An Open Letter to Human Resources

39960281Dear Human Resources Field,

I’ve been struggling with how to say this in the most supportive and effective way possible (because I do love you), but after a seemingly endless stream of imperfect drafts that I have deleted, I’ve decided to just blurt it out:

I’m done with you.

Sorry, but I just can’t do it any more. For decades, I have been your ally. I stood beside you, shaking my fist, as you demanded a seat at the leadership and strategy table. I agreed whole-heartedly with your assertion that “talent” is as critical to organizational health and success as elements that get a lot more attention and resources, like technology, good strategic choices, or effective marketing. Really, I get it. People matter. They determine our strategic advantage. They are the difference between success and failure, so we should all step up to the plate and (finally) give Human Resources (Human Capital, Talent Management, Personnel, People Operations, etc.) the trust, resources, and power that you deserve. Right?


I just don’t think more power or more resources is going to help. I still believe in the basic premise, mind you. The power of the human beings in our organizations is woefully underutilized, confirmed by yet another global study showing two-thirds or more of our workforce is disengaged. We absolutely need to change this, but I no longer have faith in the power of HR to do the job.

This is not a matter of competence. I’m not castigating HR for not being the brightest bulbs in the box. HR gets that rap sometimes, but I don’t buy the criticism. I think there is ample intelligence, creativity, strategic vision, gumption, and you-name-it in the HR community. If anyone out there happens to know some HR folk who are less than dazzling, fine. I’m sure I can find a similar number of duds in any other organizational discipline. It’s called a bell curve. It’s not lack of talent that’s holding HR back.

But to be honest, I’m not sure we should try to figure out what exactly IS holding HR back. HR is simply doing what management has asked it to do for the last 100 years. The broken HR we are living with today is the natural result of 100 years of running our organizations like machines. HR’s job was to manage resources and “fill positions,” as if a cog had literally walked out of the machine, and it’s HR’s job to replace it.

I don’t want to fix that. I want to do away with that. I want to create organizations that are more compatible with what it means to be human, and I just don’t think there will be HR in those organizations. We’ll still hire people, will still have compliance issues, we’ll still manage performance. But it will look different. It will be different.

And here’s the hard part. That “different” is not going to come from HR. I just don’t think we will create solutions that work for humans from within HR. The machine is too strong within you. Even with the greatest minds, the most profound insights, the latest technology, and the best change management efforts, if HR leads this, then I am afraid we’ll end up with HR 2.0 (though it will have a cooler-sounding name; something with “people” in it). It will be better, I suppose. But you’ll still be disconnected from the people who do the work of the organization, and you’ll never keep up with the strategic shifts, and you’ll flounder (like everyone else does) when it comes to culture. It will look better, but kind of like pretty new deck chairs on the Titanic look better.

So I’m moving on. I’m committing to developing new HR solutions, knowing full well that I’m not an HR pro, and I’m encouraging others to do the same. I’m going to experiment and learn and intentionally stay out of the HR shop, because I don’t want to be drawn back into fixing what’s currently being done. Our challenge is not to fix. Our challenge is to create.

Of course I welcome you to join me in this journey. My commitment to inclusion has not changed. The people of HR are always welcome in this work. But you may have to leave some assumptions at the door, and you may be challenged with new approaches to traditional HR problems. You may have to work with some people who don’t “get it” like you do, and that’s a good thing.

And heck, maybe HR will prove me wrong. Maybe you all will be able to reinvent HR from the inside out. That would be perfectly fine by me, actually, and I’m not going to stop you from trying. But I’m not waiting for you either. The time to change is now.

Who’s with me?

(UPDATE: for those of you who are “with me,” I did a follow up post with some suggestions.)


  1. 23.07.2013 at 8:19 am

    Maybe there’s a dichotomy at play here, in that those HR Managers who are sufficiently people-centric lack the combative skills to make these humanising changes actually happen?

    Short of moving Recruitment and Employer Branding out of HR and into Sales and Marketing, I don’t have any answers.

    • 24.07.2013 at 8:22 am

      Thanks for weighing in Mitch. I hadn’t thought about the down-side of people skills! Though I do know plenty of people-centric folks who can also be fierce advocates. And I do think there needs to be some structural upheaval as part of the solution.

  2. 23.07.2013 at 10:11 am

    Jamie –

    I have an HR degree. I used to be PHR certified. I am no longer in HR. And I can agree with most of what you are saying. In my experience, everything you mentioned above will only happen when the top leadership wants it to happen, regardless of what department is leading it. HR tends to be the department that carries the torch in trying to get management to buy in. My guess is that many HR folks are broken down, beaten, and just plain tired of losing the fight with upper management.

    I quit my first HR job after 3 months when it became clear that the title HR Manager was incorrect. It should have been payroll manager. That was all they wanted me to do. I saw the writing on the wall and left. Then I went to a small company that wanted “true HR” management. It was great. What I did affected people and the organization. But it was because the CEO believed in it truly. It wasn’t just an overhead expense.

    Until you can convince the captain the turn the ship away from the iceberg, we’re all just rearranging deck chairs.

