December 5, 2013

Is HR Pointless?

Over the summer you may have read in the press about the demise of Lucy Adams, the Director of People at the BBC. You may also have read the aftermath, most prominently from Louisa Peacock of The Daily Telegraph who opined that Adams had managed to kill off the HR profession once and for all, adding that “HR is a pointless department that does little for the bottom line of the business”.

Although I won’t comment on the Adams case, the criticism directed at HR as a result of the woes at the BBC warrant some further thought. It would appear that most critics argue that HR professionals have sought to serve the interests of their masters rather than the wider business. We’re so often accused of navel gazing, orchestrating endless self-referential debates within the profession on whether HR is strategic and should have a place on the top table.  Moreover, we wrap these insular debates within the language of HR babble. How often do we talk and write in metaphors? For example we love to “drive out” things (only cattle are driven out?) and we’re often “going forwards” (Satnav speak?). We also like to “ring-fence” and “deliver” (surely only pizzas, post and services are delivered). We often slip in “in order to…” or “the fact that…” into sentences, both almost always superfluous statements. It isn’t just HR people that over use or misuse language but whilst I’m here I may as well mention my other pet hate – starting a sentence with a number.  So, perhaps as a profession we don’t always help ourselves.
However, probably the biggest problem the profession faces is that very often HR is not practised well. Too many HR people concentrate on learning and then applying the babble, and over emphasising their mastery of ‘technical’ and/or procedural matters. Thankfully, I believe that we operate differently here at Sheffield. We need to continue to focus on developing and applying those precious organisational skills - pragmatic problem solving, decision-making and being able and willing to reach sound judgements.

Can we communicate in a better way to emphasise our corporate contribution whilst avoiding the type of criticism often directed towards our profession? Here are a few thoughts from me:

1.       You’re an individual and you’ll be communicating with other individuals – so write personably (and professionally).

2.       You don’t therefore always need to adopt a formal standardised approach, consider offering your own judgement and opinion. 

3.       Let’s not be too defensive. We all make mistakes. When we do, apologise and then attempt to remedy the problem.

4.       We’re very busy – but there should always be time to acknowledge a query/question/problem. Providing the answer to that phone call or email may take us longer, but always acknowledge it promptly.      

5.       We adapt our communications to the recipient, but don’t forget that others may read that note. Emails are very leaky! 

6.       Is what we are saying in the best interests of the University? If you’re not sure or don’t know why it is, then ask a colleague?

In that spirit, let me ask you whether there are any top communication tips that you’ve found helpful? If so, please do share.



  1. I've always gone with the notion that (because we are all so busy) people need to know why they should read or pay attention your email - what's in it for the audience? And where possible include a call to acti or react in some way. (This is something picked up from Jenny Perkin's Comms session back in the summer).

  2. Interesting blog post and one that is relevant to everyone both inside and outside the workplace.

    In some cases communication can become more of a one-way dialogue and people forget about the importance of active listening. Since starting in my role within Staff Development, I’ve developed this new skill, which along with my own confidence has presented itself as an invaluable communication tool. Simply summarising what I’ve said and repeating it back to them, can give reassurance that I have listened and understood what they are saying. When I don’t understand or need further details, I’m definitely not afraid to ask more questions.

  3. Sara - love your point about communication being a 2-way process, not just us talking at others.

  4. I really like point 1. Sometimes when you talk too professionally, some of the sincerity of what is being said gets lost. So coming across as a person, is really important.

  5. Writing personably is something I always try to do. It helps build a good rapport with the audience and usually results in getting a response that you don't need to spend a load of time figuring out what the author is actually trying to say.

    I also think it's important to spend time thinking about what the audience is interested in, what the true story actually is. If they haven't contributed towards the message or need to do anything, do they need to know?

  6. Be ready to say if something hasnt gone quite right - apologise with confidence - apply the learning - and move on.
    Dont forget the art of speech - sometimes picking up the phone or meeting up for a quick chat can build contacts and move things forward.
    And finally, whats wrong with cattle? (from a farmer's daughter!)

  7. An interesting post that makes you think about how we are perceived by the organisation.

    Since communication has become a bigger part of my role with Talent First, I have had to think a lo more about the way that I communicate with others and I agree that it is easy to fall into the formal jargon rather than the informal that will engage people. This is not something that we are going to be able to achieve over night but by working together with our communications work we can change the way we write.

    One thing I have found useful is talking with colleagues in the Internal Communications team within corporate affairs. They have often offered insight into communications that I have been working on and made me think about it from the users point of view rather then just about what I want to say.

  8. There are now so many channels for communication - it's easier and certainly quicker than ever to send a short message out, or to place substantial content on websites/blogs etc. We have image and video to hand to make our message more attractive to our audiences too. All these tools can be great, and they give us a wide choice of options, but however we choose to communicate, the method shouldn't be an end in itself, but should always be just a 'tool'.

    Just because we have a new way to communicate, doesn't mean we should all jump on the band waggon and start using it for the sake of it. The quality of the communication is paramount. It's no good having beautifully colour co-ordinated web pages with interactive content, if the substance behind it is not thoroughly thought out. It shouldn't be a case of "so, we have a Twitter account, what shall we say?" Rather it should be, "I have something I want to engage people on, what's the best way to do it?" Sometimes a focus group will be better than a Google Community, or maybe your Google Community will emerge as a result of those 'real' meetings. I think the latter Google Community is likely to be more productive.

    Regarding avoiding criticism of our profession - I couldn't agree more re the buzz words/phrases that are overused these days. They only alienate people and make it feel as though you are patronising your audience. It also makes the message sound lazy and using short-cuts, or worse, they reveal there is little substance in what you are saying or you don't quite believe in what you are saying, so you need to hide behind the jargon. The criticism that we get engrossed in self-referential debates & are ‘serving our masters’ rather than the wider organisation seems further evidenced if we use our own jargon too much, and also if we seem to be talking a lot to each other across the different communication channels, rather than engaging with our customers as a priority.

    In terms of expressing our corporate contribution - all our communications will be doing this, whether this is their express intention or not. If it comes from HR, it is what we are doing as a function. We need to be able to stand by the content of our message at a personal and professional level; be authentic as a person, and our judgement/opinion/perspective is more likely to be valued and engaged with.

    I've come across a couple of 'top tips' in communications sessions I've attended:

    • ‘Model the behaviour you want to see’ – I like this very much; what goes around comes around.
    • ‘Tell real stories’ – mirrors what Dan has said above, bring yourself into your communications.

    I like the approach of the Staff Survey web pages ( which have the format 'You said'...followed by the organisational ‘response’ - this really puts the customer at the heart of the business and demonstrates the fact that HR/ the University is actively listening and responding to what our 'customers' are saying.

    Staff Development's YouTube video updating HR Exec Team on what they have been doing with ‘Development Everywhere’ is an innovative way to communicate internally. All the team have been able to contribute, which might not have been possible with a ‘paper’ or someone attending the Exec Team meeting. Video is evidently a developing channel around the department – perhaps in the next one, they could all be walking around the University whilst chatting to us about putting development everywhere!