Schrodinger’s HR Function - How can HR both exist and not exist at the same time?

By David D'Souza, Membership Director at the CIPD

Approximately once a year, media attention will alight on an organisation that has no HR function because ‘they don’t believe in that type of thing’
 or the CEO has had a bad experience in the past. I have seen this narrative repeated a number of times. Normally, but not always, within 24 hours it turns out that the organisation does, in fact, have an HR function that passes the duck test: it looks like an HR function, talks like an HR function and does other things very much like an HR function.  

Members of the HR team will be uncovered on Linkedin or job postings will be discovered. We can readily call this Schrodinger’s HR function – where you somehow definitely have an HR team when you look at the payroll, but simultaneously definitely don’t when you look at the press release. The organisation will then either say ‘we don’t call them HR’ or ‘they aren’t structured like they might be elsewhere’. Neither of those is the same as or even in the same league as not having HR - and neither of those things, I suspect, would be as headline grabbing.

The notion of the importance of line managers having accountability and capability is an important one and their quality has a huge impact on people's experience of work, but that is only one essential part of the performance, productivity and culture puzzle. Helping to increase manager capability and accountability should be one of the key roles of an HR team - not at odds with having one.

There’s an interesting challenge in reconciling an organisation’s (or CEO’s) desire to not have an ‘HR department’ with the fact that that they still have an obvious need for what members of the profession can provide. HR is an umbrella term used for a range of disciplines and it’s difficult to see which of those disciplines' organisations would really want to be without. It, perhaps, feels progressive and disruptive to say that you have reimagined your organisation. However, the awkward fact remains that your people still need to get hired, supported, paid and developed brilliantly (and those things all need to happen legally). Investing in a team of people who have expertise in those areas and dedicate time to those things is good business sense. There are some acknowledged high profile and salutary examples in recent times (notably Uber, but a longer list is easy to produce) about the pitfalls of underestimating the value of HR and People Development and overestimating the ability of a system to correct itself. Indeed, a report into the Uber culture issue specifically called out an underinvestment in HR and a need for more resource.  

Over recent years the profession has made strides, with work still to do, on showing its value to organisations. To move from reputation of policing and controlling to one of enabling. As with any profession there are examples of poorer practice, but for some reason when someone comes into contact with a poor accountant, they don’t start questioning the validity of the entire finance department. Equally we know that people can take issue with the term ‘human resources’ but again, don’t pretend to throw the function out simply because the name doesn’t fit your company ethos. The value is in the impact, not in the name 

The need for HR and quality HR professionals has never been clearer than in the past year of the pandemic. Over the last year HR’s influence has been seen across range of key areas: supporting and understanding rapid change in organisations, keeping organisations legal and safe and helping develop people and new working practices. Massive changes have been seen at pace and at scale. These things require expertise, depth of understanding and there is an excellent argument therefore for dedicated resource.  

Organisations and the people within them need and deserve excellent HR teams. Whether the issues confronting an organisation are around wellbeing, harassment, inequality, growing talent or complex legal changes there are HR professionals who are driving and supporting change and improvement. Where that isn’t happening, it seems unlikely that the solution lies in simply devolving work to time pressured line managers. That may work in some scenarios – it’s important to think about structure flexibly and be open to evolution – but, more often than not, the organisations that undervalue HR also undervalue what good HR professionals can deliver based on outmoded stereotypes. And that’s to the detriment of the organisation and the people within it.  

Perhaps the question isn’t ‘do you need a HR team’ but instead, how can you find better ways to support and value your current one to have the impact you want? 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.