Why Do We Seem to Hate All the Things That Make HR Great?

There’s a disturbing trend I’m seeing in the HR profession.

Call me dramatic, but I think HR has a self-hate problem.

What do I mean? Well, think about this question — “Why aren’t more HR people getting degrees in finance?

Or, consider these statements —

  • “I’m a business person, not an ‘employee advocate.’ If it makes sense for the business, I’m an advocate for it. Period.”
  • If you ‘like people,’ then HR’s not the job for you. Go work for a union instead.”


Why do HR pros want to be seen business people?

Do you know what I like about HR pros? They’re smart, but they’re not merely dollars and cents smart. They’re people smart.

They understand human motivation. They understand cause and effect. They can anticipate people problems, and they’re motivated to help solve them.

In so doing, they use their unique skills, talents, and gifts for trust building, empathy, and analysis as well as their hard-core knowledge of employment law, management theory, and best business practices to bring something to the business that very few other sectors could even dream about bringing.

And somehow, that’s not good enough for us.

Instead, we want to be seen as “business people.” And while that’s not bad in and of itself, we’ve somehow got it into our heads that a “good business person” is the one who removes, and might even disparage, the human element in commerce.


A “business” decision that was the Ford Pinto scandal

Remember the Ford Pinto scandal? Well, here’s a brief recap.

When the Pinto was released in 1971, Ford knew it had a design defect. If the vehicle’s low rear end was impacted, the gas tank would explode.

Now surely if the gas tank exploded, human life would be lost. So why did Ford release the Pinto knowing it had this defect?

Well, Ford’s “business people” had decided that the likelihood of the Pinto’s rear end being hit dead on was so insignificant that a better “business” proposition would be paying out on any wrongful death lawsuits instead.

But hey, these business people were only doing their jobs, right? They were looking out for the interests of the business. The numbers said “do this not that,” and so they did this and not that.

Yeah, these are the guys I want to emulate.

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An approach that’s not getting much respect

Listen up: Brilliant business minds are a joy to behold.

But brilliant business minds aren’t the exclusive bailiwick of those who went to business school, and it’s downright crazy to believe that to be a “good business person” you’re restricted to always caring more about profits than people.

And make no mistake — we are NOT getting respect with this approach. We’re not getting it from the finance guys or the sales guys or the marketers. And we’re damn sure not getting it from the line staff.

So why are we doing it?

It reminds me of the 1980s, when “business” women came to work in boxy, shapeless jackets and neckties, hoping to look like “one of the guys.”

Stop hating what makes HR great

And then years later come to find out — What are the business manuals saying? Wait for it. Wait a bit longer — Oh yeah, “girly” soft skills like emotional intelligence, active listening, and empathy are actually quite good for the workplace. They positively impact the bottom line, even.t

Imagine that. So, stop hating, HR.

If you want your MBA, great! Want to learn to read a financial statement? I’m all for it. Want to learn about your company’s products, marketing strategies, customers, and competition? Now you’re talking!

But, stop hating on what makes the best HR folks truly great. Take that energy and convince your CFO that she’s got something, sure, but so do you — and it’s unique and it’s valuable and it’ll keep the business healthy and prosperous.

Damn. When did an interest in humanity become so unpopular?

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.


20 Comments on “Why Do We Seem to Hate All the Things That Make HR Great?

  1. Great article Crystal. I am an HR professional passionate about creating work environments that empowers employees to be part of the decisions through collaboration and inclusion and I genuinely care about the employees I service. At times, I’ve been told that the employees like me too much and they shouldn’t like HR so much – why? Isn’t it my goal to serve my clients…..Yes! and my clients are the employees. Period. Well said and thank you for recognizing that we can balance the needs of the organization with the wants of the employees and be successful doing it!

    1. You’re very welcome, Rachel, and I applaud your passion! HR needs leaders with passion for profits AND people.

  2. I love the passion in your article and much of what you say.BUT why can’t HR people be good business people and have an interest in ‘the people side of the business’ I agree they must be the advocates of the people who, at the end of the day make the business happen. Surely there is enough research on the subject now to know that. If HR are not being ‘business people’ it is because they are shy about using their expertise and presenting it front and center. HR is not common sense. it is a profession that has a unique perspective and needs to start using it.

    1. Hi Jan, and thanks for weighing in. I hear your question, and I think you’ve identified a larger underlying issue–why is it that too often “good business” is seen as whatever maximizes profits, period? And so, you’ll hear people say stuff like, “The purpose of business is to make money, and if we don’t make money then everybody loses” as though making money and treating people humanly is inherently mutually exclusive. But is it, truly? Or are we just too darn lazy (or greedy) to consider an alternative?

  3. Love the passion and the spirit of what you’re saying. I do have to disagree in one area though , ( probably because I have HR and an MBA 🙂 ) I think keeping treating people humanly and making profits are not mutually exclusive. I think it is the separation of the two, that results in a contextual miss, and leads to dehumanizing the business.

    1. First, congratulations with your bad self! Second, I don’t think treating people well and making money is mutually exclusive. I agree with you. What frustrates me is that somany people with authority disagree with us. They may SAY they agree, but when it comes down to it, don’t behave that way.

  4. You make a very good argument for one side of the picture, and there are equally good arguments for the business side. To me, that is what makes HR one of the most complex disciplines in the working world; we have to balance both. I don’t buy the “exclusively business” perspective, but any HR person who approaches the discipline without a solid grounding in the business will have a great deal of trouble being credible in the business world.

