Human Resources is Dead! Long Live HR!
HR might not be dead, but for HR as we know it death is imminent.
In my 20 year career, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Human Resources department — and I doubt I’m alone in this. Like many others, a negative experience with HR has left me distrustful of the department that seems too often to rush from one crisis to another without any specialized training and focus more on office parties and morale than the development and well-being of their people.
In a moment when the company culture is often in the spotlight and we have roles like the ‘Head of People’ or ‘Chief Happiness Officer,’ it’s time to take a good look at the true value of Human Resources, and how to lay the outdated, traditional takes on HR to rest. Permanently.
This is a call to the future; a reinvention and major groundswell of change with regards to how we treat our “human resources.” A call to the possibility of stretching human potential through self-discovery and true concern for our own well-being.
The Good and the Ugly of HR
Here are two examples to illustrate the good and the ugly of HR, both the love and hate I’ve felt for them over the years.
About 10 years ago I was working at a hawt tech startup that was acquired by an 800lb gorilla who had gone on a rampage acquiring cloud startups. We had a great team top to bottom, a product that was making oodles of money, a technology stack that was the envy of many early cloud companies, and a really strong brand.
It’s no surprise what happened next. For months we waded through internal politics in the new company, the product was mired without leadership and the product team grew frustrated with our new managers; but hey, at least we had a new logo! HR called us into a meeting to discuss the frustrations of the past few months: Of course, it would be closed doors with no management and everything said would be kept confidential. As the most senior Product Manager I spoke up. Three days later I was let go.
Although I have been burned, I’ve also seen the value of HR.
Fast forward a few years (and my second acquisition), I found myself struggling under the pressure of integrating my team culturally, making a huge product pivot and being a good corporate citizen. People don’t talk about this very often, but going from being an agile, visionary CEO of a successful company to a collaborative and compromising cog in the greater machine can take a toll on your mental health. I didn’t handle the transition well and found myself burning bridges to light my way. When that didn’t work, apathy crept in and I started dreading coming to work.
I was experiencing a very human problem that could only be understood and helped by another human truly concerned about my well-being. I was lucky enough to have an amazing partner in Human Resources, and she knew something was wrong. She didn’t charge into my office when someone launched a complaint about me; instead, she wanted to understand the whole picture of what was happening and why. If she could understand, then we could work to fix the larger problem, for the good of myself, my team, and the organization. Despite being spread too thin in her job she maintained an open dialogue with me, encouraged me to discuss my side of the issues in private, and offered to help break down walls or repair bridges that were in ashes.
Unfortunately, this kind of empathy and holistic approach is not standard operating procedure — and for practical reasons. Most people who work in Human Resources don’t have the specialized training to be able to handle mental health, wellness, and mediation; they are often spread too thin with many other general responsibilities and can be under pressure to respond more to internal politics than the needs of an employee. But this is exactly what we need to change — and what technology is already changing for us.
Better, Faster, Stronger
As someone who has worked in technology for two decades, I can see the writing on the wall. I look around and I see a reality where algorithms have a better chance of finding you a lover than you do. We have cameras that can detect faces, dogs, and packages at your door. Cars that drive us around. We have whole systems designed to deliver us only the information most relevant to our beliefs and personal tastes.
For Human Resources, we will soon have algorithms for recruiting, hiring, performance, promotions, and compensation. Risk and compliance? Yes, the machine will do that too. Benefits? Yes, someday in the future all our personal medical data, health history, and insurance will work seamlessly together to determine benefits. Training and personal development? Companies like Pluralsight will eventually make that a bespoke experience for each and every employee. Quarterly or end of year reviews? Dead, dead. Firing or employee discipline? Still best done by the employee’s manager, but in the future, the machine will assist the manager in guaranteeing he’s compliant and trained on handling these situations. Employee engagement? The machine. Layoffs? Probably the machine too.
This isn’t just a disruption of Human Resources; this is cataclysmic. It is death. For many in the Human Resources industry, and particularly those in tech companies, will see a massive shift as responsibilities move from human to machine. Will it be better? Not sure, but it will be more efficient. If you are relying on your people skills or SPHR certification for job security you might want to reconsider.
Over the course of history, we’ve seen technology claim many jobs. A couple of my favorites are the pinsetters for bowling alleys, the human alarm clock, switchboard operators, and the factory lector whose sole job was to entertain factory workers by reading the local daily. I can see a future where the HR generalist goes the way of the lamplighter.
The Potential of Potential
But I’m not all doom and gloom. Technology is an unstoppable force and I am sure that the tasks that can be automated will — it’s already happening. But I also believe that some things cannot and should not be done by machines. And there is a future where getting rid of the repetitive tasks of HR opens up time and space for the HR generalist to morph into the HR specialist, focused on what really matters: human well-being and performance. Much like the US Special Forces MOS training where students specialize in weapons, engineering, communication or medical, HR teams will be small and focused on skills like neuropsychology, nutrition, physical training, performance coaching, personal finances, and team dynamics.
Yes, this is a shot across the bow of HR generalists who spend their time running from one crisis to another or focused on the wrong things like what’s the next great perk we can introduce or where should we have the company party this year.
But we have to rethink what’s most important to both the company and the people who spend most of their daylight hours not with their families, but in the office. It’s not dry cleaning and sushi chefs. It’s about mental health. We all face challenges in our mental health at some point in our lives and it directly affects both our personal and professional lives. Why not have specialized staff to ensure the mental well-being of every employee? Our physical health affects our ability to focus, solve problems and work with others and yet the company cafe still serves up cheeseburgers and fries. Your HR Nutritionist can help you find the right foods and physical activity to have the energy and focus to enjoy your job; encouragement included.
The naysayers around the water cooler are already saying it will never work. “You can’t make me talk to a therapist or a performance coach.” But guess what? You are a professional, like Steph Curry or Sidney Crosby, getting paid to perform a job. And part of that job should be to bring your whole self to work and do everything possible to improve your whole self. Can you imagine Steph Curry refusing coaching or help from a sports psychologist? In today’s game, these athletes want every edge they can get, and it shouldn’t be any different in our jobs.
Imagine your dream job. Now imagine that dream job helped you achieve your highest fitness goals (run a marathon, learn to ski, practice yoga), your financial goals (be debt-free, buy a home, go back to school, a college fund for your kids or retire at 50) and helped you deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises along the way (loss of a loved one, illness, relationship issues or personal depression). Isn’t that more meaningful, and a better testament to the potential of a ‘human resource’ than dry cleaning and sushi Fridays?
The machine will take your jobs. I have no doubt about that. But in the future, a more specialized Human Resources will be on a mission much more significant than the next company perk: helping your people reach their full potential.