Here’s Why We No Longer Need Articles About No Longer Needing HR

Yesterday I read an article titled Why We No Longer Need HR Departments, and apparently I wasn’t the only one sucked in by the catchy title.

The article garnered more than 3,000 comments, and I surely didn’t read them all, but I read enough to be able to declare here that many readers, like myself, don’t think the author said much of anything.

Here’s the gist of what he said: HR is a stupid name. HR can’t effectively serve two masters. Basic HR functions can be outsourced.

Blah Blah Blah.

Here’s why we really do need HR

And it occurred to me, after I’d read the post of course, that I’m tired of these types of articles. They’re all much ado about nothing. Detractors of HR can pontificate all day long about the uselessness of the function, but at the end of the day, someone has to do what needs doing.

As long as companies are filled with people and not robots, someone has to pay the people and someone has to deal with all the things that happen when people with various motivations, agendas, and needs get together and are expected to work together toward a common goal.

And, we will need that as long as we have a government that tells companies what they can, can’t, and must do — or else someone else has to see that companies do all of it (or don’t).

So go ahead and keep talking about who needs HR, and you’ll see who does.

A $47 million testimonial for HR

Here’s a true story: After about 10 years working as an editor, I’d decided that I wanted to do something different. I’d always been intrigued with workplace dynamics and interested in employment law, and by chance, I got the opportunity to become involved in some employee relations issue at my current job.

Silly me; I got hooked and was all psyched up about my new-found workplace insights, so I began sharing information with the company president. But (surprise!) he really didn’t care what I thought. I complained to my mother about how dismissive the president was of the information I’d brought him, and she said, “Crystal, no one wants to hear what you think about running that company. Those people pay you to edit their books, not give them advice about the business.

She was right, of course. And so I said to myself, “Fine. I’ll find a way to make them pay me to give them advice.” And I did. But when I told certain family members about the career change, I got crazy stares. My brother-in-law, a sales manager, was particularly critical. He said:

Why in the world would you want to do that? HR is a bunch of crap. HR people are wanna-be lawyers who can’t even do their own jobs right. They always send us the worst people to hire and think they should get in everyone’s business as ‘the conscious of the company.’ You were on the revenue-generating side of the business, and you should have stayed there. At my company, we got rid of our entire HR department. We’re outsourcing everything, and things have never been better.”

You don’t say?

Not quite a year later, his company shelled out $47 million to settle charges of gender discrimination and was ordered by the court to create an HR department and hire and appointment a Vice President of Human Resources who would report directly to the CEO or the president. I won’t mention the company’s name, but I’ve given you enough information to look it up.

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(Of course, I taunted my in-law at the next family reunion; he gave me a poker face and insisted that the company had “won” that case. Whatever dude.)

When humans get together, sh** happens

So here’s my point: I don’t care what you call it — Personnel, HR, Human Capital Management, Talent Management, People R Us, whatever. Someone has to do the work. And it can’t all be farmed out, no matter how hard you try.

You can hire a consultant (and remember, I am a consultant, so I’m not criticizing that choice, believe me), but if you’ve got real problems that consultant is going to be all over you like white on rice, baby — and not operating in a distant land far, far away — if you want those problems solved.

Technology is great. Technology rocks. But technology can’t change the nature of human beings.

And when human beings get together (even virtually) shit happens — and someone trained to manage it has to manage it, period.

That is, unless you want to get what my brother-in-law’s company got. And I’m not just talking about lawsuits. I’m talking about unproductive conflict, lost talent opportunities, wasted time and money, bad blood, and bad publicity.

Not that they didn’t deserve it.

Who doesn’t need HR? Pulease.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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23 Comments on “Here’s Why We No Longer Need Articles About No Longer Needing HR

  1. I think you are wrong, you might be able to get rid of HR if:
    -Employees knew how to treat one another. I am constantly astounded by people’s (and when I say people, I mean everyone from a company owner down to a part time janitor) in ability to interact and communicate with one another with a sense of respect and dignity. I sense that if this was not the case, there wouldn’t be so many articles on the internet about understanding how to manage workplace conflict.
    – Companies and their surrogates didn’t routinely violate laws – Gender discrimination, Age based discrimination….shall i continue.
    – A company can onboard new employees with zero friction

    So, ya if we can pull off the above, sure, we can get rid of HR departments.

  2. A point of clarity…Every company needs HR functions (i.e., screening, administration, compliance, and so forth); but, more importantly, they need people with skills to perform them competently. That’s the rub.
    For example, I once met a pompous HR VP who completely rejected a professional approach to screening their utility line inspectors (i.e., job analysis, validated tests, and so forth). Her foolishness resulted in millions lost in training and huge liabilities.
    Any external company who can show they do HR better and cheaper will own the marketplace.

    1. Hi Dr. Williams. Oh, for certain, a lousy HR department does more harm than good.

      Still waiting for that company …

  3. Ok, please stop. We are the only function who actually waste our time going back and forth worrying about sh*t like this. Not sure if the world of Finance and Marketing do the same. The fact that so much is stated with or without facts, defended or supported is a clear measure of the unique challenges the HR and talent world continually finds itself in the middle of. Yes we could be outsourced in some cases. So what? Running a unique company requires unique ways to compete and organize. Defending our honor is unnecessary. Responding to the latest “influencer” pov (who are far from it) is not worth the effort. Really. Do great work, influence and be authentic to what you do. The rest is noise.

    1. Steve, I agree. I’d be happy if my article were the last word ever spoken on this topic. Seriously … that’d be kind of cool.

