Guest Author

For An Untarnished Image

By | Prabhir Jha – Global Chief People Officer – Cipla

Much has been written about the evolution of Human Resources (#HR) as a function.  From its humble origins to being a strategic partner, much ink has been spent.  The decades old theme of “Will HR survive?” is indeed passé.  Whether one agrees or not. HR is here to stay.  And yet, why is there such intense discussion on the credibility of HR.  If it were really that worthless, organizations and leaders would have dumped HR a long time ago.  Ask any business leader and you will get a reconfirmation on the criticality of HR.  As organizations become more people focused and change obsessed, the role of HR is only becoming more central.

The paradox of its growing importance and its perceived credibility (rather the lack of it), however, cannot be wished away.  The issue of credibility building of HR with the line reflects a deep-rooted organizational malaise.  More importantly it is ominous.  Why should the question arise in the first place?  HR exists for the line manager.  Or does it?

Lack of mutual trust and respect

The whole dynamics fundamentally is one of trust and mutual respect.  Many line managers would like to continue looking down on HR as a lowly organizational player, often succumbing to the myopia of being a typical Theory X leader.  HR, conscious of its new confidence and stature similarly looks down on the line managers as troops to be commanded in the mistaken belief that HR is management.  Assumptions get created.  All experiences that support this gestalt get overstated and the relationship is set for disaster.  Mercifully, there are many exceptions to this simple paradigm.

Inadequate business understanding

Of course, lack of mutual trust and respect is chicken and egg conundrum.  Where does it spring from?  One often hears the charge that HR does not understand, or does not even want to understand business?  Unless one is able to get into the shoes of the line manager, one may not really know where it pinches.  Any efforts bereft of this appreciation is likely to be off target.  At times, it may even be counterproductive.  Erosion of its credibility is then not surprising at all.  This is not to say that HR must get into the details of business or usurp the very role of the line manager.  Not only do such attempts threaten the business leaders, it also takes HR away from some other key aspects of its existence.  While there are growing examples of HR managers becoming line managers, it is not necessary that every HR resource needs to aspire that way.  One can be a very high impact resource being the ‘rajguru’ (adviser to the king) without necessarily being the ‘Raja’ (king).  But for being sought after for advice, HR must appreciate the essence of business.  For whatever reason, HR has been unable to get rid of this charge.

Not walking the talk

As one delves deep, it is not difficult to understand why HR does not always get into understanding business?  Given the scarcity of good HR talent, HR mobility is high. HR career planning and development itself needs more focus. One cannot talk motivation, leadership behavior and career development if its own house is not in order.  Changing companies or even industry places a huge premium on learnability.  While there are outstanding exceptions to this, it is not always easy for HR to understand the business compulsions in quick time, strategize interventions and ensure flawless execution.  People interventions cannot be treated as two-minute noodles.  HR often does not realize this itself and faces the obvious criticism.

One needs to think about greater industry focus in HR, understand the changing business landscape, possibly move across other functions (or at least participate in cross-functional projects) and build an attractive value proposition to attract best talent from the line to have sting in HR.  Such a mix of effort will not only facilitate knowledge transfer but also break the black box mould of HR.  I can vouch for the tremendous respect for HR and the huge challenges that most line managers develop once they actually spend a tenure with it.

Contrary to all myths, HR is possibly the most challenging and complex role in an organization.  When human capital is becoming the most mobile and complex business element to understand and manage, any rubbishing of HR’s role is only a shortsighted line manager can afford to do.  It has its own specialist character, which cannot be naturally assumed by just any line managers.  And yet, perestroika in HR will bring greater awareness of its constraints and contribution.  Inbreeding within HR must cease forthwith.  Venturing out to other domains similarly will destroy the myths of HR’s inability to operate in different contexts.

Multiple stakeholder management woes

While the line manager is a major client of HR, she is not the only one.  Often HR is expected to intervene in issues that the line manager has with the mass of employees.  It is also uncommon that anything even remotely linked with people – clean toilets, more office space, pick up and drop arrangements, or anything else that no one else wants to hold – is dumped on HR, But these are also parts of the job; a professional hazard to live with.  Not only is this an issue of being an employee champion, it is case of being the conscience keeper of the organization.  Being available for employee grievance catharsis, proactively sensing employee issues and ensuring the appropriate intervention (often by the line) takes time and effort.  At times, contradictions are inherent.  Managing multiple and often conflicting expectations is not an easy one.  But that is the way it has to be of HR to be credible to all.  The ability to influence is hence a key competency for effective HR.  Does HR hire against this imperative?

