Chicken & Egg

By Leon Menezes

Am I being politically incorrect in asking: "Is HR a "feminine" function which is why it attracts females, or is it because it is attractive to women that it has become a "feminine" function?"

In an article I recently came across, the following numbers were quoted: "In recent studies carried out in the US, HR is personified by a 47-year old white woman! In the UK according to research by XpertHR, 75% of the HR function is female. In the UK at entry-level, 86% of post holders in the HR profession are female. This percentage drops to 42.5% at director level. In the US the overall percentages are pretty much the same; women occupy two-thirds of the HR executive positions."

There are many reasons put forward for this state of affairs – from companies looking to increase the female ratio, to women being seen as "nurturers." The situation is such that men do not want to join HR as it is not viewed as a hard, business contributor.

My anecdotal information shows much the same for Pakistan – 95% of my HR Elective classes are young ladies hoping to work in HR. Good? Bad? Ugly? Anything I say would be a judgment on my part. But when I ask them why they wish to do so, unfortunately I always get non-business reasons - the ones that give HR a bad name: "I have good listening skills." "I am good with people." "I don't like numbers."

It's taken HR quite a while to get away from the perception of being an admin or back-office function. And, yes, there are a number of stellar women leading the department in many large organizations. So what should we be focusing on to get the balance right?

Previously, before functional specialization became the norm, business leaders were rotated across various line and staff functions in order for them to be well-rounded enough to get to general manager positions. Many companies in Pakistan still do this. The net result was that HR was always headed by a "business" person. This brings us to the wonderful competency usually found lacking in HR folk – Business Acumen.

Related to this, the concept of "Business Partner" also requires the HR person to own a portfolio of skills and competencies that have nothing to do with core HR: facilitation, developing a business case, selling & negotiation, active listening, finance, project management, to name a few. If you add to this the requirement for personal stature (the ability to stand up to strong bosses and line managers), then the profile of HR changes completely.

When confronted by accusations that HR continues to be a back-office function, my response is to ask: "Who hires the HR manager?" If you hire a flunky, don't expect a tiger. (The same goes for Finance, by the way).

Getting it right right in the beginning is key to having a solid HR function. Senior management must define the competencies and profiles it wishes to recruit, then actively hire only those it feels will deliver the goods. But then it is back to the Chicken & Egg situation: which comes first?

Leon Menezes

Professor of Practice
MBA (HRM), University of Hull, UK - 1994
Area of Specialization: (HRM)

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