Is Your HR Leader a Glorified Administrative Assistant?

Is Your HR Leader a Glorified Administrative Assistant?tcbrPDF normal


By Laurie Ruettimann


Laurie Ruettimann headshotLinkedIn recently changed its privacy policy and user agreement. The fastest-growing social-networking site now explicitly bans prostitutes and escorts—even if prostitution is legal where they live.

What do ladies of the night have to do with ladies who work in HR? Nothing. I bring up LinkedIn’s new guideline only to point out that the company’s decision feels like a metaphor for human resources: Just when things start to get interesting, some super nanny comes along and saps the fun out of work.

This is why everyone hates HR—which is why I wonder why anyone would want to work in HR. When given an opportunity to apply a hard-earned education to something important and disruptive, would graduates from the most prestigious universities choose a Wall Street firm that recognizes and rewards performance, or a middle-class job with a corporate HR team that deals with compliance issues related to payroll, résumés, OSHA, ERISA, and ADA?

That’s not a false choice. While there are scholars and consultants who praise the emerging field of human-capital management as both exciting and innovative, there is another school of thought that reflects something closer to reality: HR is a compliance-driven function that attracts candidates who are too qualified to work as administrative assistants but not qualified enough to go to law school.

Does that seem harsh? Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group and author of several leading HR books, believes that HR does not have a properly aligned talent pipeline to succeed. In a recently published survey on talent management, Effron notes that 77 percent of HR professionals want to help people learn and grow as a primary function of their job. As a secondary function, 50 percent want to represent the needs of their employees in the organization.

HR is a compliance-driven function that attracts candidates who are too qualified to work as administrative assistants but not qualified enough to go to law school.

So people are excited about their jobs. Too bad they’re excited about the wrong damn things. HR’s main focus should be maximizing the company’s profitability, but only 58 percent of talent managers cite that as their primary purpose for working in the field.

Still, let’s pretend you find a talented candidate with a decent pedigree who is passionate about building a better workforce and growing profits. Let’s speculate that this person aligns herself with the evolving needs of your diverse and complex business units. It is excruciatingly difficult to sell to this individual the notion of a dynamic and exciting job—and proselytize about a compelling future of human-capital management— when almost every major survey since 1997 indicates that your entire HR function likely lacks credibility, competitive compensation, and executive support.

Mark Stelzner, founder of Inflexion Advisors, believes that HR has the power to change organizations and change lives. As companies try to move from hiring a VP of HR who is a “people person” to a highly skilled functional expert from a non-HR background, Stelzner suggests that such HR executives will have an apologetic and embarrassed tone when answering the basic question, “And what do you do for a living?”

And what is it that HR people do for a living? As a former practitioner who now consults with some of America’s most dynamic companies, I see HR leaders who operate as executive coaches and advisers, help managers comply with the annual review process, and coach employees on how to have crucial conversations with their smelly co-workers. There is little time left for anything beyond the operational aspects of HR, from scheduling an exit interview with a cranky, soon-to-be-ex-employee to reviewing updates to the healthcare and benefits policies in an Obamacare world.

Employee operations? Personnel? This sounds like a fabulous job to no one in the world except my good friend, Don MacPherson, who is the co-founder and president of the consultancy Modern Survey. He explains, “Apathy and disengagement are present in a third of employees across the country and another third are under-engaged. HR professionals have the best opportunity to change this by guiding senior leaders to put the right framework in place, educating leaders throughout the organization about what engagement is and how to elevate it, and requiring that employees choose to bring their best to work.”

I trust MacPherson’s perspective as an entrepreneur himself, but I believe that the best way HR can help an organization is to get small, get fast, and get automated. When expertise is needed, just purchase it. Sometimes that means investing in new technologies, such as cloud-based social networks, big data, and a plethora of tools that can help you manage everything from compensation to diversity and inclusion to performance issues to holding potlucks. Other times, it means hiring coaches, consultants and advisers, who have the best opportunity to educate leaders. (OK, I get it—what else would you expect a consultant like me to say? But there’s a reason, after all, that I went from working in companies to working with them.)

Sue Meisinger, former CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management,, points out something else: “Technology advances will mean fewer HR professionals are required, so those who are hired will have deeper business expertise.”

When I asked Meisinger about striking the right balance between being proemployee and a cold-hearted robot like myself committed to corporate profitability, Meisinger had great advice. “Of course HR professionals need business acumen,” she explains. “But just as importantly, HR needs to have enough emotional intelligence to understand why people take what you do so personally—because it is personal to them. Everything HR does matters to the people working there: how much they make, what benefits they receive, their training, their development, their career path, and how they’re treated. It’s all HR. You have to be comfortable with a certain, constant level of criticism about all you do.”

True enough, but whenever someone tells me that HR professionals need to have a strong EQ to thrive and survive, I wonder why we don’t say the same for the overwhelmingly large number of male CEOs in America. And if the unique value proposition for a job in HR is that you make a difference in the lives of people and feel their pain—but by all accounts your executive team doesn’t want you to talk publicly about the emotional quality of working in HR because you’ll look weak and feminine—the profession is doomed to continue hiring amateur therapists, social workers, and babysitters.

I asked Matthew Stollak, associate professor of business administration at St. Norbert College, about the current crop of undergraduate students who are studying human-capital management. Are they talented? Are they passionate? Do they understand the challenges facing the twenty-first-century HR department? Or are they emotionally rooting for underdog employees in today’s workforce?

(Before I even talked to Stollak, I had to choke down my bile while contemplating the price of an undergraduate degree in HR today. Given how many companies compensate their HR staff, financing an HR education can easily require a combination of a Capital One credit card and prostitution—even if you can’t advertise your services on a certain career website.)

Stollak tells his students that, at its best, HR has the opportunity to positively influence the entire organization, from dramatically improving talent through proper recruiting and selection procedures to designing incentive programs that motivate even the most difficult employee. He adds, “HR provides one with the opportunity to make employees flourish and perform at their finest.”

Stollak also harkens back to his Gen-X roots, pointing out, “Much like Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, who repaired injured soldiers only to send them out to the battlefield yet again, HR professionals often want to appear to be advocates of the employees while protecting the interests of the organization. Unfortunately, much of the time, you are going to be unpopular rather than popular.” In other words, if being a future HR leader means walking a tightrope between the emotional aspects of the employee experience and ongoing business needs, then the job sounds as thankless as being a corporate version of Alan Alda.


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