When I hear the word Culture… or is it HR?


Funny how often HR is associated with “Culture”. A number of vacancy ads, of job descriptions related to HR positions refer to the matter as if these guys had some secret insight as to how culture is done. Changed. Imprinted. Engraved. Scorched into every employee’s DNA forever. Ok, let’s give a new spin to the expression ‘employee branding‘!

Here are three real examples (organisations’ names have been changed though):

  1. “The HR Director will be responsible for launching and building a formal Human Resources Department at Enslave Co. He or she will be responsible for all human resource related functions including culture development, recruiting, compensation and benefits[…]”
  2. “The selected individual will be able to lead cultural change, build internal business partnerships, and provide coaching to develop others, challenge the status quo and offer creative solutions to business issues.”
  3. “The Responsibilities:    Hire, retain and fire personnel,  Conduct personnel evaluation,  Develop and manage professional development programs, Develop corporate culture,  Coordinate activities of administration managers team”

Those are three different companies from three different countries, different continents. One could suspect the third one is a bit lost in translation although it is originally written in English. But this particular third item, my favorite, exemplifies the issue: the HR person is in charge of hiring / firing, evaluate personnel, manage administration and develop corp culture…

The hiring / firing is disconcerting: certainly one should always think about the exit clause before entering a contractual partnership, but the thought of firing implies improperly hiring from the start. Sure it happens but… see where this is going? Not really the optimistic scenario. Then we have the ‘evaluate personnel’ bit, certainly the most puzzling. I hope I am getting this one wrong: it is rather a managerial task to assess one’s team. Manage admin is standard: contracts, maybe some payroll items, medical coverage, labour relations… And just how corp culture can be developed in this context, by HR,  remains a question mark.

It is perhaps necessary to define culture a minute, which I previously did there. Culture becomes by definition what we do, paraphrasing Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle: “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence is not an act but a habit” (the original quote being: “virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”).

Let’s consider the following: employees of a supermarket can buy their lunch in the store, and pay at the cash register like regular customers do. They have a habit of cutting through the line and squeeze their purchase in between two customers, or even make their fellow employee cashier interrupt what she’s doing with a customer in order to take care of their own items, before she then resumes her task. Now it may be ok for one employee. How about a whole shift turning up at the same time because they are on the clock?

The supermarket advertises its “customer first” policy, but employees grossly and repeatedly violate it in the field. What are the solutions available to the manager: hire a HR person entitled to “develop the corporate culture”? HR will then step in and say employees should not do this. But shift managers tell their teams to overlook the instruction because of time, or do little to enforce the policy because they have other issues or can’t always look… Would HR have the staff’s attention, then?

Dumb HR will dock employees even, brewing resentment. Smart HR will sell an organization change to management, maybe a specific cash register or time-slots booked for that purpose, or better, remove the problem altogether by providing standard lunches at an agreed fee in a dedicated room.

But HR will not really develop culture, just solve or remove a problem that hurts the relationship with the customer and should not have happened in the first place. It is obvious that without the company’s or the staff’s management, things could not happen as direct managers have the attention of the staff more than the HR reps, always (what could be the role of managers in this company where HR evaluate personnel by the way?)

The best that HR can do is advise and implement, but certainly not develop or be in charge of the cultural aspect of a company. This is typically a leader’s role – not that HR means lack of leadership! – since culture is what we do, and we do what’s acceptable, that is, what the norms, our peers, our environment dictate. Culture always come from the top, failure to consider this would actually result in cultural issues and strip leaders of their responsibility – actually, they’d become “bosses” which in itself somehow defines a corporate culture… The best HR people can only advise about it, and support implementation. Now, boy can they advise if they are only a little bit smart!

But other than that, to paraphrase a sentence from Hanns Johst that remind us of darker times: if I hear the word ‘culture’ in the same sentence as the word ‘HR’, let’s reach for our (contractual) gun. What’s the phone number of that HR person who hires / fires?

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This entry was posted in Hell is paved with good intentions, Sounded like a good idea at the time..., That is culture for you. Bookmark the permalink.

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