Just in Case You Were Wondering, Here’s Why HR Exists

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HR gets a bad rap for being too administrative and too pro-employee.

That’s a legitimate complaint, but I wonder: What the hell did you expect?

The history of Human Resources

The entire HR function exists because employees were tough to manage. Unions were busy. Pesky women and minorities wanted equal protection under the law.

And then employees found lawyers. Shifty ones. Victims of discrimination, retaliation, sexism, racism, unethical behavior and safety violations finally had an advocate.

Look at the legislation that forms the underpinning of HR: The New Deal. The Fair Labor Standards Act. The Norris-LaGuardia Act. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

HR exists as a middle-ground to make sure everyone gets paid, supervisors don’t discriminate against people of color, and that nobody dies on the factory floor.

Everything else has been invented on the fly.

Is this notion of HR outdated?

You tell me.

Wait, you do tell me.

Wherever I go, people tell me that HR should evolve into “Human Capital” where it can mitigate risks, contain costs, maximize worker productivity and educate both leaders and workers on how to contribute to the bottom line.

I think that sounds swell … but let’s not forget that, left unchecked, some businesses would ask employees to pay them for the privilege of work. Companies still sit back and abuse workers, hoard profits, and employ young children with tiny hands in foreign countries.

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That’s not hyperbole. That is history.

So I get it. Human Resources is an administrative component of an organization that nobody likes. You can (and maybe should) outsource and automate almost all of HR.

And shareholders and employees don’t need HR to hold managers accountable. Modern companies have evolved and treat workers like equal partners.

But wait. Is that true? I’m thinking about Texas, the mortgage industry and the whole entire banking crisis. Shouldn’t we reinforce the HR trenches instead of trying to soften our “HR Business Partners” into a team of weak consultants?

What do you think?

And if it’s not HR, then who guards the guardians of capitalism?

You can find more from Laurie Ruettimann at her blog, The Cynical Girlwhere this originally appeared.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


3 Comments on “Just in Case You Were Wondering, Here’s Why HR Exists

  1. Well according to some politicians — capitalism doesn’t need to be guarded. It should be left to run free and unfettered. As for Texas . . . on second thought let’s talk about something pleasant.

  2. HR today has an important role to help create and reinforce a culture around the core values of the organization with the expectation that conducting business and personal interactions must reflect those values. IF HR must function primarily as the “compliance police,” the company needs more help than HR can provide.

  3. I like the provocation in your article, Laurie. Counter-argument. Who do you think is more successful historically and non-cynically speaking: the crusader or the educator?

    If we dig ourselves into trenches and create an us-vs-them scenario, that’s what we’ll get. Sure there are plenty of ruthless organisations out there, but why not structure ourselves for the best of worlds, while having a backup plan for the worst of ’em, too. That way we can at least say we “went down fighting on the right beach”.

    Unfortunately I see what you outline in my practise daily. HR leaders and practitioners are usually confronted with the fringes of organisational citizens. We get called when sh*** hits the fan. Where the heck are we supposed to get our optimism and belief in people from. However, if not us as “the” people function – who else?? I think it’s our responsibility to live up to a better vision.

    As an HR leader I already managed to change a couple of C-Level mindsets about how business ought to be run, and whether people are just resources in a spreadsheet or the lifeblood of our planet. However it took a very novel approach to position HR as an enabler of people centric entrepreneurship. In the games industry we called this the Way of Resourceful Humans. In essence it took the real-life lessons of the pioneer of viable and sustained democratic entrepreneurship: SEMCO. There Ricardo Semler and his head of HR Clovis Bojikian transformed a heavily unionised enterprise into a democratic role model, envied the world over for its adaptability. Why? Because workers there are true entrepreneurs, not just some HBR article soft-washed version of it. Clovis and his team, like I am mine, saw ourselves as servants of an idea – that of Democracy, responsible adults and sustainable Entrepreneurship. At the end of this process lay no virtually no HR. Small teams, self-governance, a high degree of automation, etc.

    Utopia? Maybe for some – but isn’t democratic Entrepreneurship by Resourceful Humans a more ambitious vision to strive towards than “eternal HR war in the trenches”?

    Thank you for your article!

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