The Two Kinds of HR

Originally posted February 2014

It was legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington who famously said “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind”. I think that’s pretty much true of HR as well.

All very well you might say – but what do we mean by “good HR”? It’s worth looking at the second (and much less quoted) part of what Duke Ellington said: “… the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed”

HR is – whether some like it or not – a management function. It’s not some internal mini-ACAS trying to look after employees within a corporate structure (there are organisations that do that – they are called trade unions). So ultimately good HR is making a significant and identifiable contribution to the success of the organisation it is located in – however that organisation defines “success”.

The way in which good HR does this is to create the conditions for the employees of an organisation to achieve. That can mean ensuring that talented employees are recruited; that they are remunerated adequately; and they are given opportunities to maximise their own potential. Importantly good HR works to create these conditions not because it’s morally a “good thing” (though many would argue it is) but because time and again studies in behavioural psychology and neuro-science show that it is the most effective way to manage. Good HR is not about clinging to the ideas of defunct management theorists.

Good HR recognises that it cannot make employees motivated, enthusiastic or empowered. But it can do things which encourage this behaviour, even when all around are sceptical or negative. Just like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, good HR believes that “if you build it, they will come”.

So when I see HR giving itself “tags” like Commercial HR, Social HR or Brave HR I ask why? There are only two kinds of HR – Good HR and the other kind.

Which do you practise?

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