Why HR Is Doomed

Much like Y2K or a Promise Keeper’s rally, the phenomenon that became the crux of 99% of the History Channel’s programming and led to one of the finest films of our time, nay, all time, 2012, the predicted Mayan Apocalypse on December 21 failed to actually produce Armageddon.

Big surprise.

The thing is, that people have been foretelling the end of time since pretty much the beginning of it, and most of them are crazy – the ring a bell, stand on the corner in Times Square with a sandwich board and sackcloth kind of crazy.  But then again, some of those people are the foundation for major world religions, so this is a pretty high risk, high reward statement:

In 2020, HR as an independent function will no longer exist.  At least not in North America.

That’s it. HR is basically in Stage 4, and taking a turn for the worse. Guess that’s more prognosis than prophecy, but the point is, the end is drawing near for anyone who thinks that HR is a viable, long-term career choice within an organization. At least without totally being able to evolve a skill set that can sit outside the narrow, self-defined, self-policed silo stalag that’s so entrenched in most companies today.

If you read HR blogs like this one, two things: 1) you’re a big dork, and God bless you for it. 2) You’re already at the escape hatch for the moment when the countdown to self-destruct hits zero. And if you thought of the Death Star right then, you just proved point one, again. That’s right. Because inaccurate sci-fi allusions are comment gold, and Star Wars makes for great SEO. Dorks.

It means that you’re hungry for information to make yourself a better HR professional and, in turn, hopefully better serve your people. Although I guess a few of you are also likely the root of the problem and are doing this because you’ve finished Sudoku for the day and have the time because, as an “HR Leader,” your actual interaction with people is mostly minimal.

But for the former, read up – although you’ve probably already skipped to the bulleted list, because no one reads anymore. That’s why infographics exist or why USA Today is considered a newspaper (and the #1 newspaper, at that).

Here are three reasons why HR is doomed for extinction:

1.     Pension Planned Obsolescence: Think about an HR Professional. Go ahead, do it. Your image is probably the exact same as is actually statistically verifiable, at least using SHRM.org’s traffic demographics as a representative sample (which I think it actually is) — overwhelmingly female, skewing heavily towards the 35-55 year old demographic, with disproportionately more on the 55+ end than the 18-34 demo.

If you’ve ever bought advertising or recruited for an exempt position, you already know that market bias exists against the, uh, “Early Bird Special” set.  And, as any benefits specialist already knows (and you’re likely among the first to go, so sorry ‘bout that), statistically these trends represent one that’s already headed to extinction, actuarially speaking.

Couple that dying breed with the fact that, well, HR is unsustainable, suffering a STEM sized hemorrhage of new blood due to the fact that there’s just not a lot of mobility when you’re sitting in a highly specialized, non-cross trained cost center, and these gigs have traditionally been pretty cushy. Mostly because HR used to be the ones who decided who got fired.

It’s created, like so much of the workforce, a giant gap between experienced HR professionals and those entering the profession, a situation somewhat exacerbated by the single fact that most schools don’t really offer or promote an HR major, and most of us kind of fall into it by mistake.  At least there are whole universities dedicated to math and science (although one could argue a liberal arts college is kind of the HR equivalent).

But if you’ve found yourself here by accident, here’s the good news: you can probably do it again. The first step is to start actually learning the business. That means a relentless focus on analytics, a more transparent, integrated function within the organization, and a relentless pursuit on delivering internal customers the best possible service,  if only because those clients might be, if you play your cards right, your next boss.

Which brings us to:

2.     Self-Preservation Doesn’t Keep Pace with Evolution: Every dodo can back me up on that one (auk-ward). And you better bet when the first damn Portuguese gun landed, the dodos didn’t stand a chance at controlling Mauritius than HR professionals do at controlling their own fates on an isolated island upon which the rest of the world is rapidly approaching.

There’s a lot of enmity towards HR for its tight grip on the tendrils of an organization, and the fact that by being as generally opaque as possible, HR has built a Big Brother (or Steve Jobs) like mixture of awe bred from fear and lack of comprehension at what it is actually goes on behind those walls.

And it’s done so by relying on total control: HR, after all, not only sets policies and enforces them, acting, in effect, as Judge Dredd but way less bad ass, but also by maintaining a professional distance from the peons, because, let’s face it, no one hates people quite like people-people.

That’s why concepts like employee self-service or back office automation (“But I love my data entry job in payroll!”) scaring the s#%t out of HR folks.