    1. Hi Carol. I couldn’t agree more that HR is one of the most complex disciples in the working world, and it’s often a thankless job. And I don’t even so much care about THAT, except some of us I fear, are looking for love in all the wrong places. We should be proud of the skill, knowledge, and TALENT it takes to do this job well instead of cloaking ourselves in some other industry’s jacket. We can be business minded from out strengths. (And if you are an accountant and an HR pro–I know one or two–fine, I will embrace you as a sibling;)) But my point is, if you AREN’T, don’t make anyone think you should be to qualify as “business minded.”

  5. Very well said, Crystal – I believe the culture of an organization has almost as much to do with success as the business decisions. The only thing that makes one company different from another, if they are in the same industry, is their PEOPLE. So why wouldn’t you leverage the human capital that could have a positive impact on the bottom line? Far too much money is spend in recruiter fees for people who don’t stay long. I believe the cultural aspect needs to be looked at by the c-suite.

    1. Yes Jan, culture is VERY important. I love talking about company culture! And as to your question about “levering human capital”–(by the way, I don’t like the term human capital, but I’m going to give you some slack ’cause you’re being nice to me)–I say, YES, why not indeed??

  6. Crystal…what a great article! While yes…being business savvy is important, especially in a HR role, but without the people focus, what impact does an HR pro really have on employees? How can they create engaging environments or initiatives that affect their organizations bottom line? I’ve been reading so much about how HR needs to become more strategic and blah blah blah…how about we get back to basics and focus on our people instead! Thank you for posting this! – Ernie

    1. Thanks Ernie, and you’re welcome. I will say, however, that I don’t mind the word “strategic,” even though it’s a bit overused. Strategic to me simply means purposeful action intended to bring about a certain desired outcome. Nothing wrong with that!

  7. All due respect, but I think the article misses the point of thinking more like business people. Allow me to explain.

    First HR leaders are business leaders and have a fiduciary responsibility to help the business be competitive over the long term. How people are managed is a huge part of the profitability equation, which is why we all have jobs, but our practices need to be profitable. Period.

    Second, thinking more like a business person does not mean doing the job of finance or marketing, but it does mean speaking their language. I think too many times we loose credibility with the business by speaking anecdotally when we could back up our policies with hard data.

    Finally, using hard data and profitability analysis does not equate to managing from the spreadsheet. The pinto case was a great example of the dangers of doing so, but any good business leader would not make decisions based on the numbers alone, but the numbers help inform the decision.

    I still believe that if we all thought and spoke more like business leaders, we would have a lot more credibility to go do the things that we love doing in HR.

    1. “Thinking more like a business person does not mean doing the job of finance or marketing, but it does mean speaking their language. I think too many times we lose credibility with the business by speaking anecdotally when we could back up our policies with hard data.”

      Fair enough, Josh. But how reliable are our metrics, exactly? This article https://staging.ere.net/2012/04/16/what’s-wrong-with-hr-metrics-pretty-much-everything/ asserts not very reliable at all. We can do better, and we can also speak common sense about what’s NOT quantifiable, instead of being intimidated into producing gobbledygook when folks should know better. For example, what is the “cost” of a corporate bully? Can we crunch some numbers? Sure. But come on.

      That said, I really don’t disagree with you; at least in principle. However, I’m not as confident as you about the solution to ending our credibility issue. Sorry.

      1. Crystal, I think you’re right, I think for the most part we agree. However, let me clarify a few things. First, I’m not advocating metrics for their own sake, but as the article you shared explains, our current metrics are bad because they aren’t aligned with business needs–they aren’t strategic, they aren’t forward looking, and they don’t show impact in dollars. To fix this requires thinking more like business people.

        I think in the profession there is this huge push to try to be understood, but if we really are the professionals who understand people, we should know that we should first try to understand. The thing that drives me crazy is that other business professionals paint caricatures of HR that depicts us as loveydovey-kumbaya-know-nothings, and then we turn around and depict the rest of the business as can’t-think-beyond-the-spreadsheet selfish greedy pigs. Neither caricature is true. As those who understand people, shouldn’t we know that you can’t fix a relationship by changing the other person? As those who understand people, shouldn’t we be the ones to try to understand the needs of the other?

        1. Hello again, Josh!

          You’re right. I think we do agree more than not, so let’s move on a bit and focus on these really interesting questions you asked–

          “As those who understand people, shouldn’t we know that you can’t fix a relationship by changing the other person? As those who understand people, shouldn’t we be the ones to try to understand the needs of the other?”

          My response would be yes and yes, but is that what we’re doing? I see it the other way around–we’re the ones being told that what we offer isn’t good enough and it needs to change–despite all evidence to the contrary. As I once told a former boss, “Look, if I weren’t being included but the decisions were sound, I’d shut up. But the decisions AREN’T sound. X decision caused X, Y, Z problem.” (No doubt this is why he’s a former boss, lol.)

          Anyhoo … my goal is to inspire HR folks to stop swallowing the bull that our unique brand of talents isn’t valuable. It is. Our skills complement those found elsewhere in the organization. We shouldn’t try and replicate another profession’s skills, especially from a defensive stance. It’s not helping our profession OR our businesses.

  8. We often hear or read about HR’s “seat at the table” and maybe those who are negative to the HR field in general may see HR as a limiting factor on the road to obtaining that coveted seat. There can be a balance between looking out for what is best for the business and what is best for the employees. I think, if focused on fairness of both, the HR Pro can show how vital they can be to the business – and gain that coveted seat.

    It is all about the person and the situation in the end, in my opinion.

    Enjoyed the article. Thanks.

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