HR – who even needs it?

The other H word. duncan c/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Management fads are fun, and one that keeps resurfacing is hating on HR — aka Human Resources.

We can all think of times when HR has caused us a special kind of pain and suffering — payroll screw-ups, pointless performance reviews, unintelligible procedures, anyone? It makes sense that you can’t spell “hurt” without “H” and “R”, and when we see the anti-HR mobs baying for blood, it’s easy to pick up a placard and/or blunt object and join in the fun.

There’s a swag of anecdotal “evidence” claiming that HR is no good, despite legitimate research that says otherwise, so let’s get rid of HR!

The problem with all this passionate HR-hating is that “HR” is not just a department or group of numbskulls sitting on the ninth floor of the building with the fancy offices.

HR involves a wide range of activities, including hiring, pay, performance management, and employee relations - all of which are essential to running organisations that rely on people to do work.

So, we might say that we should get rid of the HR people, but somebody will still have to fill the HR function. Who’s going to do this?

HR by line managers

The first obvious candidate to replace HR is the line managers. They know the people (they are the people), so who’d be better at doing “people” stuff? HR is, after all, the easy job — something anyone can pick up, right? Developing policy and practice around industrial relations, occupational health and safety, and diversity management, among other things, will easily fit into their newly expanded job description.

But hang on: that actually sounds a little complicated. What’s more, a poll conducted in early 2014 by the Centre for Workplace Leadership found 75% of employees surveyed felt they needed better leaders. So, maybe our line managers aren’t the ones we’d choose to do HR. In fact, maybe we should just get rid of them, too. They can go play the pokies with the HR people we just fired.

HR by senior managers

Second possible candidate: Conventional wisdom has it that HR is supposed to be a “strategic partner”, so let’s just get senior managers to do it!

Of course, we know that senior managers aren’t usually representative of “the people”, in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, or even job experience. So, maybe we shouldn’t trust the “old boys” in the C-suite to represent our interests when they do HR.

Do-It-Yourself HR

Candidate three: If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself…er…in self-managed teams!

Image sourced from

So, with the surplus of time in your workday, go ahead and log in to your favourite HR information system (SAP? Oracle? Wait, don’t tell us…Workday? You’re such a hipster), and get cracking on your new HR responsibilities. Conduct your peer evaluations, consult with the team about promotions and pay raises, and resolve interpersonal grievances.

Of course, if you already have a full workload and can’t invest a decent chunk of time into getting your head around this stuff, HR might quickly deteriorate and fall apart. And you have to be careful about letting HR deteriorate, because when that happens, people start calling for your resignation (see above).

Outsourcing HR

Option four: Does it feel dirty to say outsourcing? Pay someone else to do your HR and you’re good to go. Of course, if we’re paying someone else to do it all, it could get expensive.

And remember that question we asked earlier about the representativeness of the people making “people” decisions? If outsourcing’s your pick, you can throw that “representation” idea out the ninth floor window.

HR by a group of competent specialists

Okay, so what’s left?

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to have competent staff within the organisation working on the HR stuff. They might have their own department, but they’d be accessible to everybody throughout the organisation, from top to bottom. This would ensure that they were in touch with “the people”, as well as the strategy of the organisation. What’s more, because there’s a variety of HR stuff that needs to be done, we’d even need different types of professionals with different skill sets to work in this group.


Did we just end up with a HR department? Yep. The problem with HR does not just belong to HR; it belongs to all of us. Get rid of your HR department (or even some part of HR), and you’ll still be left with some very real HR challenges.

The future business environment is uncertain, technology is ever-changing, jobs are exceedingly complex, and the workforce is increasingly diverse. People leading and working in organisations need to be more thoughtful in building and supporting good HR systems, and we must realise it takes a highly skilled group of HR professionals to deal with all of the complexity and tensions of our world.

We need to define HR the way we define finance, marketing, or operations —- as an integral function of any medium to large organisation, not as some group of blockheads that, by the way, you have hired and failed to develop (you nitwit). HR people need to be competent in HR. It’d also be nice if they could navigate organisational politics. The HR department is not a dumping ground for leftover talent. It must be filled with the best and brightest, and you must invest in their development -— just like everywhere else in the organisation.

The role of HR is just as dynamic as are the business environment and workplace, and the study of HR is not a “settled” science. But there’s a lot that we do already know, and it’s not likely to be found in faddish anti-HR rants. If you want to weigh the true value of HR, start reading about legitimate HR research in journals like the Academy of Management’s publications, the Journal of Applied Psychology, the British Journal of Industrial Relations, or Human Resource Management. Get involved in legitimate studies by qualified researchers, not anecdotal moaning by fad-pushers.

HR is not beyond reproach, with its reality sometimes falling short of its rhetoric. Our perceptions of HR do matter, and HR professionals should explore ways to improve the credibility of their own work.

But, that said, we all need to think about HR as we think about everything else. Have you ever seriously said, “Let’s get rid of finance,” or “operations”, or “marketing”? Saying “Let’s get rid of HR” is just as absurd, so stop being such a hater and show HR some love and commitment. After all, you can’t spell “heart” without “H” and “R”.