Originally posted February 2014
I’m going to let you into a not-so-secret secret. HR people don’t, on the whole, like numbers. We might do stuff with them if we really have to (“You want sickness absence statistics, Mr Finance Director? Ok, if we must”) but deep down we’d much sooner be dealing with people, whether it’s developing systems and processes or analysing their interactions.
Don’t get me wrong – people matters are very important and if HR didn’t do them no-one else in business would – but, while avoiding numbers, one of the things HR people do is agonise endlessly about why the senior team/C-Suite/top table don’t take them seriously. Perhaps the two are not unconnected.
We talk a lot in HR about effective communication and talking in appropriate and meaningful language. Usually however it’s in the context of talking “down” to employees – we rarely consider it in relation to talking “up” to Directors.
So if you want to be taken seriously by business leaders, you need to be able to explain things in their language. And that means understanding the numbers and being comfortable discussing them. It’s no wonder that HR lacks credibility when I read a debate on LinkedIn (about the CIPD’s recent survey on zero hours contracts) in which a CIPD qualified professional stated that a survey of 456 out of 1000000 wasn’t significant and that the findings (which he disagreed with) could therefore be discounted. As anyone with a vague knowledge of statistics could tell you, a sample that size is more than 95% certain to give a true reflection of the total population – indeed you could be confident of the findings with a smaller sample size. Similarly when discussing salaries, it amazes me that many in HR don’t know the difference between mean, mode and median when they talk about “averages” – or could explain which one is used and why. And too often we quote meaningless figures as having some authority; one I spotted recently on Twitter was that “HR spends 2% of time on recruitment and 98% on dealing with the consequences of poor hires”. Is that meant to suggest some sort of relationship between those 2 figures? If so, what, and how?
I’m not suggesting that to work in HR you need to be a maths genius – simply that to be effective in HR it’s one of the many skills you need a working knowledge of. Wilfully displaying our ignorance damages the authority of the profession.