HR exists because organizations are made up of people, but as entities they are quite terrible at grasping the needs and potential of the individual. This is not surprising- the fundamental purpose of an organization is to coordinate a number of people to do something too complex or vast to be done by an individual. That something is its purpose and reason to exist, whether it is to run a successful diner, collect human blood for transfusions, or make scads of money for shareholders by processing complex financial transactions, and so organizations are rightly fixated on doing that something. Other considerations are secondary, including the needs, wants, rights and of the individual, because the organization as an entity does not have a brain or a heart, so in addition to not understanding the individual, it does not have morals or feelings to provoke it to try.
But we all know that individual needs, rights and wants are incredibly important to the organization- not just because the law tells us that they are, but because if they are ignored individual people will leave it, or not work to their full potential to assist it in achieving its purpose, or lack the tools and environment to make it better at that something it does. Fundamentally, leaders of organizations understand all this, but it’s a complex thing to remain fixated on the purpose of the organization, whilst also having full responsibility for thinking through the potential impact of the organization’s actions on individuals, what must be done to ensure the survival of the organization (keep some individuals, eject others, and acquire more) AND the various potential ways in which individuals might enhance the organization’s ability to achieve its purpose. So, to some degree or another, this duty is assigned to individuals within the organization that we currently call ‘HR’.
This is what HR is to me – at the most fundamental level we are there to tell ‘the organization’ (a big, complex, but essentially dumb and heartless thing) how to avoid doing damage to itself in pursuit of its purpose, by constantly considering its actions in the context of the individual. It’s a little bit like telling the Hulk why he might not want to smash his grandma’s car:
Hulk: “Hulk smash!”
HR: “I know that Hulk smash- it’s what you do. But if you smash your grandma’s car she will not make you a sandwich. Perhaps you should consider smashing something else?”
In an organizational context this sounds more like:
HR is not sorcery- lots of people who don’t work in HR know these things (hopefully your organization employs some of them). But those individuals also have to fixate on that something the organization exists to do, so it often makes sense to employ individuals dedicated to thinking about these ‘individual context’ things, proposing actions, policies and processes to support them, and doing the basics to maintain individuals’ voluntary membership with the organization (paying them, providing agreed upon benefits and ensuring their safety while at work). Some organizations may choose to vest only limited accountabilities in the individuals charged with HR (they’ll do transactional personnel stuff), while others will ask them to be the source of a ‘people strategy’ that might give the organization an advantage against other organizations it competes with.
This is what HR is to me– we are advisors who keep the individual on our mind at all times, and make sure that what the organization does, or wants to do, is considered in that context. Everything else – the policies, paperwork, process and politics – are all in service to this higher purpose. We should never forget that.
This post was written by Jane Watson.
Jane is a senior HR practitioner based in Toronto, and the author of the blog Talent Vanguard. In the last 10 years she’s worked across most functional areas of HR in financial services, non-profit, design, food processing, and hospitality, and is currently working in the public sector. She is an active volunteer for HRPA Ontario and HRPA Toronto, where she sits on the Mentorship Program Committee, as well as acting as a mentor through Fanshawe College and ACCES employment. She would love for you to find her on Twitter at: @jsarahwatsHR or at www.talentvanguard.com
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