‘We must speak truth to power’

By Heather Jameson | 01 April 2020

HR is not sexy. That is the conclusion of a group of HR directors who have gathered for a Penna/The MJ round table. Too often the HR function is seen as process driven and the place where you go to solve a staff issue but, the debaters agree, it could be so much more.

If it is so unsexy, then perhaps it is no surprise that one of our guests admits HR was not their first career choice. Working in a small team without an HR function, it fell to them when they just ‘didn’t duck quickly enough’. And despite starting a new, senior role later in their career and stating at the interview they were ‘more OD than HR’, the first job they were given was to ‘change the terms and conditions’.

Another of our HR professionals states: ‘I fell into HR because I liked talking. I liked people. But when I got into HR it wasn’t about the people.’

All those round the table are keen to work with people, transform services and drive up the performance of the organisations they work for but instead they are often perceived as the ones who write the job spec and come in to sort staff disputes.

They have been hit hard by austerity – and this round table took place before the COVID-19 crisis hit and will leave the public sector changed utterly, along with the rest of society. HR has had to ‘delayer’ its structures. Where there used to be a director of HR, a deputy director, assistant directors and specialists in everything, that has now been pared down to the minimum, an ‘anorexic’ service having an identity crisis, as one guest describes it.

‘Generalists aren’t a bad thing, but who are those coming up now able to learn from? Is that the unintended consequence of delayering?’ we are asked.

That lack of role models is a reoccurring feature. Several around the table cite the same senior HR person – Angela O’Connor, who is not in the room – as the one who had mentored and taught them the most.

One of our guests states: ‘I talk openly about my role models and mentors. I encourage my team to find mentors and I don’t feel anxious that it’s not me.’

But those round the table have things they can offer too. ‘We are the people experts. That’s what I think I can bring to an organisation. I can make it sexy. I can be a role model.’

We hear about the attributes they would like to model, too. ‘Courage, bravery, risk-taking’, and ‘empowerment’.

The HR world strives to be part of the solution, answering the issues that arise for the chief executive, but all too often they are not at the top table and not seen as a trusted partner who can help to steer the organisation. So why are the HR directors not banging on the door, making themselves indispensable and coming up with answers to the problems that their chief executives are facing?

‘If the HR people are pushing themselves into a room, I don’t think anyone would push them out,’ it is suggested. But at least one person round the table has worked in organisations where they would.

And when it comes to organisational development and culture change, some organisations have taken those jobs out of the hands of the HR department and recruited a director of transformation. Should the HR directors be wrestling it back?

The HR professionals feel they should. People management is at the heart of transformation. But we are asked: ‘Is HR associated with transformation and change? Nine times out of 10, not necessarily.’

‘Are we the people the organisation comes to when they are thinking about people?’ one debater asks. ‘I think they come to us when they have a problem. We’ve stripped down so much.’

Another debater asks. ‘My question is to what extent are we up for disruption. Real organisational design has to ask: What is the purpose of the organisation? How do we get there?

While another of our professionals is even more brutal: ‘There has to be a point where the HR people come with something to offer – or get out of the way. We have to be able to command the space – to speak truth to power.’

There is a fear that the profession fails to work at ‘pace and scale’, that they are ‘policy driven’ rather than truly offering the level of disruption needed. And the real question is posed: ‘Who would want to be in HR?’

‘We are our own worst enemies,’ one of our guests suggests. ‘It’s easy to internalise why you can’t be a chief executive from an HR route, but there isn’t a ‘gifted’ route.’

Given the dominance of women in the HR world, there is a question over confidence – is there an ‘imposter syndrome’ at play?

‘There is a huge confidence issue. I can’t see a room full of accountants or monitoring officers saying we are not worthy of being chief execs.’ But that’s not to say they are any more sexy.

Penna/The MJ round table attendees

Leatham Green Executive director, Public Sector People Managers’ Association

Anne McCarthy Former group learning and development director, Royal Mail

Pam Parkes Director of OD and people, Essex CC

Sue Shutter Pro-vice chancellor and director of HR, Regents University

Karen Grave President, Public Sector People Managers’ Association

Althea Loderick Chief executive, Newham LBC

Sarah Murphy-Brookman Director of HR and OD, Buckinghamshire CC

Kerry McCafferty Deputy director people and culture, British Transport Police

Melanie Medley Director of employee experience, Waltham Forest LBC

Ben Plant Director of HR and OD, Onesource

Sue Moorman Director of HR, Croydon LBC

Malcom Willis Director of HR, University of Winchester

Fiona Hnatow Director of HR, St Mary’s University

Liz Hammond Interim head of HR, Merton LBC

Tracy Connage Head of OD, Lambeth LBC

Heather Jameson Editor, The MJ

Kirsty Clarke Consultant – commercial interim and search, Penna

Fiyin Fayeye Senior consultant – higher education and HR executive interim, Penna

Julie Towers Managing director, Penna

Jason Wheatley Lead consultant – HR executive practice, interim and search, Penna

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