HR – Hero or Zero

It’s always an inspiration to meet a modern HR professional. The natural developer of talent, with high EQ and a very clear view on the commercial needs of their business. The problem is, you don’t meet many.

Historically this has been part-Nature, part-Nurture. The Human Resources role in Africa began four decades ago with the MD’s Secretary. The early HR Administrator was the person who documented employees, set up interviews for candidates and terminated non performers. Naturally this attracted people who enjoyed process and documentation.

The way they were used by their employers inculcated other behaviours. Managing Directors used them as a buffer between the C-Suite and the employees. Any people issue that required fixing was rapidly passed to the HR Administrator. In the game of Rugby, this kind of move is known as the Hospital Pass, as it usually involves injury.

Business Leaders with poor EQ, or no real interest in human capital, delegated people management almost entirely to this administrative function. Leave entitlements; union negotiations; employment tribunals and disputes. It’s hardly surprising that, over time and as a defense mechanism, the great majority of HR Departments became entirely inward-looking.

Then came the great era of the global professionalisation of human resources. A welcome movement, championing the recruitment, retention and development of human beings as a talent base. This produced, in many places, much more creative and visionary HR leaders. They begin to contribute (on a strategic level) to long term plans to develop human capital. To take an interest in customers, and what the business needed its staff to do for them.But globalisation brought its own downside. The many proprietary approaches it developed rapidly became institutional norms. All over the world, and not least in Africa, HR managers sought to deploy ‘foolproof’ systems like Six Sigma and Balanced Scorecard. Excellent if intelligently deployed, but just another expense if delivered to tick a box.

So where are we today? Well, we certainly haven’t reached the broad sunlit uplands yet. Some companies I know are still 40 years’ behind. And HRMs are betwixt and between.

Here are two examples, both HR professionals with tenures of less than a year in post. The one has applied Balanced Scorecard, outstanding leave balance reduction, an organogram, a teambuilding session, and an HR manual to her Company. The other has developed a work-life balance programme, online onboarding, a buddy system, new shift patterns, a middle management and a senior management development programme.

The former has been fired for making no perceptible value addition; the latter promoted and given bigger resources. Can you figure out why?

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa

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