If human resources = making the most of people, then why is it so blinkin’ systematic?

In an industry that is depressingly attached to protocol and procedure, it’s nice when you hear about someone who opts for a more human, more instinctive approach to HR. But it’s even nicer when you hear that it actually worked.

The individual in question isn’t an HR professional. In fact, he happens to be the current CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2001, Schmidt described how, having just taken the reins of the floundering software company, Novell, he wanted to seek out the company’s brightest minds. You can just imagine the HR department gleefully rubbing their hands as they delve into the archives for last year’s annual reviews and employee feedback reports:

“Oh yes, of course. What you need is a new internal talent resourcing strategy. We’ll get right on it…”

Schmidt opted for a more direct approach:

As we all know, intelligence does not always correspond to current job title. And in a technology company such as Novell, the real brilliant guys and gals are engineers hidden many layers below the top.

Here’s how Schmidt found them…

“I used a kind of algorithm to locate these people. A few days after I started, I was on the company shuttle from San Jose to Provo, where our engineering staff is centered, and I was sitting knee-to-knee with two engineers embroiled in a fascinating, heated argument. They were obviously two extremely bright people. I asked them to give me the names of the smartest people they knew in the company. They gave me a list, and over the next week I set up half-hour meetings with all of those other smart people, and I asked each of them to give me the names of the ten smartest people they knew. Because the smart people in an organization tend to know one another, I eventually found out who they were — about 100 in all.”

Schmidt circumnavigated the need for a wasteful, admin-heavy procedure by simply using the people around him, making use of their skills and being resourceful.

I think it’s fair to say that HR is currently experiencing something of an image problem.  And as if the rest of the business world didn’t view some HR functions as tedious enough, the matter is exacerbated by HR’s insistence to flummox others by dolling relatively simple concepts up in ‘HR-BS.’ John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, picks up on this particular issue – as have we – in an article diplomatically titled, Kill the HR Speak:

Every function within the HR profession deserves some level of credit for creating confusion. These terms often emerge when corporate leaders are fed up and want something different, a situation that can lead HR leaders to re-brand the same old approaches and tools under a different name: “talent management” becomes “human capital management,” for example.

I’m not the first to accuse HR of using confusing jargon. Keith Hammond’s famous Fast Company magazine article “Why We Hate HR” superbly described how the national SHRM conference was the epicenter of confusing HR speaks. Scott Adams, originator of the Dilbert series, has made a fortune making fun of our fads and terminology. A Google search also brings up thousands of comments from individuals complaining about HR speak and wanting to know what HR really means when it uses such phrases…

The solution to this linguistic problem is pretty simple. First of all, we in HR need to make a conscious effort to use business terms exclusively. If we can’t find a word in an annual report or a financial statement, we shouldn’t use it, period. Next, we need to make every attempt to use not the most complex word, but instead, the most understandable word when dealing with managers and employees. So instead of saying “competencies,” we should simply say “skills.”

We should aggressively challenge HR professionals who use HR speak, or demand that they clearly and measurably define each term.”

The problem is actually twofold. Firstly, HR concerns itself with ‘soft’ issues – employee engagement, for example – that the other ‘tougher’ business functions might scoff at. Secondly, it then proceeds to obscure these somewhat intangible concepts with pseudo-psychological HR-babble. The result is that the rest of senior management are left wondering what on Earth the HR director is prattling on about and why he can’t just relate the information in objective statistical form.

Most organisations these days are happy to harp on about how their staff are their greatest asset. Why is it then that HR so often finds itself marginalised, the subject of ridicule? The CIPD launched their own attempt at an HR ‘rebrand’, only to have it blow up in their face – and we weren’t the only ones who thought so . Trying to turn HR into a wacky, off-the-wall department is, frankly, a bridge too far. Why not just give people the truth: that HR is about getting the best out of people, not just firing and filing! HR jargon is a prime contributor to this unfortunate misconception. A quick search around the web turns over some excellent examples of HR speak. It’s telling that the majority of it is simply new ways to say ‘firing’, here are my favourites:

  • career alternative enhancement program
  • career-change opportunity
  • dehiring staff
  • derecruiting resources
  • downsizing employment
  • employee reduction activities
  • implementing a skills mix adjustment
  • negative employee retention
  • optimizing outplacement potential
  • rectification of a workforce imbalance
  • redundancy elimination
  • right-sizing
  • selecting out manpower
  • strategic downsizing
  • vocation relocation policy

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