And rightfully so, because it takes power out of their hands and effectively democratizes the employee experience. This fear of the breakdown of bureaucracy is the same reason why HR is so resistant to social media and HR technologies. It’s the fear of extinction, and the need for self-preservation is strong, which is why the dodo clung as hard as it did to every endemic square inch of the island.

But in the end, the result for HR professionals and dodos, assuming they are indeed mutually exclusive concepts (boom), will be the same: if you don’t have the skills to survive in the first place, then your demise is inevitable.

If you’re smart about it, though, you can prove Darwin right (just like science, with an apology to all my evangelical friends out there) and evolve. This means embracing social media and getting to really know the technologies that, like an on-premise ERP, were previously only perfunctory.

Reading a blog is a pretty good start, but even better is trying to bring that knowledge you’re learning back into the organization and turning theory into practice by, you know, actually like talking to employees without having an ulterior motive or going to lunch with one of those workers who secretly hates you.

Unlike Tinkerbell, there will be no fairies dying if you don’t believe – and believe you can not only make an immediate short-term impact, but reverse the lemming like march off the cliff for your professional colleagues at large, simply by getting the hell out of the Ivory Tower and back into the workplace. Be an enabler, not an enforcer.

3.     You’re Thinking That None of This Pertains To You And This Article is BS: Called you. Remember: the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

And because, inevitably, you will (since, after all, you are in HR), then let me know by leaving a comment in the box below. You know the drill.

FOT Background Check

Matt Charney is the Executive Editor for Recruiting Daily, whose flagship property, RecruitingBlogs, is the world's largest social network and content sharing platform for recruiting and HR professionals. Matt oversees editorial strategy and content marketing for RecruitingDaily's portfolio of online properties. Prior to joining RecruitingBlogs, Matt served in marketing leadership roles at leading HR technology companies like Talemetry, CornerstoneOnDemand & Monster. Matt began his career as a corporate recruiter for such companies as Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Matt has been named as one of the top 25 influencers in recruiting by publications like the Huffington Post, Glassdoor, CareerBuilder and LinkedIn, and has been recognized as one of the 2015 HR Game Changers by HR Magazine adn SHRM, the 2015 HRO Superstar for Analyst Excellence and the 2014 Top Recruiting Blogger by Social Talent. His blog mattcharney.com was also named one of the top 15 business blogs to follow by Wordpress in 2014. Matt serves as a member of the advisory boards for the Candidate Experience Awards, Rolepoint, RecruitiFi, Take the Interview, HiringSolved, Universum and Textio. Follow him @MattCharney or connect with him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mattcharney).

20 Comments

  1. I agree we need to think differently. It is much like the PC in the news today. It is on its way to becoming obsolete. If the function doesn’t reinvent itself it also becomes obsolete. I also don’t think that is limited to just the HR function. Marketing, IT and Finance also need to shift from being independent silos as well. My question of you is exactly what is the next evolutionary role of HR besides becoming more integrated and business focused?

  2. Rory Trotter says:

    Matt, this is a great, great post.

    HR has always been perceived as a function that doesn’t “get it” (that is the business).

    I got into the function by choice. I did so because I believe that an organization’s success is fundamentally driven by the top 10-20% of its workforce, and that the best company’s are those that can attract, retain, and develop those people (the *really* good organization’s also find a way to develop some of those people themselves).

    With that said, I like you have some concerns about the direction the function is headed into. I won’t go so far as to say it will be gone in its present form by 2020, but it is losing relevance.

    Consequently, I have a skill focused approach to HR – I focus on the analytics, and err on the side of learning technical skills and concepts rather than focusing on the transactional/administrative work that drives much of HR.

    You talk about deep diving into learning technologies like on-site ERP software, though. Talk process here for me. What does that look like? One learns by doing, so what should I be doing to really understand the technology that is going to hopefully drive the function into the future – or give me a springboard into something else if it becomes obsolete. For example, I don’t even have access to business management software like SAP – how am I supposed to learn it?

    Thanks for the great post, and keep writing.

    Best,

    Rory

  3. Sarah Charton says:

    I guess I am not the typical HR professional of your acquaintance: I started out in management and moved laterally to HR, so I’m actually reasonably well versed in what it takes to run a business. Maybe it’s my management background, but I don’t experience HR as a siloed, “secret society” thing whose practitioners get to hide from the employees and sit around all day doing nothing.

    I think your post, while interesting, makes some assumptions that may not be well-founded. First: HR is not “about people”, or at least, not in the sense you seem to see it. HR is about (i) taking care of the employer’s interests and (ii) managing people. If one wants a career where s/he will have the opportunity to help people, s/he should be gravitating toward social work, not HR.

