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HR: the Place where Smart goes to Die

Originally published on October 9, 2009 this is one of the first posts I ever wrote. I’m sharing it again from the Vacation Archives…

I came across a Tweet from one @hulach today and it incited a riot in my head.  He says 2 years ago I met a HR manager…really smart.  After 2 years, smart turned stupid!” Aside from being quite pithy – and I’m a fan of pithy – I started to wonder whether there is something to this notion that being part of an HR department can quite literally suck the smarts out of you.  I’m not sure if that’s what @hulach was suggesting, but let’s pretend for a second that he’s on to something.

  1. How many Ivy League School grads do you know who have sought a career in HR?  I know a couple – and they are quite successful.  It’s certainly not the norm, though.  I’ve asked before and will do so again: Name the top 5 business schools in the U.S.  Now, name the top 5 HR graduate level programs in the U.S.  Which was easier?  Exactly.
  2. I know a lot of people who got into HR with absolutely no formal HR training or education (myself included…scary, I know); is HR the Ellis Island of career immigrants – give us your tired, your poor? Will we take anyone? Is what we do so easily learned that anyone can do it?
  3. I know a number of people who got into HR because they wanted a change in lifestyle – meaning they left something that was really hard and demanding to go into something that was…well, easier.
  4. Is the HR department a place where one’s intellect is stimulated or are we so busy running around putting out fires, managing risk, and keeping our people paid and benefited…generally checking the boxes?  Does merely checking the boxes lead to boredom, and then apathy, and finally brain atrophy?
  5. Why is it that 9.9 times out of 10, I have to further explain what an SPHR is to non-HR people.  Do people have to do that when they introduce themselves as a CPA?  Are the professional credentials we hold in HR really an indication of academic, intellectual, or career achievement?  And by the way, did you know SPHR comes up in “spellcheck” but CPA doesn’t…
  6. I know a number of people who got into HR from other careers (see ’3′), but I don’t know a lot of people who got into other careers from HR.  This is maybe the most telling of all.  Once you become an HR person, is that all you can be?  Seriously, are you stuck there?  What exactly is HR the Triple-A club for?

I’d love to get some responses to this post – hopefully some of your comments will include some tangible indication that I’m way off base and far too unkind to the profession.  But if I can ask these questions as a 17+ year guy on the inside, what’s being asked by those who are outside looking in?

  • Stuart Shaw

    Great post. Scary grey rainy murmuring vision too. I confess, I’m not HR, but I work with HR, and my boss, well, he’s into kicking HR butt. First up, he thinks they’ve been too content to preach the ‘people are our best asset’ mantra without backing it up. Scenario: People are our best assets – boardroom yawn. Ok, people are our best assets, and our biggest liabilities. Say what? Yes, and here’s how I want to put them on the balance sheet. HR needs to take the rug out from under finance. Next up, he wants HR to get some 2.0 X Factor. If you think of a job where 2.0 skills are needed, you think tech dept or marketing – the ‘cool’ places. And HR? They’re universally seen as the 2.0 police. So, how about HR that takes it’s finger out the 2.0 dam and dives right in. Blogging – and not just on, today I will check this box…more like, ok,tommorrow, we rule the world…More than that. HR needs to be more 2.0 than the marketing guys who get all the glory. How? Measuring and leveraging the social skills of people on behalf of the business. Better to spend the time spotting talented tweeters and putting them to work tweeting about the business than trying to stop them. Smart skills like these aren’t even taught yet, so HR needs to teach them and evaluate their money making potential. The problem is voices: there are just so many, and HR has lost theirs. They need to find a new one. Or take the words out of other people’s mouths. Anyway, thanks for giving me all that to think about!

  • Brenden Wright

    Oh, I can see people in HR offices far and wide sharpening the pitch forks, lighting up the torches, and gathering the mob after this one! But, nothing hurts worse than the truth sometimes. First, I’ll say that there are always exceptions – meaning there are some really great HR folks I’d follow anywhere. But as an “HR guy” myself, it really is more the exception than the rule. For me, I’ve been trying for years to look mirror and say, “I’m not an HR guy. I’m a business guy that just happens to work in a function that resides in HR.” Denial? Probably. But it’s more about fighting the stereotype you describe above than anything else. Thanks for the kerosene on a very hot topic. Great insights.

  • KSD

    It is true. HR needs to up it’s game and focus on the business as a whole and that seems to be happening. This is an interesting time to be in HR because expectations have changed and those without the smarts will soon be left behind.

  • Sarah

    This was so refreshing to read!! While the truth does hurt a bit, I’m relieved to find that it’s not “just me” having these thoughts. Like BrendenMWright, I am in denial and try to convince myself that HR is a profession worthy of my business degree (“It’s just that I don’t love numbers enough to do accounting or finance!”) but deep down I’m wondering whether I have made the right decision, partly because I’m sick of the BS that I put up with (“Oh no, here comes HR – what does HR even do?!?”).

    It seems that some people go into HR because they “enjoy working with people”, and then realise that to be successful in HR you actually have to be a bit indifferent to people at times – perhaps this necessary indifference has them coming off as non-smart? Or perhaps HR just appeals to certain groups of people. Certainly there are some very passionate and smart people in HR, so I think this is all in all a very sticky subject… thanks Charlie, great post.

  • Anonymous

    it’s time to start crowding the apathetic – those who aren’t interested in becoming that “business guy” you describe – out of our profession. if that requires a little kerosene and a match, i’ll light it and throw it.

  • Anonymous

    the HR profession is in fact worthy of your business degree – in fact, it might be the most worthy of that degree. you are an exception, but that’s what make you so valuable to your organization and your employees. not everyone will realize that, but those that really matter will.

  • Anonymous

    i hope so. i really hope so. thx for your comment.