Human resources

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Human resources: an overview

The HR role still strives for legitimacy in many organisations, where managers and employees doubt that HR adds any significant value. The doubt is often justifiable, as HR practitioners frequently take a narrow view of their role, focusing solely on technical administrative issues. HR similarly can find themselves restricted by executives to the role of advising on such things as leave entitlements and the jurisdictional limits on unfair dismissal claims. To be more influential, HR needs to address the broader agenda of organisational culture.

It is an irony that HR has gained sufficient profile in ordinary parlance for it to be the butt of jokes in movies and television shows. HR has been characterised as the “velvet ghetto”, as the refugee camp for employees who are ineffectual, and as the kingdom of petty rule-mongers who walk around with clipboards looking for breaches of dress policy.

HR is often carried out reactively too. HR staff only react to complaints; they don't play a more active and constructive role in the organisational climate. While attending to complaints promptly and appropriately is indeed essential, if that is all HR does, it is not addressing deeper organisational issues such as rate of staff turnover, productivity, employee engagement and skills shortages.

The alternative for HR is to take on building a positive organisational culture, which will get at the causes of many organisational problems. The ambition of HR should be to play an active role in building a workplace climate where energy is high, the passion for achievement is high, and ethical standards are strong. In this way the HR role adds value.

How do we take stock of the factors that HR practitioners have to consider if they are to play an effective, value-adding role in their organisation?

A good HR practitioner transforms energy

We could start by asking what is a good manager, in any field? A good manager is someone who is aware of the multitude of pressures and expectations upon them, and who can respond in the most constructive way. In comparison, a poor manager merely transmits pressure, without transforming it in any way. For example, if their boss tells them to increase production, they simply impose new demands on their team, without examining how it is going to be possible, and what it will take for staff to be able to fulfil on the new targets. A manager like this adds very little value to the organisation.

Good HR managers are also conscious of the need to add value to the business. To do this they need to understand who all the stakeholders are, and what pressures exist in the environment. A constructive course of action is one that takes into account all of the pressures that bear upon the situation and seeks to transform those pressures. The goal is to create an organisational environment that is productive and sustainable.

HR staff need to have a systems perspective. What you do in one area may have effects elsewhere else in the system. For example, what happens if an employer cuts employees' pay and conditions in order to cut costs? Yes, some money is saved. But the astute HR practitioner also asks, what other effects may occur? Given a knowledge of people and their motivations, the HR practitioner might conclude that the decision, and the way it is carried out, will have a chain of effects on people and morale that will cancel out all the savings.

The systems view tells the HR practitioner to be aware of the many factors that affect people in the workplace, and ensure that senior managers are aware of these factors and how they can play out over the longer term. Effects can show up in places that seem remote from the aspect that was targeted.

HR practitioners need to be aware of a wide range of phenomena — including staff turnover, absenteeism, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, trends in sales. And they need to understand how human motivations, values and organisational culture affect and are affected by these phenomena. The systems view embraces all of these things, and looks to create an organisational environment that is sustainable.

When we see an organisation as a system, there are three major areas:

HR practitioners who are serious about their role strive to learn about all three aspects, not forgetting that their main responsibility is to support other managers and executives to take appropriate account of people and their motivations. And this, in short, is to work to ensure that people are treated decently.


Supporting line managers to be emotionally intelligent

Getting beyond "hot potato" syndrome: (session for AHRI)

For download:

A systems view of HR

Systems and HR

This article extends the thoughts in the piece above.

Career development

Personal growth for a professional career

Recommended books

Australian Master Human Resources Guide, CCH Australia, latest edition. See

The HR Value Proposition, Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, Harvard Business School Press, 2005.

Links to HR sites

Australian Human Resources Institute:

Workplace Info:


Links to HR education:

Jansen Newman Institute: offers Bachelor courses in HR through online study.

Open Colleges: offers nationally recognised courses in HR for students in Australia.

Franklyn Scholar: provides Certificate IV and Diploma courses in HR.