The chief executive of an IT company once told one of us that “the hallmark of a successful organisation is the absence of an HR department”.
By that standard, universities are emphatically unsuccessful organisations. Human resources departments seem to be growing not only in size but also in their influence on management and the power they wield over the key assets of universities – academics. In one of our institutions, while you may stroll into most laboratories and even the finance department, HR is inaccessible to those without the code for the keypad that locks both ends of its corridor. Those with that secret knowledge come out to meet you in a breakout room if they must. You wonder what they are hiding in their inner sanctum.
HR departments are formally responsible for providing professional advice, support and guidance to staff in line with employment legislation and best practice. Their role is in essence to ensure that an organisation achieves its long-term objectives by helping it to attract, recruit, retain and reward the best talent. However, in our experience, they more often act as a hindrance, with a mindset that academics need to justify their purpose to HR, rather than the other way around.
No longer, for instance, can you assume that HR will assist with advertising a post, arranging an interview or seeking references: this will invariably be “devolved” or “outsourced” to you. Only once you succeed in recruiting a suitable candidate does HR move in – to bury them in bureaucracy.
One of us recently experienced this first hand, when he switched university. In his first month, he spent nearly two days completing 10 mandatory online courses, the longest ones covering diversity and unconscious bias. This is despite his having worked as a full professor in five universities over 24 years and being very familiar with these topics on account of his degrees in psychology, business administration and social policy.
To interview and appoint a postdoctoral researcher – a support post agreed on his appointment – he had to attend a day-long “selection interviewing” course, despite the fact that he has interviewed, chaired and appointed numerous research and academic staff over his career. Such inflexible bureaucracy that takes no account of experience, qualifications or previous course completion is costly, time-consuming, frustrating and, frankly, demoralising.
As for getting a view, advice or decision from an HR department, that is often a study in Brownian motion. The opacity is only further compounded by the plethora of titles and roles in this seemingly ever-growing discipline. We have dealt with HR directors, managers, consultants, advisers and business partners, but it is hard to discern their precise roles, or the differences between them. Moreover, in many universities, HR is made up of a variety of departments, such as business partnering, diversity and inclusion, resourcing, reward and employee relations and organisational development. Rarely are the terms “people” or “person” included in these sonorous titles.
A prime example of the mind-numbing, downward-spiralling requirements of HR is the annual performance appraisal: a time-consuming, tick-box exercise with little evidence of a positive effect on the behaviour of either the appraisee or appraiser (interestingly, although the university often states that it is important for employees to know what it expects of them, little mention is made of what employees can expect of the university).
Of course, we recognise that there are laws and societal expectations that universities need to comply with, and administrative processes that ensure that people are treated in a fair and just way. But whether all that is best overseen by an HR department is a different matter.
As institutions full of researchers, higher education institutions need to closely examine the evidence that HR departments enhance the performance of universities and their academic staff. We remain to be convinced that they do. Our hypothesis is that they are just another symptom of the managerialism that is now the norm in UK universities: just another of the administrative spades that are being used to dig us into ever deeper bureaucratic holes.