    • 24.07.2013 at 8:31 am

      Hey Matt. I’ll be honest, I never like the “it’s the leader that needs to change” response, though I do hear where you’re coming from. Having been left out of the leadership circle, HR is in the position to fight its way in, which is exhausting. But I think that’s why we need to change the conversation. The fight to get in, or the search for leaders who “get it” is going to leave most organizations with disappointing results.

      • 24.07.2013 at 8:23 pm

        The fight to get in, or the search for leaders who “get it” is going to leave most organizations with disappointing results. = BINGO

  3. 24.07.2013 at 3:17 am

    I agree with you that the problem is machine-age thinking. The root cause is reductionist thinking. The expression of this is functional silos. HR is a functional silo. Functional silos in organisations are problematic because they create disconnects, hand-offs and large batch transfers.

    The solution is long-running cross functional teams aligned to business needs that are able to deliver and be measured as a team. This team is empowered to decide for themselves who comes on and leaves the team.

    HR requirement then becomes onboarding/exiting process, conflict resolution and leave management – the latter of which can actually be managed by the team as well given a good tool.

  4. 24.07.2013 at 7:36 am

    […] Ever read a blogpost and, blinking back tears of frustration, think – I wish I’d written that? Well, that’s just happened to me. The culprit? Jamie Notter. The blogpost? You can read it here. […]

  5. Ashley
    25.07.2013 at 1:54 pm

    I think that it all boils down to organizational culture, and while a lot of people (including HR people) would argue that it’s HR’s job to influence the culture, etc. the reality is that the culture comes from the leadership. When you are suffering with leadership whose values are not aligned with this new sort of “post modern” view of having a human-focused organization, there really is nothing you can do. Your job as HR is to enforce the values of the organization, and the reality is that those don’t always jive with your own personal values or the values that you think would be best for the organization. That’s when you start a job search.

    I resent the idea that all HR people are too caught up in the machine to be able to innovate. My degree is in political science, and in my studies at school we talked a lot about how change is generational. It’s always a new generation who comes in with new ideas and that existing generations very rarely change opinions during their tenure. So my feeling is that as the Millennials (such as myself) come in, they will bring their new ideas with them, and that will start the change. And it will come easiest once Millennials take over the top leadership positions.

    So give it 15 years or so and we’ll see who turns out right. 😛

    • 28.07.2013 at 8:16 am

      Well I guess I am a stereotypical Gen X in that regard, because I abandoned the “wait til we’re in charge” notion a long time ago. But I also don’t trust the generational theory, because we’ve been running our organizations like machines for over 100 years. That’s a good 4 generations, and not enough change. I’m with you that it’s about culture, though I agree with Bill’s comment below that it’s not HR’s job to “enforce” it per se. And I’ll be honest, as soon as we talk about culture, EVERYONE points to the leadership and says its up to them. And I’m going to continue to disagree, despite what seems like nearly universal disagreement with my perspective. We all create the culture, and I get that we frequently choose NOT to because we live in a hierarchical top-down system. But we still have choices.

      • Paula
        30.07.2013 at 9:01 am

        I agree with you re: having choices in how we impact our work culture. But even you have to agree that in a hierarchical top-down system those choices are often relatively scant. Or maybe more factual, the risks in asserting certain choices often too great. In a society where most of us work to live, going against the culture too often or too aggressively can result in a tough daily life (on the job) or worse losing one’s job.

        I think the average person does try and positively impact the culture but upon getting fed up they simply move on to a new culture hoping for a better environment. So the culture rarely changes until the leadership changes and when it does there’s a mad dash by those still there to instill culture change.

        It’s a frustrating cycle, to be sure. My own experience has been to take baby steps when I believe there’s something that requires a change in the culture or business as usual. It’s akin to throwing yourself against a brick wall. So you definitely carefully choose the times you go head first into the blockade.

  6. 26.07.2013 at 3:36 am

    I have been working for the past 42 years and have seen the ‘people’ role change dramatically. However, over that time I have also seen the other core functions within businesses do the same. Each has usually developed on the back of some new model or approach and usually the aim is to make that function more important. In days gone by they all used to support the operation rather than drive it.

    Over the last 20 years it appears that HR wants to be recognised and that means a seat at the top table. Unfortunately many HR departments are not capable of doing so especially if, as Ashley says “Your job as HR is to enforce the values…”. The choice of the word ‘enforce’ worries me.

    The move towards flatter, leaner organisations, the increase in employment legislation, the reduce of development for managers and leaders has led to HR taking on a role that should be within the business and not a function attached to it.

    Until an organisation begins to commit do designing engagement from the individual out rather than the top down then change will be a shuffling of the deckchairs. We are continuously reminded that people join organisations but leave their managers. Doesn’t that give us a clue where to start – the person not function

  7. […] Jamie Notter: An Open Letter to Human Resources This must count as the single most powerful sentence from the world of #hrblogs this year (to date): “The broken HR we are living with today is the natural result of 100 years of running our organizations like machines.” Jamie argues that the very model of HR needs a ground-up rethink (and a renaming too, while we’re about it). He worries as to whether HR itself should be entrusted with this task. Do you think HR is up to the challenge? Indeed, are you? Follow Jamie on Twitter. […]

  8. […] Dear Human Resources Field, I’ve been struggling with how to say this in the most supportive and effective way possible (because I do love you), but after a seemingly endless stream of imperfect dr…  […]