I was late and the discussion was heating up by the time I sat down. The young, recent graduate had just completed an internship at an investment bank in Hong Kong and was seeking advice on career directions from those around the table. She had declared an interest in human resources and asked what the others thought. The initial consensus offered little encouragement.

“In our organization, we call HR “Human Remains”, laughed one. Another suggested she focus on a profession that “adds genuine value to the business”, while a third piped in with the opinion that he’d never met a HR person who was happy at work. Then the quiet American lady, a chief information officer at an international bank, spoke up:

HR should view employees as both 'human' and 'resources', not just data to be managed

HR should view employees as both ‘human’ and ‘resources’, not just data to be managed

“These people are talking about HR as disgruntled employees. But HR departments do often squander their remit, which is to act as strategic advisors and ambassadors for the business. That’s the big opportunity for HR people. If that sounds like something that would float your boat, young lady, I say do it,” she said.

The global economic downturn hasn’t helped the reputation of HR departments as businesses, faced with falling revenue and increased pressure on profits, set about cutting costs and headcount. This environment forced many HR departments back into their former roles as personnel departments. That said, however, some HR departments haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory.

“So what should a good HR person do?” asked the graduate.

The discussion that followed can be summarised thus:

  • There are few, if any, more powerful tools for creating and embedding company culture than the HR policies that a company chooses to introduce. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the policies.
  • As the global economy starts to recover, there is an opportunity for the HR function to make amends for recent indiscretions.
  • HR should lead the definition and development of the corporate culture and take on a leadership role in the rebuilding of the business once it understands the company’s strategy and business objectives.
  • HR departments need to become (and to see themselves) as brand ambassadors among employees and potential recruits. They need to focus more on the ‘human’ aspects of the job and begin to see the ‘resources’ in their job titles as assets worthy of nurturing rather than data points to be managed.
  • Because the ‘hearts and minds’ of employees is usually the deciding factor between transformation success and failure, HR departments should have a central role in ‘defining’ corporate transformation programmes, whether it’s the introduction of a new enterprise-wide IT system, new product development or service improvement.
  • Whilst performance reviews, resourcing plans, skills development and succession planning are clearly important, it’s too easy for employees to view them purely as corporate control mechanisms.
  • Employees see through cynical HR policies that are dressed up as good. For example, making corporate volunteering a mandatory requirement for all staff is seen as unhelpful (and a misunderstanding of the word ‘volunteer’).

The new graduate, needless to say, looked more confused at the end of the meal than she did at the beginning.