Passionless in HR

A survey finds little in the way of job-related passion among U.S. HR workers. Whose fault is it, and what can be done about it?

Thursday, October 3, 2013
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Regardless of where they work, most employees want to feel as if they're making a difference and have the power to help change their organizations for the better. Employees who actually do feel this way can best be described as "passionate" -- they tend to embrace challenges that come their way as opportunities for growth and learning. You won't find many of them in HR departments, however.

That's according to the findings of a recent survey of 3,000 U.S.-based employees by Deloitte Consulting's Center for the Edge, a San Jose, Calif.-based think tank focused on innovation.

"Passion tends to be catalyzed and sustained if you have a sense you're making a difference in whatever environment you're in," says John Hagel, the Center's co-chairman. Passionate people will naturally drive their organization to excel and set up their employer for longer-term success, he says.

Only 7 percent of the respondents who worked in HR possess what Deloitte defines as "the passion of the explorer," or those who view challenges as opportunities to learn new skills and rapidly improve performance.

To be fair to HR, employees who worked in accounting/finance and manufacturing had identical passion levels, while those who worked in customer service had the lowest of all, at 5 percent. The most-passionate workers were found in management and marketing, at 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively. 

Hagel wasn't surprised that managers and marketers are more passionate: Their work tends to involve autonomy and creativity, which are key ingredients for job-related passion -- and which tend to be missing from many HR jobs, he says.

"HR has been increasingly siloed as process managers, whether it's benefits administration or training -- it's all about following standardized processes and not making a difference, and I expect that's part of the explanation," says Hagel.

When a third or more of a typical HR department's staff is devoted to transactional work, creativity is not encouraged -- especially when it comes to areas such as compliance and payroll, says Stephen Joyce, a principal at Boston-based The Hackett Group and leader of that firm's HR transformation and change practice.

It's no coincidence the Deloitte survey found workers in customer service and HR have very low rates of passion, he says.

"Historically, much of what was hired for in HR was for customer service," says Joyce. " 'Employees are always right, do what you have to do to make them happy and reduce the noise in the organization' -- but in order to advance in HR today, you want more business partnering, which is not  necessarily aligned with customer service. To be a true business partner, sometimes you have to push back a bit."

A relatively straightforward explanation for the lack of passion in HR could be money -- specifically, the lack of it, he says.

HR -- like other functions such as finance and procurement -- has been repeatedly asked to "do more with less" for the past five years. The Hackett Group's latest research on HR spending, released this spring, found that companies are continuing to focus on cost reduction in HR this year, with operating budgets expected to drop by 0.79 percent, on average, along with staff reductions of 1.89 percent. More than half of all companies polled by Hackett said they expected to see HR budget reductions this year, while another 26 percent said they expected to see no changes.

These numbers actually represent an improvement over the previous years, when average cuts to HR's budget tended to be even deeper, says Joyce.

"The impact of 'doing more with less' is that people tend to keep their heads down and avoid taking risks," he says. Although avoiding risks could be good or bad, depending on the context, this scarcity has also meant fewer opportunities for the sort of training and investments that would allow HR staffers to do higher-level work that might involve more creativity and autonomy, says Joyce.

Not everyone agrees that HR is down in the dumps. Elissa O'Brien says Deloitte's findings don't reflect what the Society for Human Resource Management has found in surveys of its 250,000 members.

"Our surveys have found when it comes to job satisfaction and engagement, there's a high level of satisfaction among HR professionals," says O'Brien, director of membership at Alexandria, Va.-based SHRM. 

A member survey conducted by the organization in 2011 found that HR professionals reported being satisfied and "moderately engaged," with more than eight out of 10 reporting being satisfied with their relationships with coworkers, opportunities to use their skills and abilities, and the variety of their work.

However, the survey did uncover some gaps between what respondents rated as "very important" to their job satisfaction and their actual level of satisfaction with those factors. For example, a 48-percentage gap lay between the importance respondents placed on communication between employees and senior management and their satisfaction with it, while opportunities to use skills and abilities had a 42-percentage point gap and relationship with their immediate supervisors had a 31-percentage point gap.

Such gaps are hardly unique to HR, says O'Brien. "People at the executive level tend to have a clearer understanding of corporate strategy and deeper relationships with company leaders than mid-level and low-level staff in any department, not just HR," she says.

Regardless of their rank, HR staffers at all levels deserve to feel some passion for their work, says Hagel.

"We run into a lot of pushback from critics who say it's unreasonable to expect people who do 'routine and mundane tasks' to be passionate about their work, but we disagree," he says.

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Hagel cites Toyota Motor Co., which redefined assembly line work by telling employees their job is to identify and solve problems on a regular basis, not just install parts in cars. The company backed this up by installing switches at each work station that enable any worker, at any time, to bring the entire line to a halt should they encounter a problem they can't solve on their own.

"Even in the most mundane of tasks, if you redefine the work to help people see how they can make a difference, you can unleash passion," he says.

Were he an HR leader, says Hagel, he would focus on "exception handling" -- listening to the HR staff find out what sort of headaches that cause them the most aggravation in the course of their daily work and help them find creative ways to address those problems.

In a few cases, Joyce says, HR leaders may find that many in their department are unable or unwilling to create or sustain any level of job-related passion, in which case they may need to make some difficult choices.

Many HR departments -- particularly those where little hiring has been going on -- prefer to promote from within, he says, which results in "a group of folks who are in a world of customer service, compliance and regulation -- which creates a challenge if you're looking for an influx of different viewpoints and ideas."

Joyce describes the conundrum for HR as "the cobbler's children having no shoes."

"In many cases, HR is trying to get other departments to use competency models and other tools so they'll hire the best talent for their future needs, while neglecting its own future needs," he says.

"When I bring this topic up with HR leaders, they often say, 'Well, we haven't been hiring for the past six or seven years,' " says Joyce. "But that doesn't necessarily prevent you from having a strategy to bring in more talent -- sometimes it means you've got to realign your organizational objectives and realign your organization."

While this could involve replacing some of your existing HR staffers, he says, it could be useful to think of it in terms of the strategy employed by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who popularized the "forced ranking" method of promoting and firing employees based on their performance ratings.

"I don't think you ever want to take a 'blanket' model like that to its logical extreme -- you do need average people within your organization to keep the trains running on time," Joyce says. "But you do need top-performing talent in certain key roles -- there is a balance that leaders need to achieve."

O'Brien agrees that HR leaders concerned about a lack of passion within their departments should try and uncover any issues that may be standing in the way. Yet she also encourages them to understand the difference between engagement and passion.

"Engagement comes from being in a company where you feel valued and that your voice is heard, whereas passion is passion for our profession," she says. "I would say our members are very passionate when it comes to their profession."

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