HR has always been an odd function.
It has never had anything to do with making money. Over a 100 years ago HR was created by company owners to ensure their company complied with applicable laws. That’s it.
(The fact that the interest of company owners and that of employees have become mutually exclusive is significant. It is just as significant that “employers” consist of employees, including HR, acting against their own interests, in a schizophrenic modus operandi – with the obvious exceptions of small family businesses.)
For a long time, it didn’t try to be more than what it was: a bureaucratic function focused on compliance. Alas, like all functions, it “evolved” due to a push by daydreaming academics who made careers coming up with ideas about what it could be. Their effort was received with enthusiasm by ambitious career bureaucrats and together they turned HR into an undeniable monster which is perceived by everybody as an internal secret service: empowered servilism – despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.
The problem, of course, always lies outside the domain that manifests it. Prior to personnel departments, there existed bureaucratic structures in various government organizations, although these were fundamentally different from what we mean by bureaucracy today. These early bureaucracies manifested values far greater than the practical, pragmatic considerations absolutely necessary for the survival of the organization itself. To use a simple example: no bureaucracy could desacralize the value of one’s word back then; besides honoring agreements even without contracts (and the corresponding legal apparatus), this determined a respectful conduct in everyday interactions unimaginable today. Once ambition turned against values, a repulsive hubris developed, turning the natural order of things upside down, elevating the pragmatic above the ideal. It is not surprising that in such a subnatural environment ill will is, in fact, valued and any manifestation of actual value is ridiculed.
Whole organizations have turned into absurd, cynical and value-signaling bureaucracies where nobody’s allowed to live their values, while everybody’s forced to talking about them; where statements and intentions clearly contradict each other; where a somber, Kafkaesque culture rules pervasively.
HR’s problems is not that it has no seat at the boardroom, or that it has no credibility from a business point of view. The situation is quite the opposite: the organization’s problem is that, as a whole, it has become the worst version of HR imaginable.
Image: a scene from Kafka’s The Trial