Opinion: HR departments are often criticised by employees, but do they really deserve this bad rep?

By Lorraine Ryan, Sarah Kieran, Christine Cross and Claire Harnett, University of Limerick

The human resources department (HR) in organisations frequently gets a bad rep. Often portrayed negatively on TV and in films, HR are the bearers of bad news such as job losses and company closures. They make everyone do boring training on the latest policies, and are the one department to whom we are all beholden for our next pay rise or promotion. Any sign of trouble and its 'someone will have to get on to HR'.

Yet, pick up any business article and you'll read that people are an organisation's greatest asset. HR exist to find, develop, retain and nurture this talent so does this match what we experience of HR?

The origins of HR

It is useful to examine the history of human resource management to understand the origins of the ideas that underpin HR and why it can be wrought with tensions and contradictions. The origins of HR lie in the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. The advent of steam power, iron production and new machine-based manufacturing methods led to the development of the factory-system.

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Circumstances in these new factories were dreadful, but there were some enlightened employers who wanted to improve working conditions, often driven by their religious values, as many factory owners were Quakers. In the 1890s, these employers started providing workplace and family amenities such as lunchrooms, medical care and housing, the forerunner of many employee benefits we still see today.

The impetus for others was more pragmatic they recognised the link between the welfare of their employees and their level of production. This 'welfare movement' resulted in the creation of some of the HR practices which are often taken for granted today, such as compliance with health and safety legislation or the provision of benefits like sick pay and pensions. Importantly, however, it established the link between employee welfare and productivity, which is still central to HR practice today.

As this link advanced, the concept of organisational behaviour was developed with the work of researchers such as Elton Mayo in the 1920s. This human relations movement identified the link between employee behaviours such as motivation, and the management practices and culture of the organisation. Modern day HR was taking shape as employers sought to develop methods of creating a climate that motivated employees to be more productive.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, do employers really care about staff mental health issues?

During the 1980s, our understanding of the relationship between employees and HR evolved to position employees as the company’s unique differentiator in the market. If these ‘human’ resources were aligned with the business strategy, then their potential could be ‘unleashed’. Throw in today’s digital age and new insights into occupational psychology and we have the contemporary HR department with all its Talent Acquisition, Career Pathways, Accelerated Learning and so on. The basic HR principles still apply in smaller organisations: provide decent work, appropriate pay, safe and secure terms and conditions, and the opportunity to do your job well.

So where did HR go wrong?

The essential problem is that this relationship between the employer and the employee is interdependent - two parties who both need something from the other. But like many relationships, it is dynamic and complex, influenced by factors such as diverse and conflicting needs. It also occurs in an environment where everyone is not necessarily equal, as the employer typically holds all the power. It is only when both parties are working towards the same goal that co-operation, motivation and productivity are achieved for the benefit of all, a mutual gain.

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From TEDxWilmington, HR professional Mary Schaefer on putting the human back into human resources

Why do so many employees feel that HR is not on their side? In short, it is a challenging role, probably one of the most challenging in the organisation. HR is a management function that needs to meet the needs of the employer. Today’s shareholders are seeking a business profit, yet they know the most sustainable approach to this is through a mutual gain for employees. While all the contemporary HR practices mentioned are designed on the principle of mutual gain, HR have to convince all stakeholders to fully engage - as the practice was designed - and this is where problems arise. That does not always happen.

Does your HR department really deserve its reputation?

If HR are unable to convince shareholders, and the leaders who run the organisation on their behalf, of the merit of good HR practice then they likely deserve the bad press. If HR professionals facilitate leaders who do not espouse the values that underpin the very foundation of the HR profession; employee welfare, human relations and the true alignment of people with business strategy then, again, they likely deserve the bad press.

However, It is worth noting that while HR might not be successful in convincing the shareholders and leaders, it doesn’t always mean they are not trying. This effort is unseen a lot of the time from the shop floor, and all that is seen is the negative perspective set we referred to earlier.

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Unfortunately, it is rarely the shareholders and leaders who lose out given the power relationship in organisations. Typically, it is the employee on the receiving end of poor HR practice. Employees who do not, for example, get to avail of new ways of working because HR have failed to ensure their shareholders and leaders understand the mutual gain inherent in flexible working practices.

Is there a solution?

Firstly, HR should be staffed with expert HR professionals who know what best practice looks like. Secondly, these professionals need to be willing and able to shape shareholder and leader perspectives of the mutual gain in good HR practice – to hold them to account. Thirdly, HR needs to be properly resourced to work with all leaders and managers to ensure the HR practice is aligned with business strategy and implemented as the evidence-based design intended. This means HR need to be both strategic and present, regularly out on the shop floor, engaged with managers and employees on a regular basis and sufficiently resourced to allow this happen.

If you are experiencing bad HR, then maybe it’s because your organisation’s shareholders and leaders do not value or believe in good HR. If you are a HR professional, go find an organisation with shareholders and leaders who do. And if you are an employee, ensure your interests are represented by a trade union

Dr. Lorraine Ryan lectures in Employment Relations & HRM at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr. Sarah Kieran is a Lecturer in Work & Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. She is founder of the KBS WorkFutures Lab & a recipient of Horizon 2020 funding into the Future of Work. Prof Christine Cross lectures in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr. Claire Harnett is a Postdoctoral Researcher and lecturer in HRM and Human Resource Development at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. She is an Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