Are all HR professionals incompetent?

May 28, 2019

Let’s face it, HR has a bad reputation. And according to The Balance Careers, the top reason employees hate HR, is because they believe HR professionals are incompetent. But how much truth is actually in that statement?

The biggest complaints employees have about their HR department

There are many reasons why employees seem to complain about their HR department’s incompetence. But of the hundreds floating around the internet, there are some that seem to crop up more often than others. For example:

  1. HR cannot be trusted. A common assumption is that HR does not care about staff, and is just an evil extension of the CEO, with a mandate to do all of the unpopular dirty work. I explored this idea in my 2017 article, “Which side is HR really on?
  2. HR is untrained and uneducated. The Balance Careers says that the reason employees believe HR is incompetent, is because they “fall into” HR from unrelated office roles such as accounting, and don’t know how to do their job properly.
  3. HR has no power. One big frustration, is that when an employee complains to HR, nothing actually happens. It can often feel like HR has no influence, and serves only as a black hole to divert employee complaints into.

Can HR be trusted? Well, regardless of that answer, I don’t think it proves much relating to competence. But if you’re interested, I ran a Twitter poll in 2017, which indeed confirmed that more than 50% of employees believe their HR department sides with the company over the employee.

Personally, I’m not sure I agree that HR always sides with “the employer” though. And you can see why, if you read my interview with experts Perry Timms and Kenneth Fee, in my article “Which side is HR really on?”

Is HR really untrained and uneducated?

To say that all HR professionals are untrained and uneducated seems quite brazen and unfair. But actually, if you look at the traditional career path of many HR professionals, it isn’t too difficult to see how this belief came about.

“In the past, you’d have a small company that needed someone to answer the phones” explains Karen Elkins Cohen, an HR director with 20 years’ HR experience. “That person ended up ordering office supplies and as the office grew, started paying the employees. The company keeps growing, and the individual who was hired to answer phones is now in charge of wage and hour compliance, and coaching managers on discipline or terminating employees.”

This type of career path is less common these days, says Karen, because there are plenty of HR programs as part of bachelors and MBAs. But while education and qualifications are great, I would go as far as to argue that many HR professionals who “fall into” their career, often turn out just as competent – and sometimes more so – than their more educated peers.

Falling into HR does not make you incompetent

While education is certainly valuable, the one thing it fails to give you much of, is experience. And if there is one thing I’ve noticed about HR professionals who “fall into” HR, it’s that they are extremely good at identifying business issues that are causing real problems, and understanding how they can help to fix that, from their position in HR.

For example, Jennifer Griffiths, from Circle IT, “fell into” HR. But in no way is Jennifer Griffiths an incompetent HR professional. In fact, if you watch her story below, you’ll see how she used what she knew about employee engagement, to transform her company.

Despite “falling into” HR, Jennifer went on to reduce staff turnover from 54%, to 15%. She saved her company over £100,000, and made her company a place where people really wanted to be. 

HR needs to get better at selling their ideas to the board

So if HR professionals know how to make a difference in the workplace, then why are employees complaining that they never deliver results? Well, many do – as the example above video will show you.

But some HR professionals, despite knowing what should be done, have difficulty making a business case at board level. And many people believe that this is due to HR’s tendency to fail to provide compelling analytics.

Research discussed in The HR Director, says that only 9 percent of management are “Very Happy” with how HR analytics are presented across the organisation. So if you want to improve your ability to sell ideas to the board? You need to get better at presenting key HR metrics in a way that drives action, and proves why the point you’re making is important.

HR seems incompetent because people don’t understand their role

But just because some people in HR struggle to sell a point to the board of directors, does not make them incompetent at their jobs. And actually, a lot of the perceived incompetence is simply down to people not understanding what the role of HR entails.

“Many employees think the job of the HR person is to be a people person” says Layne Kertamus, a seasoned HR professional with experience leading over 100 staff. “While this is desirable, all HR people have an inherent duty to also protect the corporation from potential liability arising from having employees.”

He adds that most employees think the HR person is very competent when they are getting what they want. Even if it is not justified!

Some HR professionals are incompetent, but incompetence is everywhere

I hope you can see that many of the reasons people perceive HR as incompetent, do not actually prove that HR is incompetent. And actually, the vast majority of HR professionals I come into contact with on a daily basis, are exceptionally competent!

But as with any industry or skill, yes, incompetent HR professionals do exist.

“Yes, there are incompetent employees in HR” says Karen Elkins Cohen, “just as there are incompetent engineers, managers, and salespeople.”

I think that HR gets an undeservedly bad reputation, because their mistakes often affect people in a very personal way. Such as incorrect salaries, or undesirable grievance outcomes. But while incompetence does exist in HR, it is not a problem that is unique to HR. Incompetence is everywhere.

Do I think all HR professionals are incompetent?

I do not believe that incompetence is an inherent part of the HR profession. Not at all. Here’s my take-home summary of the competence of HR professionals:

  1. Yes, some HR professionals are incompetent. Then again, so are some plumbers, and so are some doctors, and so are some lawyers.
  2. People don’t always understand what HR are meant to be doing. Employees will sometimes blame an HR professional’s incompetence when something doesn’t go the way they hoped.
  3. HR sometimes struggles to sell themselves to their board. This isn’t a sign of HR incompetence – it just means they need to work harder to present HR in a more compelling light.

And yes, some people fall into HR without formal HR training. But that doesn’t make them incompetent HR professionals. And besides, there are plenty of decent educational HR courses available to people who find themselves landing in a surprise HR career with no formal training!

 

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