HR: morally culpable?

by Isabel Wu

Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over. And the situation is even worse than it appears. Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

This excerpt is from a report entitled, “Recession, tech kill middle class jobs“, published in newspapers around the world in January 2013.  Its authors, Paul Wiseman and Bernard Condon, describe the ‘hollowing out’ of mid-skill, mid-paying jobs that are being lost in large part to technology.  Like many manual jobs before them that were replaced by machines, the ability to self-serve, self-manage and automate, is changing the demand for secretaries, travel agents, accounts clerks, tellers, retail sales assistants, manufacturing workers and countless other – predominantly service – jobs.  With middle class jobs the backbone of the developed nations, the prospect of these jobs disappearing is truly frightening.  In the US, 7.5 million jobs were lost during the Great Recession; half of these were midskill, midpay.  Since then 3.5 million jobs have returned: 70 per cent low-paying jobs, 29 per cent high paying jobs, and just over 1% of the jobs in the middle.  The euro currency-based countries are faring even worse: since mid-2009 the number of low-paying jobs have increased by 4.3 million, while since July 2008, 7.6 million mid-tier jobs have been lost and the numbers are continuing in the downward trend.  The story was the same for 20 countries analysed for this report.  The evidence of the shrinking of this sector of the job market is not recent with data pointing to such a trend since the 1990s.  Labour markets experts, say the report authors, predict the problem will get much worse.

HR – human resources – is the profession/function that is responsible for the workforce of an organisation.  What this means in reality has been the subject of much contention.  Unlike other professions, HR has no mandates outside of their organisation.  Qualifications are not compulsory, there are no mandatory standards for the practitioners or their practices, and there is no independent oversight of competence, integrity, objectivity or effectiveness.  The fact that HR has one of the most critical areas of responsibility to an organisation’s success but are generally so poorly equipped to make a difference contributes to the on-going debate about what HR really does and even whether it is a legitimate profession at all, such as the ideas proposed in the article, “Why everyone hates HR“.

We expect when we receive advice from professional advisers such as our lawyers, doctors, financial planners and accountants, that that advice will be sound and reliable.  In these professions the advisers would be liable for negligence if an act or omission occurred due to a failure on their part to exercise the degree of professional care and skill appropriate to the circumstances.  Of course the same degree of duty of care does not apply to HR because the same rigour does not apply to its qualifications and practice.  While it could be arguable because of the variability of human behaviour, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to manage the profession in the same way, it is interesting to note that HR qualifications do not actually include the study in people or people management.

So if HR does not answer to workers but to the organisations that employ them, and no professional liability applies to its practitioners, are they nonetheless morally culpable for the way they exercise their duties?  For instance, how many of the millions of midpay, midskill workers who have not worked since their retrenchment participated in HR-devised programs in which they were exhorted to work harder and do better because that was how their career ambitions would be realised?  How many would have been better off attending training in new skills rather than encouraged to aspire up a disappearing ladder?  What if they were given warning a year in advance to prepare their finances and plan for an impending redundancy?  Of course these are philosophical rather than practical questions and HR has no obligations outside the walls of the employment relationship.

As much as HR practice may be wanting, however, few practitioners would be unaware of the bigger job market problem of which they are all a part.  Should HR as a profession think more widely about its responsibilities?  For instance, job descriptions – those mechanisms designed to cut people down to the sum of the skill and knowledge parts relating to a particular part of a workflow – were a construct of the last century.  In a world far less static, where because of technology, a workflow once designed may only be useful for a few months, categorising workers by job descriptions is outmoded and it could be argued makes it more likely that people in certain jobs and industries will be unemployed for longer.

Whatever the direction for HR, the question of culpability is worth discussion.   If I can sue my financial adviser because I lose my house due to deficient advice, should I be able to sue the HR director of my employer if I had the same outcome because I was not given full and frank professional advice?