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Why HR Doesn't Exist to Help Employees

A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people.

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I am two years into a career in HR. My work experience includes managing people and training and development. I truly am struggling and considering leaving my HR director role as I am constantly being reprimanded for looking out for the best interests of the employees. My manager feels that my role is to offer benefits, oversee recruitment and hiring, and keep us legally compliant in our processes. Is this typical in most companies? Am I missing something? Should I go back to managing, training and development?

Many people join the HR profession because they want to do something meaningful that helps their fellow employees, but I know of no commercial enterprise that exists only to "help people."

To see things as they really are, you need to "follow the money," just as the detectives do in thriller procedurals on TV. You'll find that whoever signs your paycheck makes the rules.

Here are the cold, hard facts: Companies exist to make money, and staff gets hired to help profitability in one of three ways:

  • Making more money.
  • Saving money, which is pretty much the same as making money.
  • Increasing productivity, which creates more time to make more money.

Imagine for a moment that you and I owned a company together. As business partners talking about adding more staff, every penny we add to payroll is money we take out of our own pockets.

Consequently, for every position added to the payroll, we must answer the question "How does this job help our company make a profit?" If we can't clearly answer that question, you and I would be giving away our hard-earned money for no good reason.

In truth, HR does not exist to help employees, although much of what we do and how we do it achieves that goal. The main job of HR, from the C-suite point of view, is to protect the company by delivering competent employment candidates on a timely basis, supporting effective and legal recruitment and selection procedures, and keeping the company's behavior on the right side of the law at all times and in all matters.

If you can help employees along the way, without jeopardizing the company, more power to you. But while HR is often seen as employee-centric, all you have to do is follow the money to see who it really serves.

An Alternative

Training and development is one of the few jobs where helping people become successful in their jobs, and to a larger extent their careers, is the priority. It also happens to fall in line with your personal ethics.

Working in training and development has other benefits, too. You get to know people in other departments and levels of the company, and because your job is to make them better at what they do, you are also usually liked and respected. As a result, you can build strong, vibrant, professionally relevant networks that can help you through career transitions for a lifetime. 

But Wait! There's More

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have held director-level positions in divisions of public companies in both HR and training and development, and from my experience, training wins out every time:

  • You know everyone and everyone knows you, which can lead to assignments from senior management, like writing speeches or helping an executive create a presentation, develop graphics and grow their skills.
  • You bond with, connect with and build mentor/mentee relationships with those far outranking you. That can lead to job offers over the years.
  • Training manuals are a necessary evil, and no one wants to be responsible for them. If you volunteer for these assignments, you may not get paid for the extra effort, but you'll increase your knowledge base and professional networks.
  • No matter how bad the day might have been, because you help people become more successful, you get to fall asleep knowing you changed people's lives for the better. Each year, people I trained 20 or more years ago reach out to connect on social media, telling me about their career successes: "I go to G7 summits now, but I never forgot how you …"
  • People change jobs and this leads to them approaching you to write manuals for other companies, and this time you get paid and have an additional income stream.

How do I know this? It's the story of my life. I did all these things and experienced all the benefits mentioned.

My employer's CEO retired at the same time I had my first book published—the first royalty check wouldn't have paid for coffee for the both of us—and almost immediately that CEO gave me a second income stream to assist him in a new venture. Additionally, what he gave me as a personal mentor was beyond measure.

My first book is now in its 32nd edition, and there have been 85 editions of 18 other books. This week, I am scheduled to speak at the Pentagon. Am I scared? Nope, because of everything I learned in training and development, while never once compromising my own ethics.

Your choices are both honorable jobs, but the decision comes down to what you want and need. Add up the options and flexibility each offers your life.


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