The Globe and Mail newspaper recently ran a very thoughtful article examining the growth of precarious work in Canada – people holding multiple part-time or temporary jobs with irregular scheduling. Not surprisingly, this form of employment is very attractive for employers, because they can quickly adjust the size of their workforce as needed. But it’s incredibly difficult for the employees, who usually take these jobs out of necessity, not by choice. Many of them have difficulty getting enough paid hours of work to make a living, and they also have to struggle to manage varying work schedules that can change with very little notice.
In the article, economist Jim Stanford is quoted as saying, “If you’re treating people like a disposable input, you’re not going to elicit a lot of loyalty and creativity.” This comment brought to my mind another workplace problem that, in my opinion, is part of the reason for increasingly poor treatment of workers: the failure of “human resource management” to combat the use of exploitative forms of work. When I say “failure”, I don’t mean the failure of individuals in human resource management (HRM) positions to speak up against these practices. I know many HRM professionals who dislike precarious work arrangements, because they see the long-term negative impact of precarious work on workers, or organizations, on the economy, and on society. What I mean by “failure” is the failure of the “human resource management” function to become an integral and influential part of organizations, despite a name change and an occupational professionalization that was supposed to achieve exactly that.
When I started taking business school courses in the early 1980s, “personnel management” was just beginning to evolve into “human resource management”. As this blog post explains, there were two major reasons for this name change. One was that “personnel management” was a purely administrative function, carrying out routine tasks such as keeping employee records and generating wage payments. The broader term “human resource management” was intended to reflect all the organizational functions and tasks that involve employees – such as recruitment, promotion, training, career development, performance evaluation, and (if necessary) discipline or termination. The other reason was to emphasize that “human” resources were just as necessary to the organization’s operations as any other kind of resource, such as raw materials or financial capital – and that, as a resource, employees needed to be managed thoughtfully and strategically so that their contributions to the organization could be maximized.
The professionalization of human resource management as an occupation happened more recently, starting in the early 1990s. The intent was to establish common standards for training and knowledge in human resource management jobs, and to create a certification guaranteeing that an individual had demonstrated competencies in specific HRM skills. There is now a Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP) designation in nearly every province in Canada, and similar HRM certifications in many other countries.
The CHRP certification process was modeled on the certification process for professional accountants. It requires candidates to complete coursework in particular areas of study; to take and pass examinations; and to acquire relevant professional experience. Unlike accounting, a professional designation is not formally required to practice human resource management; however, more employers are requesting candidates with CHRPs when they are hiring for HRM jobs.
These changes were intended to give HRM more internal and external credibility – but for the most part, it hasn’t worked. If anything, HRM’s influence and credibility has diminished. Working in human resource management is seen as the fast track to nowhere for ambitious managers – to the point, I’ve been told, where some MBA students don’t even want to take a human resource management course, for fear that employers seeing it on their transcript will push them into HRM jobs. And despite the frequent assertions that human resource management needs to be part of an organization’s high-level strategic planning, and the very rational reasons why this should happen, in reality this rarely occurs. So despite the professional certification and the more inclusive title, in many ways HRM is not that much better off than when it was “personnel management” and a strictly administrative function. (And that may be why some organizations appear to have abandoned “human resource management” entirely, and given their HR executives snappy titles like “VP of People” or “VP of Talent” – or done away with their human resource management departments altogether.)
Here’s a couple of reasons why HRM has failed to achieve what it was intended to do.
- Human resource management was and is a female-dominated occupation – and even within the HR occupation itself, men tend to occupy higher-level positions than women. The sad reality is that female-dominated occupations tend to be viewed less positively and taken less seriously than male-dominated occupations, even when those occupations perform a valuable function within organizations.
- Many organizations still don’t seem to understand much about using their HR departments effectively, despite the department’s importance to the organization’s operations. The results of this survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in the US show that most organizations hiring in HR are hiring for “generalists”. Hiring for a generalist makes some sense if the organization doesn’t have enough activity to justify, say, a HR position specializing only in recruitment, or in employee development. But at the same time, it’s difficult to imagine an organization hiring primarily “generalists” in other functional areas such as information systems. Expecting one person to be able to effectively carry out every HRM process is asking a lot – and in large or complex organizations, it’s an unrealistic expectation. But any resulting shortfalls in how HR functions are carried out are often perceived not as a problem of flawed job design, but as a problem with the HR department itself.
- The HR profession has been criticized for marginalizing itself. It uses impenetrable jargon; it doesn’t always deliver value to organizations, or is unable to demonstrate how its operations contribute value; and it’s seen as not being able to offer concrete guidance and advice, even in its own area of expertise. Some commentators have noted that many of the “personnel management” functions of the past are now automated, through the use of software like PeopleSoft, or can be outsourced – and they have suggested that the HR profession has really not been able to adapt to those changes in ways that strongly demonstrate why organizations still need HR departments.
- And the HR professional certification process has also been criticized for not adequately training HR professionals to enable them to fully participate in other functions of the organization – for example, by only requiring minimal training in financial management or strategic planning processes. The certification process has also been criticized for not even ensuring adequate training in every HR function, such as in the very important area of employment and labour law, and for giving “professional development” credit to practitioners for attending anti-union workshops. (This last point, incidentally, is why I refuse to participate in my province’s human resource management association.)
Now this is not to say that Canada’s increase in precarious work is solely due to the failure of “human resource management”. There are many other factors driving that change, such as business practices being altered to respond to the economic pressures of globalization. But when human resource management issues are not part of organizations’ planning or strategies – and when human resource managers don’t have an effective voice, or any voice, in major organizational decisions – the negative impacts of employee practices such as precarious work arrangements rarely get considered. So the failure of “human resource management” is also a failure of many organizations to take employee-related issues seriously, other than ensuring that there are enough employees available to competently perform the work. The prevalence of precarious work is just another example of that very unfortunate failure.