    Second: far as I can see, until we cease to need actual people to get the work done, there will be a need for professionals to manage those people: assess business needs, find and train the right candidates, track what they do and how well, administer their benefits, deal with their issues, etc.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Great article, Matt. HR has a real opportunity right now to add value to the business and to change the perception of our field. Let’s hope we have some strong professionals out there (I know we do!).

  5. Becki says:

    Thanks for the post–challenge is good for the soul.

    I am 100% with Sarah. I also agree with Tresha–this “issue” is not unique to HR. ALL functions cannot operate effectively if they are independent silos. Collaboration across all areas is pretty much a requirement to success.

    In my experience–HR is NOT on an island (even BAD HR is not on an island). The “secret society” you talk of is not HR ONLY people (and it doesn’t exist in every company). HR is the self appointed scape goat of the society (side note: I think this is actually part of the problem with HR–fear that the only way they will be important is to be the scapegoat). CEOs/VPs/etc… are also a part of this secret society. A policy might come from HR but it has “secret” support (if not authorship) from other more powerful people within the organization. Thinking that HR even has total control to begin with is giving it way more power than it actually has.

    PS–The title of the post is a little overkill for me-but you are in Marketing–so I guess that makes sense (wink wink!).

  6. In 1997, Harvard Business Review published an article by professor Michael Beer entitled “The transformation of the human resources function: Resolving the tension between a traditional administrative and a new strategic role.” In 1998, HBR published David Ulrich’s article “A new mandate for human resources.” Both beautifully written, both touting many of the same issues in your post. In 2012, Jac Fitz-Enz recommends “Disassembling HR.” His point – HR is not stepping up, the work is highly disparate requiring myriad different skills, and the department should be taken apart and tasks placed where the skills already reside.

    I have been in the field for over 30 years, so I’ve seen a lot. A lot of talk about learning the business, a lot of talk about analytics, a lot of talk about policies, a lot of talk about technology, a lot of talk about party planning, a lot of talk about seats at the table. I’m still waiting to see the profession wake up and figure out how to do what we all want to do. My perspective? It isn’t as simple as “the business” because there is no part of business that is as complex as human behavior. But there are proven methods for improving human performance and I think HR would do well to study those.

    • Jacque Vilet says:

      Carol —- Amen and amen. The same “truths” have been addressed over and over again and everyone politely applauds/reads/listens and then nothing happens. I am sick to death of the whole subject. HR doesn’t get it and I’m pretty much convinced we never will.

      Once the crisis is really felt by CEOs HR will be split up with the strategic work sadly going to Finance and the transactional stuff — meaning mostly what HR does today — outsourced. And oh yes, all of the legal and government mandated stuff moving to in-house or “out-house” (love it!) Legal department.

      We, as a profession, also have a “professional” national organization— SHRM —that should be pushing HR in the right direction. But it doesn’t. I have asked officers at SHRM why they don’t spend more time talking about global/international HR issues in this era of globalization (which is not new). Their answer is very telling: “Jacque we haven’t done this because global HR is so new.” Really? What have been doing for 25 years?

      Enough said.

  7. Brian says:

    This article is evidence that HR has not really taken hold of its future and has not driven enough innovation to be seen as a true strategic partner in the business. As cited already, way back in 1997-98 leading academics where promoting broad influential change in HR and yet, more than 16 years later HR is still TALKING ABOUT reinventing itself! What for-profit business do you know that talks for nearly 16 years about innovating but never does it? Remember the 1990’s article “Why We Hate HR”? This was the first of what has now become mainstay reading about why the HR organization has yet to prove itself as a value-adding business function. The predictions about outsourcing will come true simply because business can no long afford a 30-40 person department that cannot innovate and does much to protect itself so it can keep functioning in an outdated paradigm. I know many senior level HR people who do nothing but complain about how the business never appreciates how much paperwork they push and how much analytics they have to do and how much recruiting they have to do….blah, blah, blah. These functions can be outsourced to companies for half the cost and still be of benefit.

  8. Jan says:

    I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY. I always said that when I start a company I would never have an HR department. It’s full of useless people who have never done anything in their lives to add any value AND THEN they get the authority to say who gets a job or not? Are you kidding me? Pre-school worked on more of a meritocracy than this! Hence why, now that I own my own company, I have exactly ZERO Hr people and I LOVE IT!!!!!

    BYE BYE HR. WE ALL HATED YOU ANYWAY. Now, dust off your resumes, because now YOU will need them. How does it feel, trash?

  9. Vanessa Wiltshire says:

    Matt Charney, you are f-g fantastic.

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