Ambiguities in the role of HR practitioners
The activities and roles of HR specialists and the demands made upon them as described above appear to be quite clear cut, but Thurley (1981) pointed out that HR practitioners can be specialists in ambiguity. This continues in the age of Ulrich. As Hope-Hailey et al (2005: 51) commented: ‘Ulrich highlighted that HR professionals must be both strategic and operational, yet the potential role conflict this could engender was not addressed.’ Caldwell (2004: 212) reached the following conclusions on the basis of his research:
There is the issue of ‘powerlessness’ or the marginality of HR practitioners in management decision-making processes, especially at a strategic level. The HR function has an inward-looking tendency to identify professional expertise mainly with administrative concerns over who controls HR activities, rather than questions of HR practices or who has responsibility for implementing HR policy.
The difficulties that HR professionals face in dealing with ambiguity was well described by Guest and King (2004: 421):
Much management activity is typically messy and ambiguous. This appears to apply more strongly to people management than to most other activities. By implication, the challenge lies not in removing or resolving the ambiguities in the role [of HR professionals] but in learning to live with them. To succeed in this requires skills in influencing, negotiating and learning when to compromise. For those with a high tolerance of ambiguity, the role of HR specialist, with its distinctive opportunity to contribute to the management of people in organizations, offers unique challenges; for those only comfortable if they can resolve the ambiguities, the role may become a form of purgatory.
The status of HR
Over the years, the HR profession has suffered from an inferiority complex. This may arise because the role of HR professionals is ill-defined (they are unsure of where they stand), their status is not fully recognized, or top management and line managers have equivocal views about their value to the organization. Tyson and Fell (1986: 68) remarked that ‘the ambiguous character of their work contributes to the problems of convincing others of its value’.
Long ago Drucker (1955: 243) observed that: ‘The constant worry of all personnel administrators is their inability to prove that they are making a contribution to the organization.’ Skinner (1981: 106) in his Harvard Business Review article, ‘Big hat no cattle’, stated that ‘the corporate role of personnel has always been problematic’; and Tyson and Fell (1986: 136) argued that: ‘Classical personnel management has not been granted a position in decision-making circles because it has frequently not earned one. It has not been concerned with the totality of the organization but often with issues which have not only been parochial but esoteric to boot.’
Watson (1996) referred to the perpetual marginality of the HR function and Caldwell (2004: 212) raised the ‘issue of “powerlessness” or the marginality of HR practitioners in management decision-making processes’.
Traditionally, the HR practitioner’s reaction to this problem has been, in the words of Drucker (1955: 243) to ‘search for a “gimmick” that will impress their management colleagues’. This was later called adopting ‘the flavour of the month’. HR professionals have now become more sophisticated. They have enthusiastically supported approaches that appeal to management such as engagement policies and talent management. And in the UK, CIPD spends a lot of time attempting to boost the status of the HR profession by stressing the strategic and business partner role of practitioners.
But research conducted by Guthrie et al (2011: 1681) confirmed that: ‘HR departments are still often viewed, collectively, as a function that is more bureaucratic than strategic.’ They noted previous research, which has shown that ‘it is this role – the strategic role – in which line executives believe that HR is particularly deficient’ (ibid: 1682). The following perceptive comment was made on this trend by Keegan and Francis (2010: 878):
Bearing in mind the history of HR practitioners’ struggles for acceptance as key organizational players it is hardly surprising that a way of discursively modelling the concept of HR as ‘hard’ and relating it to others concepts such as ‘business driven agendas’ and ‘strategic management’, has become so popular. It offers perhaps a way out of the dualism when they seek to claim a share of strategic decision making while at the same time struggling to attend to the employee centred and administrative aspects of the role.
They also commented that: ‘Exhortations for HR practitioners to pursue strategic roles and downplay their historically embedded administrative and employee championing pose a serious threat to the integrity of HR work and claims to professional expertise’ (ibid: 894).