What purpose do university HR departments serve? The short answer is: not a lot! Witness the various scandals reported in the media concerning big corporations, such as the BBC or major banks, to see their lack of effectiveness. Yet, we are seeing the unfettered proliferation of HR departments in their various guises and incarnations across all organisations—especially universities.
HR departments contribute nothing to the education of students. They generate neither research income nor new knowledge. As such, they are parasitic on the main body of academia, namely the lecturers, and the professors who conduct the real business of universities (that is, when they are not completing HR forms or attending the latest series of training days on the abject jiggery ‘wokery’ that occupies the minds of HR staff).
As long-standing university professors, we have witnessed this first hand. When we started our academic careers, our universities had a ‘Personnel Department’ comprising a handful of staff led by a ‘Personnel Manager.’ They were friendly and helpful, advising on employment issues and assisting in the recruitment of staff through seeking references, processing applications, sitting in (as observers) on interviews, taking minutes and relaying feedback from panel members to applicants. Most importantly, you could find them, and they would do things for you.
Nowadays, they do none of this. Instead, they ‘delegate,’ ‘devolve,’ or ‘outsource’ (they are big on management jargon) these tasks to already over-burdened academics. The process of advertising a staff position—or, in the event that you hire someone, the ‘onboarding process’ (yes, that is a real thing)—is a jungle of online links, platforms, and processes. And the interview must sacrifice expertise amongst the panel for ‘representativeness’ in terms of gender and ethnicity. Whilst academic departments and staff are being slashed, HR departments are mushrooming.
Indeed, from Personnel to Human Resources Departments, these pseudo-administrative bodies have undergone various ‘rebranding’ exercises, modelling themselves no doubt on BA, BP, and HSBC, etc. so they are now called things like P&C or PC (People and Culture), C&E (Culture & Engagement), and POD (People and Organizational Development), all vague and meaningless. No doubt this is all intentional so that no one is clear of their precise role and function, and so therefore no one can hold them to account. Indeed, the similarity with the spoof BBC “W1A,” in which there are staff with titles such as ‘Head of Values,’ ‘Director of Better,’ and ‘Director of Purpose’ is uncanny.
We can draw from experience. For example, each of our universities has over seventy HR staff, most with a ‘Director,’ ‘Manager,’ or ‘Head’ in their job title: Director of People and Culture; Heads of Diversity and Inclusion, Reward and Performance, or Organizational Development; Talent, Staff Engagement, and Learning and Development Managers; as well as HR Business Partner (which indicates the true purpose of universities); Learning and Development Consultant; Employee Relations Officer. The list goes on.
When they were called HR, many thought it was an oxymoron as there was little that was human about them and they certainly did not help with resources—indeed, they often drained them. Nowadays, having undergone various iterations to make them sound sexier and more important than they are, it is hard to keep up with their acronyms, let alone their purpose. Woe betide anyone, however, who has not completed their annual dozen mandatory tick-box exercise courses!
To some extent, they have succeeded in exerting influence and assuming power and control, now serving on various senior committees, with the head ‘honcho’ (always titled Director) often dictating strategy, and always crafting ‘vision’ and ‘mission statements’ (the more edgy and corporate-sounding the better).
However, we suggest that the impact and effectiveness of these departments is in inverse proportion to their growth and costs to organisations. They are some of the few organisational units that seem to be growing exponentially, ironically when most organisations are tightening their belts. Try contacting someone in your HR department in person and you will be faced with a bureaucratic nightmare of navigating a host of obstacles, usually in the guise of staff with fancy, vague but impressive-sounding titles as mentioned. You will rarely see them in person, because they will be too busy attending one of a multitude of usually totally ineffective training or development courses or producing yet another meaningless or vacuous marketing/self-promotion strategy/image/vision/slogan along the lines of being ‘the face of the organisation,’ ‘helping lead organisations’ or ‘realising people’s potential,’ even though many of them have no experience or qualifications in marketing, management or leadership.
Nowadays, these departments seem more focused on pursuing a ‘woke’ culture, dictating what staff can say or do or even think (or increasingly not), and introducing evidence-free, trendy but transient initiatives such as mandatory unconscious bias training, and ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ courses.
All of this raises the question: what do they actually do?
In essence, the main function of these departments is that of being responsible for helping an organisation with its staffing needs, benefits, compensation, performance appraisal and legal compliance. Thus, they are concerned with staff recruitment, hiring, training and firing (but who conducts performance appraisals of HR staff is an interesting question). Surely line managers, who are more familiar with their staff, are better placed to perform most of these functions (and a corporate lawyer is better qualified to deal with legal matters), thus negating the need for HR altogether.
Although HR are supposed to act impartially, they rarely support employees, invariably siding with employers, probably because they are the people to whom they report. There are countless instances of employees complaining about bullying and sexual harassment, and lodging grievances with HR only to find that such cases have been covered up, usually by getting the employee to sign an NDA. It is little wonder that HR has lost the trust and respect of many.
The fact is that HR staff are too busy creating a vicious cycle of guidelines, implementing training days and then hounding out the dissidents who pay less than full attention to their missives. The guidance issued by HR staff has become increasingly bizarre. At one time we knew not to physically attack colleagues and students or to be excessively rude to them. In fact, we still do. But, not satisfied with preventing injury and insult—while the rest of us are at the frontline of academia working ever longer hours and teaching ever larger classes—some HR functionaries are beavering away dreaming up the means whereby nobody ever must be challenged, made to feel uncomfortable or even, in an educational establishment, stupid. They busy themselves formulating solutions to problems that do not exist, calling these problems ‘microaggressions.’
Microaggressions can be as simple as commenting favourably or unfavourably on foreign food to a foreigner. Thus ‘I love Chinese food’ can be as microaggressive as saying ‘I hate Chinese food.’ And the beauty of all this is that a Chinese person does not have to be offended. It is sufficient for anyone within earshot to overhear you and take offence for a disciplinary meeting to be arranged with your line manager. And just in case there is nobody to overhear your microaggression, students are being trained, even paid, to actively seek out instances that they can report. Chairman Mao would have been quite proud.
We cannot help but think of the analogy that can be drawn between HR and the character of Major Major in Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic, Catch-22:
“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was.”
In an era advocating evidence, effectiveness, and value for money, it is high time that HR departments were put under the microscope and real questions were asked about the need for them, let alone the effect they have. Almost universally loathed, derided, and perceived as incompetent, unapproachable and no longer fit for purpose, it is time to abolish them.
David Thompson has served as professor for around 30 years in the UK and several international universities.
Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.