What does it mean when we say “HR is dead”?

Guest post by Sydney Goodfellow, Community Manager at Rise

In a recent Motherboard article, “HR Comes Last as Startups and Women Pay the Price,” author Julianne Tveten argues that startups have devalued and eliminated their HR departments at great cost to their female colleagues. She’s right.

HR does come last at many startups, and that’s more than problematic: it’s tragic. When you get rid of HR altogether or make light of serious workplace problems, you face compliance issues at best and blatant harassment and discrimination charges at worst. But the declaration that “HR is Dead” is in no way a challenge to the necessity of the Human Resources industry as a whole, as Tveten’s article seems to suggest. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. It’s a call to action to businesses of every size, in every industry, to realize that HR should come first. Always. It’s just that we shouldn’t call it HR anymore.

As the Motherboard article states, “40 percent of women in tech are afraid to even mention their families at work.” And the problems don’t stop at the tech industry. In 2015, there were only 24 female CEOs in all of the Fortune 500. That’s five percent. And of the top five leadership positions, only 14.2 percent are held by women.

“It’s a pipeline problem,” some say. “It’s a tech problem,” others assert. “It’s a cultural problem or an education problem or a political problem or a biology problem.” “It’s an HR problem.” These are just some of countless stories we tell ourselves in order to understand the terrifying gender problem in businesses across North America. It’s not just a gender problem, either. It’s a race problem and an ageism problem, too.

HR is designed to address these kinds of things, and it’s been trying to do just that for more than 100 years. And yet here we are, coming to the end of our second decade in our second millennium and we’re still facing so much discrimination. Women are afraid to take maternity leave. Their salaries, on average, are approximately 20 percent less than what men in equivalent positions make. And these are not just problems that tech startups with no HR departments face (although the problems have been particularly bad in that industry, I’ll admit).

This is not just HR’s failure. It’s not just the tech industry’s failure. I don’t really know whose failure this is, to be honest, but we simply cannot keep doing things the way we've always done them and expect the results to be different.

Businesses need to stop thinking about HR as a glorified babysitter that their forward-thinking millennials don’t need and their “corporate values” can replace. The tech industry needs to look at human resources for what it is: one of the most important function of any business. It’s so important that it deserves a C-suite position. This is a bold claim, sure, but hear me out: people are the most important part of any business, and HR is the department that serves, protects, engages, and empowers those people. But in order for businesses to see that, we can’t call it HR anymore.

No, human resources is not dead, in the same way that no one thought marketing was dead, even when Harvard Business Review and Forbes asserted that it was. Rather, HR is changing. It’s undergoing a much-needed rebrand, one that we hope will take it from the back room, un-sexy department that many startups see it as to the vital force for good that it continues to be.

But it’s this very rebrand that causes problems, Tveten seems to argue. It’s too sexy, and not functional enough. She critiques the “work hard, play hard” mentality that many startups adopt when they use perks and “culture” to justify increasing demands on their employee’s personal lives (it may be easy for a childless twenty-something to hobnob with the bosses after hours, but that kind of experience simply isn’t possible for parents).

“To call the ‘work hard, play hard’ atmosphere inhospitable to women who are pregnant or have families to come home to is a gross understatement,” Tveten says, adding that the ethos of “disruption” that many startups adopt can “color startup founders’ perceptions of traditional business organization.” The first piece of traditional business organization to go? HR. And with it, inclusion, equality, and even the safety and well-being of female employees.

In the Motherboard article, “Jen,” a startup software developer, sums it up best: “I think one of the biggest problems about not having HR was there was no oversight in terms of support for career growth and making our workplace more diverse.”

The HR department has long been the steward of diversity and inclusion in an organization, providing that “oversight” that Jen’s startup lacked. Trained in sensitivity, empathy, safety, communication, and leadership, the HR department is intended to ensure that organizations steer clear of the challenges that Jen and Tveten describe, and thousands of women and minorities face.

But in the last few decades, HR has been the butt of jokes (think Toby Flenderson on The Office), the disliked “bad-cops” you go to when you want to tattle on someone, or the people who mandate regular team-building activities and trust-falls.

To reference an over-referenced stat, we spend roughly 90,000 hours at work in our lifetime. To spend those in an organization that only pays lip-service to professional development, to diversity, or to their core values, is a travesty. Bad leadership, by any other name, is still bad leadership.

Transforming HR is not about offering increasingly stellar perks in exchange for people’s personal lives. It’s about changing our perception of HR, in all industries. And not for PR value, but because the title “HR” doesn’t do justice to the value of this department anymore.

When we say we want to rebrand HR, we don’t mean we want everyone to become Google, buy a ping pong table, and start hiring for “culture fit.” And although company culture matters a great deal to the employee experience, hiring for culture fit can easily tip into culture bias territory.

This is, to be sure, a massive issue. But to say, “Tech startups need HR to save them from sexism,” is akin to saying Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio can save us from global warming. Certainly, they are the faces of change and can inspire us all to action, but to really change the narrative around women in tech, it’s going to take all of us working together.

We need to change the way we educate HR and business professionals alike. Like Tveten and her colleagues at Motherboard, we need to write articles challenging businesses to change their sexist and outdated practices. We need to transform the way the world looks at HR. That’s why HR is dead. That’s why companies like Airbnb are proudly changing their HR titles, scrapping the term “resources” in favour of terms like People & Culture and Employee Experience. It’s not because they’re de-valuing HR, it’s because they’re putting more value into it than ever before. It’s because they recognize there’s a problem, and they’re doing something about it, one step at a time.

Before it was HR, we called it “personnel management.” Before that, it was “welfare management.” HR is not dead, but the terminology is. We need a better name for this department, which is transforming into its latest iteration: one to address the challenges of today’s workforce, which, unfortunately, still includes sexism.

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