Wherefore Art Thou HR?

On April 30, 2009, in All, Futures, HR Trends, Industry Analysis, JohnSumser.com, by John Sumser

Wherefore Art Thou HR?

(April 30, 2009) This story starts with an article called “Mincing Words” that I published over on RecruitingBlogs.com. The piece begins with the idea that our language for the profession and work of HR is damaging. Laced with descriptors of slavery and the ownership of people, the language (Human Capital, People as Assets, Resources) objectifies (commoditizes) people. Rather than words that inspire synergy and the power of collaboration, our profession perpetuates the very things it is charged with preventing.

I had an epiphany that took my breath away. As I watched the conversation that followed the piece, I saw really smart people working with the question I raised. It’s no small challenge to consider the idea that the name of your profession describes its antithesis . The commenters were smart, funny and on target.

I really wanted to have clear answers for each one of them. Instead, I had little to offer other than the initial question. I felt that my paltry “I just don’t know” couldn’t possibly be good enough.

What I learned is that great communications and problem siolving depend on saying “I don’t know.” It’s one of those things that’s too easy to forget.

This morning, I read Libby Sartain’s excellent recap, “What Is HR’s Brand?” Libby, who is one of the few people who credibly executed the role of Chief People Officer (at Southwest), tells the story of that title:

So our challenge was to find a title that fit of our culture.

We considered “the Employee Department”. But calling our valued people “employees” did not accurately reflect the value we placed upon them.

Jokingly, someone suggested “Folks”. (Probably the most appropriate)

Finally, the group settled on the People Department.

As Director of Benefits and Compensation at that time, I candidly admit that I thought this sounded a little hokey. In fact, I wondered how my SHRM colleagues would react. After all, all of my professional peers were proudly changing their names to Human Resource Management. I was reluctant to put this title on my business card…but I did it. And I took some ribbing from my pals. (Libby Sartain)

Later in the article, Libby pushes me to offer more than a question. She says:

I feel that all of this nomenclature is causing confusion in brand identity for the function. So, I have stopped advocating for a change to “people” to describe our function.

I decided that it is probably better to stick with H.R. until we found the ultimate brand, and settled on a brand promise that resonates and will last for decades.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas and will be inviting John Sumser to suggest an alternative via some means of social media.

Much of our world is broken in the way that  HR is broken. It’s a map of the world that has nothing to do with the world. Like our government, banking system, housing markets, definitions of war, political and media institutions and the general notion of organization, an awful lot of stuff is broken. We’re in a revolutionary time where many things require simultaneous repair, renovation, and renewal.

The problem is not ‘how to come up with  a new name for HR’. It’s not going to fix with a gameshow approach to rebranding. There are serious issues at stake. The name simply points to the real damage. And, there’s real damage.

For instance, now that women are the majority of the workforce, should the equal pay issue be solved? While the vocal minority (allied with DC communications groups) argue relentlessly against pending legislation, where are the pro-pay-equality voices? Nowhere to be found. HR can mobilize against unions but not for the things it’s charged with protecting.

A lot more is broken than the name.

And no, I don’t know what to do next. I’m working on the admit you have a problem part.  It seems to me that ‘what to do’ should follow ‘let’s define the problem’. That’s how a business leader would approach it.We’ve been living in a culture that applies the fix before the problem is understood. HR is just one more symptom.

And, “I don’t know” is a really good start on the truth.

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