Lucy Adams
February 13, 2022
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HR has a bit of a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the finance function, don’t we? On the one hand, most HR professionals groan at the thought of Finance going anywhere near the people agenda. Insufficient empathy. Overly focused on the tangible assets and the numbers, rather than the intangible value of people. Too interested in short term deliverables and not enough in building long term capability. Too black and white in their judgements. Every HR professional I’ve ever known has voiced these concerns, particularly if we’re unlucky enough to report into them!

On the other, we admire and are slightly envious of their status amongst the leadership team. FDs never seem to struggle with impact and gravitas at the Board. They are pretty good at saying ‘no’ in ways that doesn’t seem to annoy our colleagues as much as when we do it. They are typically great at presenting a coherent argument based on intelligent data and analysis.

‘It’s not you, it’s me’

It’s time to make our relationship with the Finance team a bit healthier and, as in real life, it’s about changing our attitude, not theirs. And the first thing we need to do is to stop trying to BE them.

For too long, we have tried to compensate for our lower status in the hierarchy by copying them. We have adopted their language, for example. We use terms like ‘human capital’ or ‘FTE’s’. We talk about employees being our greatest ‘assets’. We even have our own ‘asset registers’ of people data where we list things like, how many we have, what they’re costing us, and their productivity, in terms of absenteeism rates and churn. But ‘assets’ are things like buildings or computers. We, in HR deal with human beings – beautiful, wonderful, frustrating, mercurial human beings. All of whom are different to one another, who have different needs and wants and who are essentially, unpredictable. Talking about them as assets undermines the complexity and value of our people.

It also means we don’t give our leaders the insights into their people that might help them make better decisions. Churn rates are relatively meaningless in the way we present them. If we are going to copy anyone, we could adopt the approaches used by our Marketing colleagues. Adapting techniques like consumer persona for our employees for example or using a blend of qualitative and quantitative measures to tell a strong and compelling narrative about how our people feel and might be persuaded to change their mindsets and behaviours. We need our own language – one that isn’t filled with finance-like words but which reflect the very different – and human – nature of our work.

You either believe people matter or you don’t

One of the most frequent requests we get from HR professionals is access to data that will help them convince their leaders that it’s worth doing things differently. For example, data that proves offering flexibility will improve engagement. Or proof that getting rid of ratings will improve performance. Or to quantify the ROI on our training investments. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evaluate what we do. But as the polarisation in the current vaccine debate shows us – data rarely convinces people to change their behaviour. We often find that asking for ‘data as proof’ is usually a way for leaders to put off making a decision or to camouflage their fear of change.

People are not as easy to measure as revenue or profit growth. It is incredibly hard to provide proof on people issues. Instead of trying to compile data that’s bound to be ignored or refuted – we need to appeal to our leaders’ common sense, their own relationships and experiences and the feedback from their own people. Take individual annual bonuses as an example. There’s a ton of data and research that shows individual bonuses fail to either motivate or drive the collaborative behaviours we need today. None of this has made the slightest difference to leaders’ preference for them. If we use scenarios, stories, compelling evidence from our people themselves – we might start to have more of an impact.

As I get older … and probably more impatient with leaders who aren’t prepared to acknowledge that people leadership needs to change… I am increasingly of the view that you either ‘get’ the people stuff – or you don’t. If we spent more time hiring and promoting leaders who ‘get it’ and less time trying to find proof for the ones who don’t – maybe we’d stand more of a chance!

Rather than trying to be as credible as the finance team by copying their language and approach, HR can build our credibility by being deliberately different. We will have a stronger and more powerful voice if we own our role as the people experts. We can do so much better than being a second-rate finance partner. We should stand proud as HR – the experts on human beings.

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