The Limits of HR

On June 13, 2012, in HR Influencers, HR Trends, HRExaminer, Industry Analysis, by John Sumser

The Limits of HR - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

Part of the confusion about HR's role and potential comes from the fact that these enforcement responsibilities are at odds with the rest of the HR charter.

HR and The Law

One of the things that HR has in common with the finance department is its involvement with the legal system. Some of the tension between HR and the rest of the organization can be explained by HR’s role in enforcement of and education about the law. Charged with risk mitigation in the areas of legal compliance and employment law, HR’s role includes things that seem pretty intrusive.

With the exception of the finance group (and safety, if it is separated from HR), no other department is tasked with legal enforcement. In the case of finance, the issues involve accounting and reporting. In HR, the legal stuff is all about interpersonal relationships.

HR is the arbiter of what’s okay and what’s not okay in the way that people deal with each other in and out of the organization. The folks from HR provide legal guidance (and sometimes discipline) in the areas of hiring, firing, advancement, mobility, compensation, safety and employee relations.

Government regulations intrude into many aspects of organizational life and employee relationships with each other and the company as a whole. While finance is the only other function that draws some of its authority from outside the organization, HR’s responsibilities can make it seem nagging, gossipy and invasive. The fact that HR can seem to operate outside of organizational control is at the heart of many of its difficulties.

HR can never have a ‘seat at the table’ is because its legal responsibilities prevent it from being a trusted member of the inner circle. Often perceived as the “political correctness police”, a significant part of HR’s job is to promulgate and educate. That means noticing when something is amiss and correcting it.

And who wants someone like that in the middle of a problem solving session?

Where the legal department is in a position to recommend alternatives, HR’s role is almost exclusively limited to enforcement. Legal interprets, HR executes. Though there are plenty of hyper-critical strategic issues for which HR could provide insight, the enforcement function trumps everything else. HR’s role as policeman is not something that can be separated from the rest of the game.

Much of the HR Department’s reliance on policy and procedure stems directly from its enforcement role. Without much in the way of internal  authority, HR relies on documentation to buttress its position. Most of the hard work of HR involves showing managers and employees how to work together in the light of the law.

A significant part of HR’s role resembles the work of a paralegal. Void of the credentials that give lawyers ‘on the spot authority’, HR workers build credibility by positioning themselves as resident interpreters of the law. This part of the work is fundamentally about enforcement, legal interpretation and situational delivery of legal insight.

Part of the confusion about HR’s role and potential comes from the fact that these enforcement responsibilities are at odds with the rest of the HR charter. Personnel development, talent acquisition, incentive programs, benefits administration, counseling, employee assistance and organizational development tend to focus on the other, more important (to the company’s success) parts of human relationships.

At the heart, though, the enforcement role is the thing that limits the upside potential of the HR function.