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People People or Human Remains?

This week Zelda Zinger investigates the HR department…

Not everybody’s favourite, she thinks. Feared or disdained by staff and denigrated by company directors, you almost might feel sorry for them. OK - maybe there won’t be too much greeting on their behalf.

The cringe-worthy performance of the BBC’s HR director, Lucy Adams (nicknamed “wicked witch” by Beeb staffers) in front of a parliamentary committee has done little to restore the profession’s battered reputation. Thanks to Ms Adams, now everyone thinks HR people are evasive, untrustworthy and maybe even detrimental to the business.

Oh, so she DID see the memo about the £1m payoff to former deputy director Mark Byford, and might have even written it despite telling MPs she had no clue what they were on about.

She also said she could not “honestly recall using the word ‘sweetener’” with regard to pay offs. She then had to back track immediately when MP Stephen Barclay read out an email she had sent using exactly this wording.

It might not be the case that one bad apple has spoiled the bunch. But in the wake of the £320,000 a year HR director’s fall from grace, the profession itself has succumbed to navel gazing.

Helen Giles in a recent issue of HR magazine brings up the age old complaint that the profession lacks credibility and influence, having failed to win its “place at the top table”.

“It has to be admitted,” Giles writes, “that when the same debate goes on not only year after year, but decade after decade, we are not exactly doing ourselves any favours in the image stakes.”

From the employees’ point of view, the HR department hands out training opportunities, perks and bonuses in the good years.

But in the bad years they are distrusted and are seen to be more like the Red Army’s notorious barrier troops standing behind the charge and machine gunning retreating soldiers at Stalingrad.

There is also the question of whether HR is useful to the successful management of an organisation - or is it the department that blocks action up like a fatberg in the sewer?

The Telegraph’s personnel specialist Louisa Peacock sums up management’s “suspicions about HR all along”. In a recent article she wrote:

“It is a pointless department that does little for the bottom line of a business. In the case of unnecessarily huge pay offs at the BBC, HR has actually helped to take away from the bottom line. As well as, let's not forget, failing miserably to uphold the kind of integrity, respect and transparency we could be forgiven to expect from the self-declared ‘people people’”. Nice one.

Sure, the paperwork needs to get done. Someone has to draft job descriptions, employment contracts and organise orientation days for new hires. But the department’s strategic role in business has been called into question.