A recent article by Chris Williams, ex-Microsoft VP of HR points out that HR will always prioritise the interests of the business over those of employees.
Given Microsoft’s history of allegations of discrimination and harassment this comment rings sadly true. A January 2022 article in The Washington Post reports that in recent years, Microsoft has faced criticism from some current and former employees, who argue that the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims is problematic and there’s little pay equity and unequal promotion opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities.
HR is paid by the company to solve problems either between employees or with the company and its policies, says Williams. “If you have a problem with another employee, especially your manager, and you decide to involve HR, you’re not enlisting someone on your side. Instead, you’re involving the company in the issue. That may be what you want, but you need to tread carefully.”
Well, he is right, HR’s responsibility is first and foremost to the business. They are professionals whose remit is to serve the people management strategy agreed by the board of directors. HR needs to balance the needs of many stakeholders – meeting the short-term financial goals of the business, while maintaining a perspective on overall organisational health, people and performance in the long-term.
However, Williams is also wrong, as HR’s main focus is all about the people, how you attract, retain and reward a highly engaged and productive workforce. The way we work and the way HR operates has changed over the years and in the 21st century we see HR professionals who seek to improve organisational decision-making by offering an organisation-wide perspective into the connections between human capital and strategy.
The concept articulated by Dave Ulrich that envisions the HR business partner is based on the idea of people managers as the champion of the employee. HR is there to reconcile the needs of the employee and the needs of the employer; Ulrich positions HR as a true partner to the organisation.
The way we work now
The growth of an economy based, largely, dependent on knowledge workers is predicated on a more conciliatory and collaborative way of working. We have moved away from the early 20th century scientific management theories of Frederick Taylor to a more employee-centred way of working where we design jobs around the motivations and skills of the employee. Talent management and employee engagement are key here.
Williams is adamant that he is not disrespecting his HR colleagues, he says: “To be clear, most people who become HR generalists are there for the people. They are kind, thoughtful, and caring, and they love working with people. But they are not paid to be the employee’s ally.” Call HR if you have questions on benefits or policy questions, because HR can help in finding services and resources, and deal with employees’ reports of policy violations.
I get what he is saying, and 10Eighty have long recommended that we should not rely on the organisation we work for to manage our careers. A good employer will have talent management and career mapping strategies aimed at supporting talent to achieve their career aims but each employee needs to take ownership of their career planning.
Undoubtedly HR has a difficult balance to strike and their input and expertise will be crucial as we tackle the challenges created by a volatile hiring and firing market that reacts to the looming inflation and cost of living crisis. An HR function that is fully integrated into the business, will pursue business and commercial agendas, whilst at the same time ensuring that the needs of employees are being met. After all no employees mean no business in a knowledge based economy.
Leaders and HR professionals need to be forward thinking in considering the impact on their workforce and design fair and responsible models of employment, which strike the right balance between security, flexibility and innovation.
Where leadership puts people first, and aligns corporate values and goals with a focus on organisational development initiatives, employee engagement will enable collaboration, innovation and productivity, enabling workers to do better work. The key to surviving in this environment of rising costs, will be the creativity and higher productivity of the workforce. HR is key to delivering on that objective.