The New HR: a Manifesto

– by Jan van der Hoop

Rarely a day passes that I don’t find myself in conversation with someone – be they HR professional or senior executive – who declares emphatically that the time has come for Human Resources to reinvent itself.

It’s not a new conclusion, of course. HR has been engaged in active handwringing about its strategic role, its contribution, and its ‘role as a full partner at the table’ since at least the late ‘70s when I did my first summer co-op as a Personnel Clerk.

But there’s a certain matter-of-factness to these recent conversations that’s new to me. I don’t know if it’s because of this economic roller coaster we’re riding, or if we’re just plain tired of throwing the same old solutions at the same old problems and hoping the outcome will be less inevitable… either way, I smell change in the air.

The HR They Love to Hate

Ever since Fast Company published Keith Hammonds’ essay Why We Hate HR, I’ve been mulling over the question of reinvention more actively than I had previously. Hard as the article is to read, I had to acknowledge that there is a grain of truth to it. More than a grain, perhaps. Which is likely why it has become an infamous thought piece in the industry, sparking debate to this day.

More articles have come out since then all along the same thought train, in 2015 Harvard Business Review published Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It that touches on why HR is often misunderstood or looked down on. The answer is simple – many workers don’t really understand its purpose and the level of importance top executives place on it swings like a pendulum.

"How top executives feel about HR pretty reliably reflects what’s going on in the U.S. economy. When the economy is down and the labor market is slack, they see HR as a nuisance. But sentiments change when labor tightens up and HR practices become essential to companies’ immediate success. – Harvard Business Review

This constant pendulum swinging has hit excessively hard the last few years as we’ve gone through the turmoil of COVID, talent shortages, and economic uncertainties. HR has been beaten down and has had more and more piled on top of it.

Ultimately, there’s little point in going into further exploration of why it is the way it is, although I do have some deeply held beliefs that I share all too freely after my second scotch. More valuable, I think, is to offer some thoughts on the way forward.

The Manifesto

Here, then, is a draft platform for the New HR for your consideration.

  1. HR has one job: business success. Anything else is useless and a waste of time and resources. If it doesn’t improve business outcomes (respecting all stakeholders), we’re not doing it.
  2. HR isn’t the Complaint Department. We’re going to hold people capable, accountable and teach those who need it to stop wasting our time.
  3. We won’t accept mediocrity. Human Resources can no longer be the place people go when they can’t find meaningful employment. We want – and demand – the best and the brightest people with solid experience, who understand business and who value the essential role of human capital in securing strategic objectives.
  4. Nothing is sacred. We’re going to critically think about everything we do. We are willing to revisit and challenge the assumptions behind our systems and processes. Our workforce and our business imperatives have changed dramatically over the last decade; our fundamentals have not. We simply have to stop trying to fix today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Truth be told, they weren’t all that effective then either.
  5. We’re not in charge of the holiday party anymore. Yeah, that’s right. We aren’t the social secretaries. We have real work to do. See #1.
  6. Business is going to want a seat at our table. The time of putting HR at the kid’s table is over. People – our ‘human capital’ – are now our only meaningful source of competitive advantage. As we step up to our full responsibility as stewards of that resource, the line guys are going to be coming to us. We can’t let them down, and we can’t shy away from holding them accountable.
  7. Rules are for fools. We’re tossing out the rule book. We’re not hall monitors anymore, and most policies are written for the lowest common denominator. As we raise the bar and bring in better quality people, most of the ‘rules’ will become redundant. We’re going to expect grownups to behave like grownups, or they’re gone. Regardless of their title. Any questions?
  8. We’re going to make pay-for-performance work. Forgive us if we insist that the best people who make the biggest impact make the most money.
  9. No more workarounds to make up for weak managers. Please see #1. Our job is to make our company work most efficiently, not to find ways to convince people to put up with weak, uninspiring leadership. We won’t be making up policies to make up for bad managers, and we refuse to ask people to lower their standards. It’s either up or out.
  10. We’re going to put the “human” back in Human Resources. They’re not numbers on a spreadsheet or “FTEs” that can be treated like a commodity. They’re people, with fears and hopes and dreams. And for a few hours a day, they come to our place. We’ll make sure that (along with #1) we remind ourselves every day that what we do is about people. Mediocre people = mediocre business. Great people = great business.