Today’s HR – The Rise of the Polymath

Paul Hebert Change, COVID-19, Good HR, Innovation, Paul Hebert

Please. Go look it up. 


A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. 

The Good Old Days

There was a time in HR when the list of things you had to know was fairly short. Maybe a law or two related to overtime or children at work. Starting from Taylorism in the very early 1900s and focused on “productivity, HR expanded and grew in its influence and in doing so needed to expand its knowledge base. In the 20s and 30s, compensation and working conditions were added to the portfolio and were subjects HR needed to be somewhat proficient in. Then came industrial and labor relations, requiring expertise in collective representation/collective bargaining. Now add on the “new stuff” associated with engagement and motivation and HR has now added employee psychologist to their repertoire.

And don’t get me started on murder hornets.

All of that intro to simply say HR has a lot on its plate. 

Well…hold on… there’s more coming. 

2020 – The year of “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

COVID-19 required HR to rethink all their employee working requirements pretty much overnight. And then the idea of furloughs, layoffs, or not? What about understanding what a R0 factor is – or retraining your MSWord program to recognize “social distancing” as a real set of words. And then the issue of work from home technology? Who organizes that? And what about Zoom? Now HR is the first-line help desk for employees who can’t find the mute button on the zoom call. 

But you got through it as best you could. 

And then. 

George Floyd is murdered in Minneapolis. 

And HR is thrown head-first at light speed into the middle of huge issues related to race. 

Now HR needs to be extra educated on the intricacies of that world. 

And to be add insult to the inconceivable – there is NO GAME PLAN for any of this.

This has literally never happened before. You can’t pull out binder #4 and go to section 7 – “What to do when the world stops turning” and pull out the templates. 

You are creating in real time. 

And that means you MUST have an extremely wide understanding of an extremely high number of domains. 

You can’t just be an HR Specialist.

You must be:

A negotiator.

A mathematician.

A researcher/librarian.

A philosopher.

A preacher/rabbi/priest.

An HR expert.

A friend.

A mentor.

A listener.

A leader.

Days of simply having a SHRM-CP, SHRM-SCP, PHR, SPHR, ad infinitum, to prove your HR chops are long gone. If anything, they suggest expertise in a very narrow domain – the domain of HR in the 1990s.

To really excel in HR – you need to be a polymath. 

What is your plan to increase the number of expertise domains?

If I’m interviewing for my next HR leader – I’m going to ask about Rnaught, Dunning-Krueger, 5 stages of grief, your experience with loss. If I get a blank stare I’ll then ask you to leave. I’m not going to ask if you know what an I-9 is. That is HR 1.0.

Time for HR 2.0 – and that is the age of the polymath.