HR Roundtable: Is It Actually Possible to Differentiate HR?

Article main image
Dec 9, 2014

One of the biggest struggles human resources has in organizations is that it tends to blend in with everyone else and doesn’t take steps to differentiate itself.

The November HR Roundtable in Cincinnati got together to talk about this and see if differentiating HR would be possible. They kicked off the forum with the following three questions:

  1. Why is it so difficult for HR to differentiate itself in an organization?
  2. What are the steps HR could take to break the mold?
  3. Why does differentiating HR matter?

The small groups eagerly jumped in and started discussing these questions. It was a more challenging topic because there hadn’t been many examples of differentiated HR to work from. They did a great job and came up with some keen insights!

Why is it so difficult for HR to differentiate itself?

  • Fear — This theme is all too common in the HR Roundtables, but it is a tangible fact because HR is known to be more hesitant and conservative in its approach within organizations. They have typically been the group who is resistant to things that are “new” or “different.”
  • Line of least resistance — Most HR functions are happy with “keeping the peace.” If there is less volatility, real or perceived, then we have a good workplace. This may mean that people are going through the motions in their roles, but at least there’s peace.
  • Legal ramifications — This is a myth. HR people are quick to note that things are legal or illegal. They may not truly know if this is the case, but it stops people in their tracks. A large responsibility of HR is to reduce and eliminate liability, but being a differentiator isn’t a legal issue. It’s a shield to hide behind that has no bearing on this at all.
  • People don’t know what HR does — This is a very telling and sad sentiment. Unfortunately, by staying in the background, it’s easier for people to make up their own opinion as to what HR does. If we don’t have a visible and vocal presence in the organization, then people will attach the negative labels to what we do.
  • Lack of agility and reliance on technology — HR seems to move at a snail’s pace. Because of their training to make sure nothing “goes wrong,” HR tends to be hesitant to shift and move. With the increased use of technology, we fool ourselves that we’re being more agile because most use the forums of technology as a substitute for human interaction. We can point people to a web site with little to no personal interaction.
  • We don’t want to. We don’t know how. We won’t allow it — It’s hard to end this section so negatively, but the majority of HR people don’t want to be differentiated within organizations. When you hear HR people talk, they bemoan how senior management views and treats them, but they take few steps to change that mentality or stereotype!

 What are the steps HR could take to break the mold?

  • Burn your desk! — This could be figurative or literal. We have become a profession where we think time at our desk is more critical than with our people. This isn’t a call to do one versus the other, but it’s too easy to jump back to our comfort zone of our office/cube/desk. It isn’t emotional or confrontational, but it also is a barrier to the great employees of your company who want your time and attention!
  • Look for small wins — To get integrated throughout your company, you need to see where you can plug-in and make a difference. When that happens, you’ll start laying the foundation of showing value. This approach is more effective both short-term and long-term because it keeps you connected over time. Large programs and initiatives may have a big splash initially.
  • Be the communication bridge — This is something that is more natural for us, but it does require a shift. Don’t be as concerned about the issuing and dictation of policies and procedures. Present yourself as the bridge that makes communication more consistent and effective. If you can make this fact of corporate life a reality, you will automatically differentiate yourself!
  • Be a leader yourself — This has to be a personal decision first. You can’t take a step forward if you aren’t willing to truly lead your function. If you continue to treat HR as a “support” function you will always be seen below others. This isn’t asking you to storm the castle and overthrow the leadership; it’s to be counted among all of the leaders in your company. This isn’t the “seat at the furniture” approach. It’s leading on a daily basis in all you do.
  • Be strategic as well as tactical — We keep thinking that these are separate things. They don’t need to be separate entities. When we try to treat them separately, then one area suffers. If HR takes the approach of being daily strategic, you can show others how the tactical parts of your job fits into your role – as it does with others.
  • Don’t be a Lone Ranger — The biggest opportunity to try is to not be an isolationist. This isn’t just getting out from behind your desk. This means that you get involved and dive in to the whole organization. Don’t allow HR to be the department that people “come to.” Be the department that goes out to others. Use the rule of thumb that if your department has people in it, then HR can be there too.

Why does differentiating HR matter?

  • HR has a lot to offer — We need to quit being relegated to the sidelines. HR brings value to companies every day. Having a strong HR presence makes your company stronger as well. Being a fringe player isn’t good for anyone. Express your value and make it come to life. Your organizations want to see HR as a partner as it does other functional departments.
  • HR can bring stability — This is a good thing. HR brings a more balanced, objective approach to its work and with people. This means more confrontation in the beginning, but by meeting people where they are, HR can bring a more consistent environment to an organization.
  • HR can model collaboration and consensus — People working together bring energy, enthusiasm, drama and diversity to each situation. HR can be the coordinators of making these interactions go well. It doesn’t mean that HR should be on every team, but they can facilitate the human dynamic to see how they move things forward within the company.
  • It keeps HR relevant — The bottom line to all of this is that HR has to decide if it wants to be relevant within an organization or not. We can continue to be functional and “get things done,” but that doesn’t make us the business partner companies desire. If HR doesn’t shift soon, it will become irrelevant and companies don’t hold on to things that don’t bring relevance!

The conversation at this HR Roundtable was deep and robust as well as reflective.

The options that were discussed gave everyone something to think about and see how they can move things forward. They were starting to make the steps to differentiate themselves!