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HR’s Identity Crisis

Do you know what an identity crisis is? In psychology, it’s a failure to achieve ego during adolescence. Those who emerge from this stage with a strong sense of identity are well equipped to face adulthood with confidence and certainty. Those who fail to achieve a cohesive identity – who experience an identity crisis – will exhibit a confusion of roles, not knowing who they are, where they belong, or where they want to go. This sort of unresolved crisis leaves individuals struggling to “find themselves” (Erik Erikson).

Now reread the first paragraph and apply it to HR. Sounds familiar? How long has HR been trying to get “a seat at the table” and complaining about not succeeding? In business you earn your worth by getting results through focus and a lot of hard work. Does complaining signal a strong sense of self or an understanding of your purpose? I don’t think so – only results matter.

When you don’t have a strong purpose for your HR department you get writtten up in articles like the one Mark King published May 28 in the Guardian entitled HR: your friend or your foe? The author gives some examples of how HR struggles between supporting managers and supporting employees, and in doing so, inadvertently creates a lack of trust on both sides. That leads to the central question: who does HR really serve? Do the functions they perform make them allies or foes to employees?

It’s an interesting question – imagine asking it about other support functions like Finance, ICT, Procurement. Would we ever question if they’re ally or foe? The answer is no, you would never doubt where the other internal business functions stand. So why ask it about HR?

The answer lies in the fact that HR is perceived as serving 2 masters: business managers and employees. And when HR gets involved, it’s usually because managers and employees haven’t been able to work it out themselves, so HR ends up smack in the middle. Not many business functions get that same role. On the other hand, HR is not very clear about the role it wants to play: is it advocating for employees, protecting the company’s best interests, supporting business managers?

We all know that you can’t serve many masters at the same time. I have met many wonderful, knowledgeable, dedicated HR professionals, but not many can give a straight answer to the question who they serve. And that is why they struggle: if you do not know why you’re there you do not have a strong focus. If you have not made very clear what your role in the business is, you will be taken advantage of and other people will role over you to achieve their goals.

Even in Wonderland, Alice already knew why it wasn’t working:

20120708-212634.jpg“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

It’s not that difficult – if you start thinking in a business way. The best business leaders we know have one thing in common: they know how to define the purpose of the company and remind their staff over and over of the strategy and goals. So HR leaders, one way to overcome the trust issue is to create a compelling HR focus, share it with your staff and start working on it. If you want to be trusted and successfull, you have to have a strong sense of purpose, and you have to know the road you are taking.