people management becomes even more central to a company’s success, they need to look at their various responsibilities through a strategic lens. While the Talent Acquisition portion of the HR function has started to do this, in order to be great, HR Leaders should step in and see where they can apply years of expertise, learning, and planning to the business.

This is especially important as HR Leaders are very often those in charge of change management, whether it’s educating employees on new company goals, rolling out a new health plan, or adding an additional rule or policy to the employee handbook. By applying a strategic mindset to their role, HR Leaders can explain more about the why of a new policy or procedure or plan.

When #HR and finance cooperate, companies are efficient, productive, satisfy customers, and profit. Let @ClearCompany show you how. #management

Easing that disconnect and simplifying data collection is exactly what propelled ClearCompany’s talent management suite growth. Not only does our platform help ease the administrative burden, but each module from onboarding to performance management also helps increase transparency. Every HR solution is powered by a core Talent Operating System that uses the company mission, competencies and goals to engage employees of every level and tenure, including executives.

Less Customer-Focused

The plain fact is, HR professionals have two main audiences to please, the employer and the employees. At times, trying to please them both is very difficult. Sometimes, HR gets the reputation of not caring as much about customers (for those counting, that’s a third audience to please). It’s no wonder that HR sometimes comes across as being very internally focused, rather than extrapolating their responsibilities out to the core offering of the business. But to be a great HR Leader this must be part of the equation.

Another disconnect occurs between internal practices and external results. For example, HR KPIs often revolve around hiring and managing metrics like time to hire, retention, and productivity. The techniques deployed to focus on how those metrics can be positively influenced by technology and better internal practices. Sometimes they even result in employee standards that look great on reports but leave a little to be desired among external audiences—think: customers. Though HR leaders are seeing employees with productivity, they aren’t necessarily considering the needs of the customer or client who is directly affected by the internal adjustments.

A better understanding of the external environment is critical in seeing business success. Those who don’t work in HR should take the time to realize that this team is almost entirely internally focused and is less exposed to the external reputation than other departments. This is improving as more and more HR departments learn about employer brand and how customers are candidates, and vice versa.

Great HR leaders are not born, they are made from years of practice, training, and dedication. Without the strengths of the HR department, organizations would suffer, meanwhile the weaknesses present issues to all as well. Whether you are an HR professional or an organizational executive, grasping the strengths and weaknesses of HR can help you understand some of the challenges your company will need to overcome together.

If you need a little more guidance on how to better your hiring and managing processes, visit our HR and recruiting resources page and download on of our many free white papers, ebooks, and printables to help your HR department become more strategic.

Want more? Take a moment to browse our Talent Success University, a collection of free HR and recruiting curriculum focused on attracting, motivating and retaining A players

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Sara Pollock
Sara Pollock
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As the head of a department in the midst of a sustained period of rapid growth, Sara has spent hundreds of hours interviewing, hiring, onboarding and assessing employees and candidates. She is passionate about sharing the best practices she has learned from both successes and failures in talent acquisition and management.

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