  4. Ahh, the perennial debate about the worth of HR continues. I’m not advocating this, but in fact a smaller company can function without an HR department. But not for long, because at some point in the companies lifecycle the demands of the function will require it’s establishment.

    There are probably as many views of, and opinions about, HR, as there are stars in the sky. It mostly depends upon your experience: those who’ve had a good experience generally support the function, while those experiencing bad HR go the other way. How well one understands the function will also influence where it sits on the horrible/wonderful continuum.

    It’s a complex function quite mysterious to many folks. Other functions, like Finance and Marketing, have complex and mysterious components, but people intuitively understand their functional importance, Thus, those other staff functions don’t provoke the kind of vigorous debate as that surrounding HR.

    To the extent that this debate provides clarity, to practitioners and non-practitioners alike, it’s worth pursuing. Those who simply want to bash the function or blindly defend it should find something else to do.

    1. John, I agree with all your points. And I don’t know why the function is so mysterious, but clearly it is.

      And so the debate rages.

      1. I think the mystery is a function of the HR stereotype and, in many HR departments, created by design. If people don’t know what you do, then you can do anything, or nothing, and get away with it. If you don’t know what to do, which is also the case in many HR departments, then most of your time is spent reacting to what’s presented, regardless of its value. In either case the connection to the business is unclear, so people default to some conspiracy theory to entertain themselves.

  5. We don’t need these articles when I’ve already written them. Yeezus. Like this guy invented the book on HR, data and analytics.

    (Yes … I know … I didn’t invent the book, either.)

    1. Hey Laurie! Ha ha. And I’m sure what you wrote was so much more entertaining, too! (Even if not completely original:)) Bah! Who’s an original anymore?

  6. They all miss the point that as with most things organizational – it’s a leadership issue. Being an HR executive and consultant for many years, I am continually
    surprised with how little many senior leaders know about the HR function. Partially this is because they never worked in the area and despite all the talk about people being their most valuable asset, most leaders spend considerably more time on sales, marketing and finance than in understanding how people drive their operation. As a result, these executives are not sure what to ask for or expect out of their HR function. Instead of requesting quantitative and qualitative data on what motivates their particular workforce or proof that the performance management system reinforces and rewards contributions to corporate objectives they settle for transactional information. What is the time to hire? What is the turnover rate? How much is the merit pool costing? Are benefits expenses higher or lower than
    last year?

    Transformation in the HR function can only occur when organizational leaders expect something different. Executives must make understanding and
    aligning their human capital a leadership priority equal to sales, finance and
    production. They need to get serious about discovering the unique keys to the performance of their people. Bonus programs and recognition events are
    useful, but they are no substitute for engaging people deeply in the mission of
    the organization. Policies and procedures may be necessary, but you can never write enough of them to replace a set of shared core values. In fact, the
    leadership group could consider the head of HR the Chief Values Officer. They should expect her to know the demographics and the psychometrics of each business unit. They should demand she have a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each manager. They must rely on her clear vision of the personal and professional characteristics needed to fill key positions. And most importantly, they must entrust her to bring this unique expertise to every discussion of strategy and operations.

    When all these stars are aligned…then maybe the debate about the elimination will fade into history.

    1. “…as with most things organizational – it’s a leadership issue.” Amen.

      And you’re right, change has to come from the top down. HR pros can talk until we’re blue in the face, but our bosses first have to be willing to listen, and THAT won’t happen until they start believing their own messages about the importance of people to organizational success.

  7. Crystal – LOVE the article! You’re right – Sh*t happens when people interact. Greg – I would respectfully add one thing to your comment – I am continually surprised with how little MOST senior leaders know about people – not just the HR function. I think Crystal pretty well nailed it – human resources professionals (and who cares what they are called?) need to play a strategic role in their organizations. Senior leaders who don’t “get” what makes people tick, fail as leaders, and they are likely the same people who see little value in the contributions of leaders and managers who have the skills and ability to connect with employees.

    1. Chris, thank you! Also, I couldn’t agree more that “Senior leaders who don’t ‘get’ what makes people tick, fail as leaders, and they are likely the same people who see little value in the contributions of leaders and managers who have the skills and ability to connect with employees.”

      I’ve seen that firsthand, unfortunately. These are the leaders that believe HR spends too much time talking to people, but then wonder why an initiative is met with resistance or flops completely–not having been able to anticipate (and then develop a plan to manage) likely staff reactions.

    2. Chris – you are correct. There are significant gaps in understanding both the people and the HR function. There is challenge and opportunity for HR here. They need to perform at a high level to meet the technical demands of the function by which their performance is judged. At the same time, HR leaders need to acquire and disseminate extensive data about the drivers of staff performance to achieve corporate objectives. By doing the former, HR maintains credibility. By doing the latter, they can “educate” leadership on the value of the people and the function.

  8. Bottom line every good organization needs a strong HR department. I have been in HR since I was 19. I dealt situations that managers could not have handled alone. We would have had law suits galore. This is all I am saying on the subject.

  9. 95 percent of HR are white women (usually with High School degree who have passed SPHR which is rout to HR Position for them). Half of them have no Idea about Business and integration of HR. There is very few companies that hire HR expertise (hire really qualified individuals) to manage their human capital.

    Most HR is hired to for the following reasons:

    1). Usually the HR lady has a special relationship with one C-Suit/Management. That is how their job was obtained. Yes. This is a management position through connection. Let’s be real
    2). HR Lady job is to coverup for the manager/c-suit that is why HR is there.
    3) In most companies HR Is basically paying a Hight School Grad/someone with nice legs 95K-110K a year

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