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Human resources - what do they actually do?

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 25 May 2007


Creeping in behind the intellectual arguments on organisational change towards the end of the 20th century was an invidious force seeking respect and tenure but gaining only the latter.

I have worked and studied in a number of organisations over the last 20 years and this article reflects some of my findings on Human Resource Management. The anecdotes come from colleagues still working in the public service or at universities and who wish to remain anonymous.

This is no place to give a history of the rise of the Human Relations movement, except to say that back in the 1930's, American studies showed that factory workers were more productive when management took an interest in their workers welfare. The rise of HR was seen by some as an attempt to humanise the production lines of Ford and other mass production industries.

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The rise of HR has gone through many phases since then but in the early 1980s personnel offices went far beyond the important task of ensuring staff were hired and paid in a legal and formalistic manner, to making sweeping recommendations for strategic organisational change. That's quite a leap in 25 years.

The whole rationale of HRM is based on one premise - “People are our greatest asset”. Here's a few more obvious, self evident value judgments: “oxygen sustains life”, “children are our future”. HRM is the dung heap where managerial mumbo-jumbo grows. They employ obscurantist language in a desperate attempt to establish their worth and in large part, the “value add” of HR is negligible - in fact, it is a cost.

Here's an example of HR in action. Before I left a large teaching establishment in Melbourne, management wanted to know that the 150 staff in our department were gainfully employed. So they devised a sliding scale points system whereby enrolling X number of full time students was worth 25 points, taking on leadership responsibility was worth 15 points and teaching and research were worth 10 points each. On your workplan, you needed to total of 100 points to keep your job.

Consulting with students, sitting on committees, answering telephones and emails, attending to staff disputes, ensuring sick staff got paid and general academic administration earned no points. The scale was set by management and the head of management happened to be a mathematician.

It was a model lifted straight from scientific management theory of Frederick Taylor in the 1930s. We lost one fifth of the teaching workforce in 24 months because in the main, professionals wanted to be treated with respect rather than as economic units.

The only time staff saw anyone from Human Resources was when staff were being sacked. They were like the angel of death. In fact, the last person one would contact if you had a serious personal or work-based issue was the HR unit as they were acting as intermediaries for management.

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While this article damns HR management for essentially being organisational parasites and lackeys of “slash and burn” bosses, those who were taught action research in their MBA's tended to understand the “lived experience” and frustration of staff and were more likely to put forward a more balanced case to management. They were in the minority.

At university I spent most of November writing annual appraisal reports to be submitted to the head of school who then sent them on to the Faculty HR Manager, who in turn submitted them to the HR Management Group.

I had teaching staff who desperately needed to understand that teaching did not consist of playing 90 minutes of videos or PowerPoint displays, yet this was put in the “too hard basket” by HR and besides, it was too close to Christmas.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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