The other day I attended a business-owner’s breakfast where the topic of the day was compassion at work. To start us off, the facilitator played a TED Talk by Chade-Meng Tan in which he spoke about everyday compassion at Google. The facilitator then asked us to discuss how our companies practiced compassion in the workplace. The discussion was fascinating enough, but what really struck me was the fact that the most cynical people in the room were from the department that I would most expect to embrace compassion at work: Human Resources. As the discussion continued, it became clear to me that these people were not cynical by nature (you know the type, the perennial complainers and nay-sayers). They truly wanted to practice better compassion at work. The problem was that they felt constrained by their role. The irony was that the very organization that should be responsible for driving a compassionate culture was preventing them from practicing compassion in the first place!
The history of HR, from the beginning of the industrial revolution to today, seems to be one of vacillation between meeting the interests of the employees versus those of the company. Today, in my estimation, HR has become a de facto extension of Legal, tasked with ensuring that the company is legally compliant with the dizzying myriad of HR laws and regulations. As a result, HR has become afraid of its own shadow. Take, for instance, the discussion on compassion. As people shared ideas and stories, the HR folks in the room were admonishing the group to be careful about this, to look out for that, to avoid this, that, or the other, and for heaven’s sake, don’t even think about…well, you get the picture.
Looking at the modern iteration of the corporate organizational structure, HR seems to be the obvious choice when it comes to establishing a champion, evangelist, and steward of a thriving organizational culture. The question is, is HR up to the task? And if not HR, then who?