What Job Does HR Really Do?

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Change, HR, HR & Marketing, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert, Retention

I just finished reading Clayton Christensen’s newest book call “How Will You Measure Your Life” (my money quotes from the book can be found here.)  In that book he reintroduced one of his marketing concepts called “jobs-to-be-done.”  Originally discussed by Christensen in the context of how consumers decide on products, Christensen posited that customers don’t buy products so much as they “hire” a product to get a job done.  The job to be done is the focus – not the “product.”

I think he was riffing on what Theodore Levitt pointed out in his classic article Marketing Myopia (1960), – customers don’t buy 1/4 inch drills – what they really buy are 1/4 inch holes. They buy a result not a product.

When I was reminded of that concept – “consumers want outcomes not products” – I started thinking about HR and what they “do.”  And I started wondering if we are using an outdated model of what HR is supposed to do – and ignoring the real issue of what a company would hire today if they were asked what job needed to be done.

If I went by what I read on the blogs and in some of the HR press I’d think most companies are hiring HR for the following outputs…

  • Better dress codes…
  • Punctual employees…
  • Motivated Employees…
  • Well-written employee handbooks…
  • Happy managers who don’t have to do the unpleasant parts of their job…

I know there are plenty of HR people who may take exception to that quick list but I believe that is a pretty good reflection of what many HR people (and non HR people) think HR’s job outputs are. But are those the outputs that are desired?  Are those the outputs most top-level execs would say are wanted?

Is the real disconnect with HR the fact that they are doing the job they “think” needs to be done but not the job the company actually needs done?

Would HR get a different picture of their focus if we asked executive teams what “job outputs are needed” – not “what does HR do?” … or “what should HR do?” But what “outputs” do they require?

Marketing Directors may have a job description that says “manage social media campaigns” but the real output is always going to be – drive more sales, have more conversations, create more leads, increase brand awareness – in other words some measured “outcome.”

What is HR’s measured outcome?

I hear the discussions about “strategic HR” and the need to talk ROI and understand the business better.  But I don’t think management sits around saying they want to hire “more strategic HR.”  I think they have strategic problems that someone who understands what’s going on in the world of accessing and managing human talent can help them solve.

So what is the answer to the question of what would you hire HR to do?

What are the outcomes that HR needs to hang their hat on?

I’ll take a couple of easy ones and then shoot them down…

HR outcome #1 – Lower Turnover

How is this HR’s problem?  Turnover is a function of a 100 different things – of which maybe 2 fall in HR’s wheelhouse – benefits and pay (and I’d argue pay doesn’t count).  Turnover is a function of the company culture, the manager relationship, the market, etc.  Hiring HR to affect the output of turnover is just wrong.  I might say the real “output” you hire HR for is to help managers understand how THEY can be one of the main solutions for high (or low) turnover.  That is the job you’re really hiring HR for, no?

HR Outcome #2 – Enhance Company Culture

Again – how is this HR’s problem and not EVERYONE’s problem?  You can’t hire HR for an outcome like culture when HR has almost ZERO impact on culture. Can you hire HR to make sure the executives know how their horrible behaviors impact culture? Yup – and that is an output I can get behind.

HR Outcome #3 – Motivate Employees

Sure – HR should be responsible for the motivation of 100s if not 1000s of employees they don’t know, haven’t met, won’t ever meet and could really care less about.  That is not an HR output.  If it is – it’s really more (again) about training managers who have greater influence on, and connection with, those 100s and 1000s of employees and who can actually have some impact on the outcome.

As I run through a lot of the “outcomes” we think HR should be responsible for I can’t help but think that we need to evaluate what outcomes a company wants from HR – and focus a lot less on the “traditional” job we have come to think HR does for a company.

A consumer never said they wanted an iPod – or iTunes – but they flocked in droves to those products because they solved a problem – they got a job done that needed doing.

What job needs to be done in your company?