HR Roundtable: What if HR Ruled the Business World?

The May HR Roundtable in Cincinnati started with a vast amount of silence, which is never the norm when you come to a Roundtable!

The reason for the stark contrast was the controversial topic for May: “What if HR Ruled the Business World ?” When Steve opened the session with this question, you could hear crickets.

It was very telling because people aren’t quite sure what to do with this question. So to get SOME discussion going, the group tackled the following for starters:

  1. What would business look like if HR ran it?
  2. Why can’t HR run a business?
  3. What needs to change for HR to truly lead?

Once everyone had some follow-up questions to work with, the discussion began in earnest. It became almost heated at times because people definitely had distinct opinions about this topic. The feedback was phenomenal, so take a look …

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What would business look like if HR ran it?

  • Efficient. This was quite a staggering answer to start the whole feedback loop. However, it also speaks to the school of thought that HR as administrators can make things hum efficiently if need be. Interestingly enough it was also was challenged with some of the group not agreeing that HR is in the least bit efficient. The stage was set for the answers to come.
  • Talent-centric. How cool is it that we’ve created a new word? It was also very encouraging that companies, run by HR, could see folks as their true “talent.” This may be a bit Utopian, but it is very cool if you think about it. It sure sounds better than the tired “people are our best asset” line!
  • Much more compliant. Again, a stereotype, but not a bad one. It’s not a bad thing to be compliant. If it is imbalanced, like it would be with other factors in an organization, then it can be a detriment and seem like a police state. Great compliance communicates that cultures are consistent, and that is an advantage.
  • Risk averse. Dang it! This one stings every time it comes up, but only because it’s true. HR has become risk averse much more than is healthy. Being conservative has its advantages, but balance mixed with risks is much more fun.
  • Moral compass – set norms. Now before everyone jumps up on soapboxes to fight over what is “moral” and what isn’t, look at this response a little more closely. It’s a broad way to state that HR could help define the culture of a place, and it should. People work well when there is clarity along with their norms. This isn’t something to get ooky about.
  • Manage to the outliers. Ouch again, because it is deserved. HR tends to set policy, procedures, etc. to the exception versus the mass. This is something that has to change in the profession regardless of HR running the business or not because no system works well if you try to lead from the edges.
  • FUN! Steve made sure to add this and it pained him that no one had thought of it. Isn’t it also telling that we see “fun” as a four-letter word, or in HR-speak a 10-letter word  — engagement! Please don’t take this point lightly. If employees don’t enjoy their work, their environment, and feel they’re making a contribution, do you think that you’re having “fun?”

Why can’t HR run a business?

Okay HR folks, before you read this section understand the power in reflections. If we don’t take the time to reflect on how others see us, how can we honestly change and improve? These aren’t negative, but they are realistic viewpoints.

  • They’re not well-rounded. Granted, most HR folks aren’t well rounded. Many companies don’t expect them to be and HR people fall trap to the idea that comfort is good vs. asking if things should be different. HR has a real opportunity to expand here and they should jump on it.
  • HR themselves. I can’t agree with this more! HR gets in its own way when it comes to confidence and exhibited leadership. It is one of the most self-deprecating fields ever. People apologize for being in HR. Who else does that? Seriously, name some because this has to stop.
  • A lack of in-depth business knowledge. This is somewhat true, but it also gets old and tired. It’s an easy, low-hanging fruit answer by non-HR people. The way to combat this is to practice business first and HR second – which is who we should be anyway.
  • HR is a contact sport and we don’t like conflict. When did HR get the “warm and fuzzy” moniker? Truly, great HR is a contact/conflict field on a regular basis because you’re dealing with people. It may seem simplistic, but it’s so true. HR needs to feel comfortable practicing HR in the midst of conflict and not in spite of it.
  • CEO has to want this. Very true. This is where senior management buy-in is factual. Without the CEO valuing HR and wanting them to also be a senior player, it won’t happen. It just won’t.
  • Leadership vs. Management. Like it or not, this is true as well. HR people now spend 90 percent managing and 10 percent leading (if that). We’re more comfortable managing and people have come to expect it. The only way this can change is sustained and consistent action.

What needs to change for HR to truly lead?

  • Make the decision to do it. It’s time for ambiguity to disappear in HR. Leadership demands it and without being decisive, you can’t lead. It doesn’t mean that HR forsakes the ability to consider all sides of an issue. It just means that HR needs to move forward versus churning over things forever.
  • BE in the big picture. Don’t talk about the “big picture” as if it’s this mythical land far, far away. Jump into the midst of the big picture issues at your company and don’t let them think that they can even address these unless an HR presence is there. If you are in the midst of this, you’re being included as a true business presence.
  • Own the corporate culture. We’ve covered this in the past, but it always is worth saying. The culture should be a strength of great HR and it should be broad in scope – not a mix of feel-good social events. Culture is what keeps people at your company, or makes them leave. Own this.
  • Be talent-centric and get rid of the Grateful Dead! Now, you know I don’t mean the classic rock group. You can’t ever get enough Dead! But, I digress. This cool word had to come back into the conversation because it is such a much healthier approach than most HR functions look at Team Member. Also, the folks that shouldn’t stay in your culture – sit with them, let them know the parameters and expectations, and then allow them to perform. If they can’t, it’s time for them to move on.
  • Be consistent, visible and available. This shouldn’t even have to be said. However, it is because, more often than not, these three factors are true stumbling blocks for HR. They should be the benchmarks of how to practice great HR in all companies.

Steve was thankful that the silence quickly dissipated. The HR Roundtable is much more fun when the dialogue is flying fast and furious. Hopefully, people will take this and look at HR in a different light.

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



2 Comments on “HR Roundtable: What if HR Ruled the Business World?

  1. I don’t think HR people are the best qualified to pass comment on how to run a business.

    This same question would have been more informative if it had been put to a round table of business leaders. 

  2. I notice that you didn’t mention one particular item that needs to be in place for HR to lead – finance. The 4 areas offered are nice and necessary but they’re not what “Wall Street” wants to see. The Street wants “battlefield” decisions, initiatives that move the stock price, cultures that can change as necessary, “quick” elimination of non-essential “human” resources (AKA rationalization), and leaders who know great business.

    When leaders are groomed, how much time are they placed in HR versus finance versus operations? The answer is telling.

    Great thought provoking post Steve!

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