In February, the BBC ran a business article about Octopus Energy's Founder and CEO Greg Jackson, with the inflammatory title "My billion pound company has no HR department". As you can imagine, as an HR Consultant, this is a rattling title to have thrown out into the wider business market.
The article goes on to say that with "more than 1,200 employees, [Mr Jackson] has no interest in traditional things like human resources (HR) and information technology (IT) departments". I enjoy the use of the word 'traditional' instead of the blatant meaning: 'old fashioned' and I have to say it makes me laugh. I sometimes wonder what people think HR people do? I'm certain that the general consensus still is that HR provides glorified filing.
Clearly, if we take this prime example, the industry is often thought of as 'old fashioned' and I can't tell you how many times, when I've told someone what I do, their energy flatlines and you can see the infamous eye-roll. Why has HR received this damning reaction?
Mr Jackson states that "HR and IT departments don't make employees happier or more productive in his experience". Let's look at 'happiness' and 'productivity' - the former is a difficult emotional state to measure, and every single person has different requirements for 'happiness'. The latter is easier to measure, and you know how? Performance management = review systems, goal/target/KPI setting, communication - guess whose wheelhouse that topic is in?
As a serial entrepreneur (it's in the article, don't come for me) I'm uncertain what direct experience Mr Jackson has had with either of these industries. As if we're all to be measured by a single interaction, then it doesn't say a lot about Mr Jackson's open-mindedness.
Having had personal experience within larger organisations where the HR team has become - for lack of a better description - 'people soft' meaning that they don't even toe the line, they stay as far away from the line as possible, and would rather place the power with the employee than the employer. Good luck ever dismissing someone in a larger business because it's almost impossible - the hoop jumping that goes on is incredible. As a consultant, I have to toe the line just like anyone who works within a specific area of law, and I know what to do to ensure there is fair treatment and a process is correct - but I also know that when there is conflict, you can't always 'get over it' or 'move on' and sometimes the best option is to part company - and I can make that possible. If Mr Jackson has had experience of the former, I can understand why he perhaps doesn't rate HR - but that's not a good example of what HR can do.
When "running smaller companies of around five people [Mr Jackson] would learn to cover HR and IT issues himself" - that's normal... a lot of SME's don't have dedicated HR or IT teams - they have consultants and contractors because the support becomes more flexible for them. However, in his 1200+ strong business, Mr Jackson "expects his managers to take personal responsibility for [grievances or disciplinary action] rather than 'shelving responsibility to a third party'" - does that fill any other professional with dread?
Having worked as a front line manager with a large team, to be told that you are to take 'personal responsibility' for any issues is daunting enough - but to not actually be trained in complex people processes? To fit (often) long investigations into a work day driven by targets and to find a fair un-bias solution whilst remaining on the right side of the law? To be responsible for supporting another person's mental health or finding a way to move forward with an individual with physical health difficulties? That is traumatic - I hope Mr Jackson invests in a counselling service for his managers, as they're going to need it.
I understand Mr Jackson's general theory - don't pass problems off for someone else to solve, which will (hopefully) make individuals more responsible. But that puts a large onus on the employee to raise problems or issues in a certain format, to stick within the rules and/or policies and in real life, we know that just doesn't happen. There are a lot of nuances to managing people problems, there isn't a one-size fits all approach and even if you follow the guidance to the letter, it can still go terribly wrong.
What I find the most frustrating about the article is that it's so dismissive of two huge industries that provide essential core functions. It feels like an invitation - 'I did it so you can too!' - and I'm not sure that's the right message. I feel the message should be about empowering and developing managers to better manage and support employees; about autonomy and responsibility; but not, in one sweeping statement, telling the business world how useless you feel HR and IT are - because both industries are amazing, and deserve better than that.
Let me leave you with this - when you ask someone what they do and they tell you they work in HR, what's your reaction? And if it is an eye-roll - what makes that job any less interesting than any other?