The Role of HR: Have We Abdicated Our Responsibility for “People?”

I fell into Human Resources (it was “Personnel” back then) after taking aptitude tests in the military, and then continued in civilian HR once I left the military.

I was a member of ASPA (American Society for Personnel Administration) before it became SHRM, and watched the evolution of regulatory activity (ERISA, FMLA, ADA, COBRA etc), technology (HRIS, ATS, HCM, LMS, TMS, etc) and the quest for the “seat at the table.“

I think of HR as my  “unchosen” profession because I don’t think people really set out to go into Personnel back then. I love the fact that college students today see HR as a highly attractive field, because it is. Human Resources has so much promise.

But recently I’m seeing a lot of HR bashing in the blogosphere and media and it saddens me.

Does HR abdicate responsibility?

I admit I have contributed to the bashing, and I’ve meant what I’ve said. I mentioned on another blog that I am critical because I see so much missed opportunity and because I really do care about the profession in which I have invested my career.

So I have been musing on this for a while and I had a thought on which I would love some feedback. I wonder if HR doesn’t perhaps abdicate responsibility. Let me explain what I mean.

HR has borne a reputation as party planners, policy police and data keepers (you know, all that stuff about employees). We know it, and we have worked very hard to get away from that, and have succeeded (at least about the party planning) for the most part.

In the days of manual data entry, HR made sure that “paperwork” was accurate and followed up on discrepancies. Along came technology and it seemed a good opportunity for HR to get out of the business of data entry – an excellent thing indeed. So we pushed the data entry out to the employees and managers and, fancy that, it got dirty really fast. Add to it the downsizing of clerical positions (those who kept the data clean) and HR got caught in the web of defending their data to the end users….”well, if you would put it in accurately, it would give us better business intelligence.”

Then, along comes the alphabet soup of government agencies and regulations, and we start churning out policies galore. I must admit that even with my background in HR, I got a little wary about what I said to employees, lest I say the wrong thing and get the organization in trouble. There is no way to minimize the impact of the regulatory impact of “people legislation.” It’s big!

Really, what is HR’s role?

I think it was somewhere around the mid-1990s that I remember HR beginning to decline responsibility for people issues, instead tasking “managers” for managing their employees effectively and efficiently. We knew these managers were not well prepared, and tried to give them the basic skills needed to stay out of trouble. As new laws popped up, we added them to manager orientation. So long as there was enough money in the training budget.

It was about this time that I remember being in HR Leadership teams, discussing the coming years’ goals. We started saying, “but we don’t want to be held accountable when we have no control over what the managers do.”

Article Continues Below

So here’s where I think we may have swung the pendulum too far and abdicated the role that HR can/should play in an organization – taking responsibility for all things “people.“ This is a courageous move, and one that shouldn’t be accepted lightly. But think about it …

By pushing “people metrics” into the spotlight, HR builds a means of accountability. True, HR cannot be held accountable for high turnover in a unit – at first. But if that high turnover continues, what is HR’s role? Do we have the right manager in place, and how do we know? What is the climate in the unit, and has there been a change? If so, why? All of this points to a dialogue with HR leading the way.

How many operational leaders survive quarterly reviews with the CEO and continue to watch their numbers drop? (If they do survive several drooping quarters, that’s another story altogether) Can we create a similar tension and accountability for those things HR?

I’m starting to think it might be a good idea for HR to step up the next time the topic of turnover comes up, and take responsibility for finding the root cause and working with the right leaders to develop and execute a plan. My guess is that the leader probably isn’t too sure about how to do it, and would welcome the help, since it got pushed to the front burner!

So HR – here’s your chance.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at