Perception of being a power centre

HR processes, rather than the HR function need to be significant subject of discussion.  However, it is rarely so.  The not-so-unusual tendency of line managers to pass all contentious issues in people management to HR gets accentuated by HR appearing to play godfather.  While HR is indeed privy to some sensitive information and has ready access with senior leaders, it is not to make it look strong.  Hoarding all such information, or sharing it’s selectively or encouraging approaches that look esoteric do not make HR look really approachable.  “We will get back to you” syndrome has created in many organizations a perception that HR is a powerful black box.  While it is true that not always can HR do what everyone wants, being a good listener and responding either way quick time may improve perceptions.  After all, in today’s world perception is often reality.  HR will do well to remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem.  “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

Brand positioning

Another issue which has hugely impacted the credibility of HR has been its own brand positioning.  Is HR all about strategic interventions, almost at the exclusion of the “touch and feel”?  Or it is getting stuck in the quicksand of base transactions?  Every youngster who applies for a HR position wants to do ‘strategy’.  I have not yet understood what this means.  But what often happens is that your essentials get ignored.  If the foundation itself is weak, HR seems as talking too wise but delivering precious little.  The reputation of HR to deliver on the very basics needs a total makeover.  Processes need to be crashed, rules made simple and turnaround time dramatically improved.  While outsourcing looks an obvious panacea, it still does not take the obligation of HR to ensure that all support is available all the time.  It is time for back to basics.  Only once the fundamentals are in place, can HR truly move up on its credibility scale.  But in these times, how does HR revalidate is positioning? Who will bell the cat? This can and must be done by HR itself.  HR strategy cannot be a brand if classical expectations are unmet.

Quality of HR professionals

If one probes still further, the credibility of HR with the line is a lag measure.  The lead indicator is the quality of people choosing to make a career in HR and their concomitant training.  While there is a burgeoning demand of HR professionals, quality resources are scarce.  There is a very big gap in the quality of curriculum and faculty between top end institutes and the hundreds of HR B-schools that have mushroomed.  The quality of selection processes does not necessarily attract the best talent, made worse by inferior education.  Hence, HR faces a paradox of poverty in plenty.  Partially prepared HR youngsters, with their own limitations, join industry.  Unable to meet the rising expectations of the line, tempted by big money in talent deficit function, inducing high attrition they are unable to cut much ice with the line.  There is often little continuity in HR support.  And we are back to square one.

And yet to be fair to HR, it is possibly the most difficult to work in.  Education cannot make one a true HR professional.  It can skill you but the fundamental disposition is key.  One has to necessarily derive vicarious thrill in making others successful.  Often HR gets to be seen as the challenger or pretender to the throne.  Why should that be?  The ability and opportunity to influence key management decisions is a fortunate one.  Done well, it can add tremendously to the credibility of HR.  Seen as a power move, it can plummet the credibility many notches.

The more enlightened on both sides are quick to see a win-win.  As guides to key organizational issues – organization design, talent management, compensation structures, leadership developmental, coaching & mentoring -, many line managers leverage on the specialist training and impartial insight of HR.  Such people never question the credibility of HR.  Similarly, excellent HR managers balance the demands of being aligned with business needs without compromising on their role of being conscience keepers of the organization.  They realize the best way of contributing is by ensuring their redundancy.  In other words, enabling line managers to become good and still better people managers is an endless journey.  But this is the only sure way of building credibility incessantly with the line.

Finally, restoration or reinforcement of credibility takes time and effort.  In a customer-centric age, there is no argument or defence.  HR will have to bite the bullet and take criticism in its stride.  Focus and tenacity will ensure HR its rightful place under the sun.

If you can keep your head when all about you

            Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.

            If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.

            But make allowance for their doubting too.

            If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

            Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

            Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating.

            And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise

The best is yet to come.  However, HR needs to read Kipling’s, If  again and again.  And live by it.

Originally published by Prabhir @

PrabhirPrabir Jha is presently the Global Chief People Officer at Cipla. In addition to being a veteran HR practitioner, he is a thought leader in areas of Organisation practices including Change, Leadership, Strategic HR and Culture. He tweets extensively@prabirjha


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