SHRM Debate: Does HR Really Have Much to Do With SHRM?

Former GE CEO Jack Welch, a man who appreciated HR. From the HR blog at TLNT.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch, a man who appreciated HR. From the HR blog at TLNT.

Editor’s note: Sometimes, readers ask about past TLNT articles that they have heard about but may have missed. That’s why every Friday we’re republishing a Classic TLNT post that some of you have requested.

Sometimes, you stumble on to great information in some very unexpected places.

That’s how it was this week for me at the annual KronosWorks conference in Las Vegas. Now, there is always good solid content at KronosWorks, which is the annual user conference for HR technology maker Kronos, but with the exception of the keynote speaker (and this year it was the very entertaining economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich), most of the content is focused around using Kronos technology.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, because that is what a user conference is all about. And that’s why I was so surprised by a session at KronosWorks that was put on by Lee Webster, the Director of HR Standards for the Society for Human Resource Management. His topic? Oh, only something minor. It was on The Future of HR: What’s Next for the Profession?

“HR matters in good times … (and) defines you in the bad”

Yes, that’s a pretty meaty topic for a breakout session at a user conference for an HR technology vendor. And, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Kronos or any of their products.

Plus, Webster was an entertaining and insightful speaker who had a lot to say. He even led off his talk with this classic Jack Welch quote:

Three years ago… a significant minority pooh-poohed HR as irrelevant to the ‘real work’ of business. Given the state of things, we wonder how those same HR-minimalists feel now. If their company is in crisis – or their own career – perhaps at last they’ve seen the light. HR matters enormously in good times. It defines you in the bad.”

Some say Jack Welch’s time has come and is now long gone, but how can you not get into a speaker who kicks off a presentation by quoting someone who actually had something positive to say about HR?

I don’t want to recap every part of Lee Webster’s presentation here, but it was focused on the current issues HR professionals are facing as organization’s struggle to recover after the Great Recession — and most importantly — how SHRM can help. It’s a very timely topic and Webster gave a great talk, but it got me to wondering: Why doesn’t SHRM do more of this?

Webster brought along copies of a new SHRM study titled The Post-Recession Workplace — Competitive Strategies for Recovery and Beyond. It’s timely and engaging, but good luck finding it on the SHRM website. You would think there would be a link to it on the home page given the immense interest in this topic, but you have to hunt around for it and then can only get to it if you are a member because it is only available to SHRM’s paying membership.

The good and bad sides of SHRM

The two sides of SHRM are clearly visible here. The good side is having a smart SHRM director like Lee Webster on the road speaking directly to HR pros about issues near and dear to them — even if it was at a function like KronosWorks that really wasn’t open to the general HR public. Webster clearly wanted those who heard him know that SHRM wants to help, and the effort put into this survey and analysis of the data clearly  shows the muscle that the world’s largest HR organization can bring to a topic they decide to dig into.

But this also shows the downside of SHRM: locking the very survey that could help so many HR people off behind a membership wall, and then failing to make it easy for anyone to find. If I ran SHRM, I would demand that timely and highly useful studies like this were touted on the home page of for many months, and I would make them available to all comers, SHRM members or not.

SHRM has been on my mind recently and not only because of Lee Webster’s presentation. There has also been a debate about SHRM going on over at the Voice of HR blog. It’s a web series called 2011 Strategic Advice for SHRM. Now, I know a lot of the people writing the blog posts there about SHRM, and honestly, except for a few notable exceptions I have been underwhelmed about what they are saying because it seems to be just more of the same old SHRM debate. Take a look and see what you think.

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There are a lot of good people at SHRM, and I know this because I have met a number of them. They work very hard, but SHRM is a a giant bureaucracy, and frankly, the real engagement with SHRM is happening at the state and local level. Whether it be Steve Browne and the great work he does with SHRM in Cincinnati and Ohio, or all the hardworking HR pros in the Sunshine State who put on Florida’s state SHRM conference, SHRM matters most, and works best, when people are involved — and they really aren’t all that involved at the national level.

“The fish rots from the head”

National SHRM is a huge and hard-to-deal-with organization, and the lack of transparency from the SHRM Board of Directors recently in secretly voting themselves raises – I wrote about it here at TLNT — proves that the old saying is still true: “the fish rots from the head.”

The SHRM Board seems to not want to tell anyone much of what they are doing, and from what I hear, there will be a day of reckoning for that sometime very soon. That’s what happens when the leaders of an organization won’t stand in public behind the actions they take in private. The SHRM Board is perfectly happy to drop a dues increase on the membership, but they refuse to be as open and honest about how they went about increasing their own perks and pay.

That’s why the debate over at Voice of HR, although somewhat interesting, is ultimately pointless. SHRM works at the local and state level, where it matters to members, and the organization is growing increasingly irrelevant and out-of-touch at the national level, where the Board of Directors seem to be both tone deaf and focused on all the wrong things.

Is SHRM really about HR?

That’s what I would add to the Voice of HR debate, and it is pretty much what I used to write all the time over at Workforce (and I apologize that this may be behind a registration wall):

I’ve frequently been critical of SHRM in past years … It always seemed to me that the organization was more focused on increasing revenue than really doing much for HR professionals, and the fixation on high-profile, low-value activities such as spending big bucks with an ad campaign branding SHRM during the presidential debates last year is a perfect example of this.”

So I continue to wonder: Is SHRM really about HR anymore? And does HR really have much of anything to do with SHRM, at least at the national level?

I keep asking myself those questions and struggle to find answers. And it’s why I wish that those questions were being debated, analyzed, and argued over at Voice of HR. It might be a more fruitful discussion for everyone.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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