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People ask me about the future of HR. Am I an optimist? Am I a cynic?

I think you have to look at the past to understand the future.

Business leaders brazenly defrocked HR between 2009-2014 and invested in software, which has largely failed. Meanwhile, a talented cohort of HR professionals became disenfranchised and moved out of the function. They found jobs in marketing or sales. They started businesses. Or maybe they just stopped working.

So now the present merges with the past. What remains of HR is complicated. There’s a hodgepodge of skills combined with a market saturated with underwhelming software.

Many futurists are bullish on the future of HR as long as it’s not too feminine but simultaneously tackling problems such as happiness and engagement. Like a mom, but not too motherly or matronly. Wrap your head around that sexist crap.

Other analysts think HR is doomed. Software can’t replace your friendly neighborhood HR business partner just yet, so you have to play the hand you’re dealt.

So what does the HR talent pool look like?

* There are GenX “generalists” who can play the corporate game. They can do just about anything but have stifled their desires to help employees for fear of looking like union stewards or Hillary Clinton supporters. Thanks but no thanks. That’s too much work.
* There’s an older group of HR leaders, mostly baby boomers, who can’t believe they are still putting up with this shit. They were hit by the recession and can’t afford to retire, which sucks. That’s what you get for voting Republican.
* Then you have Gen Y and Gen Z up-and-comers who are principally specialized in “talent” and have been told that the older generation of HR sucks, thereby giving them no heroes or role models. You wonder why they like Bernie Sanders. At least he stands for something in their eyes.

I think the future of HR is like the future of anything: probably okay, perhaps disappointing at times, and mostly unimportant to the future success of your business.

If HR can provide advisory services that help companies improve performance and profitability, that’s great. But let’s not kid ourselves. If HR’s only accomplishment is that it helps make sure your workforce doesn’t bully or sexually assault one another — or that supervisors and executives don’t toy with the budgets and unfairly reward specific constituencies of workers — that’s also a win. I’ll take it.

So what I’m saying is stop worrying about the future of HR and pay attention to the future of your job. Your HR department, good or bad, will probably survive a lot longer than you will in your current role.

7 Responses to The Future of HR
  1. Michael

    Very much like this post, Laurie. I think HR has gotten past the “Necessary Evil” persona and is starting to get looked at as a real partner. However, I do also think that HR is becoming more specialized where people can build careers in just one area. The superstars will emerge from those that can master, or be really good at, all facets.

  2. John

    There is a major lack of leadership in all functions – not just HR. I think the years of layoffs, spin-offs, project based work, outsourcing & etc have take a toll on the leadership ranks. Many of the people left in leadership are smart & hardworking people that seem to be very collaborative and rather risk/conflict adverse. It makes for very pleasant meetings but not very bold or timely decision making.

    Gen Y does not like this leadership model. They see issues that never get resolved. They can only take so many partial implementations of half-measures before they leave. They will stick around if their direct manager is good at overcoming these challenges.

  3. Julie Kellman

    This might be your best blog post ever, and I’ve been a reader for a long time! Whenever I hear about my “dying profession” I usually just respond with a big eye roll. Now I’m going to send them this link. Thanks.

  4. Jennifer Caraballo

    I still feel like I’m in that “necessary evil” funk – or maybe it’s Necessary Evil PTSD. I’m trying not to get totally disenfranchised after having to explain the value I bring to an organization for the gazillionth time… and each time I get to a new organization I think “maybe this time I won’t have to justify my profession” and I am proven wrong.

    I keep plugging away because I do love what I do and I do believe in HR and what we can bring to an organization… but I’m exhausted.

  5. Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith

    HR seems to be exasperating – from inside and out. Inside HR, there is uncertainty, confusion about purpose and a fear that today’s HR skills won’t cut it in future. Outside HR, business leaders still mostly rate HR a second class citizen by the value of its contribution. Sounds pretty cynical. That said, you have to think people assets really are the key to unlocking business success, so the HR role just has to play a part.

  6. Colleen

    That first bullet point!! So very spot-on, it’s scary.

  7. Mark Vickers

    Appreciate this article. Its something all generations of HR practitioners should read. I can also understand the ‘talent’ focus – That’s my generation – Its measurable and the business expects what you do to be measurable otherwise… what do you do exactly? The strange thing about great HR leaders though is that its darn tricky to bottle and sell what they do and how they do it; Therefore it can’t be passed on en-masse which explains the wide gaps in HR perception and performance from one company to the next.

    Back to talent acquisition…