Where did the 'Human' in Human Resources go?

It's said that younger workers know on their first day on the job whether they'll stay for any time with this employer, based on how much genuine human interaction occurs on Day One. Here's an interview with an HR executive who's got an interesting perspective on the matter.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

Twice in my career, I’ve hired Connie Laughlin. She’s a great HR and Resource Management executive. Interestingly, her last employer has had to downsize and now she’s on the other side of the fence. Instead of hiring others, she’s the one looking for a job. And, she’s noticed something I’ve heard a lot about lately: There’s not a lot of “human” in Human Resources anymore.

I checked in with her this weekend and here’s our discussion (note: any emphasis I added):

Brian – So, what’s HR like from the other side of the fence? What does HR need to do differently?

Connie – Being on the “other” side has truly been an eye-opening and learning experience. From a recruiting/HR perspective, I have found the jobseeker experience to be frustrating and painful more often than not. I have applied for positions in the government sector, higher education, professional services firms, technology firms and private industry. Regardless of sector, I found a few sites where I was only asked to upload my resume and copy/paste a cover letter. I was in and out of the site in a matter of minutes. These sites also promptly sent an email (albeit automated) acknowledging receipt of my resume.

I found the norm however to be much more time consuming: a few sites requiring close to an hour to finally get to the “application successfully submitted” message. I made the conscious decision to back out of a couple of sites after painstakingly getting halfway through the process only to be kicked out and requested to “try again later."  More often than not, after clicking on “apply for posting," I was asked to join the organization’s “talent network.” This involved uploading my resume, then clicking on “parse resume now” just so I could then do a line-by-line, field-by-field update of the data that didn’t correctly fill in the online form. I often thought it would have been easier to just type in the fields rather than correct them after the fact. The kicker in the process was once I finally “joined the talent network," I then had to “apply for the position." This meant resubmitting my resume, reviewing and updating the online application that was filled in from my resume and then finally getting to submit a cover letter.  Thinking I had finally completed the submission process, I quickly was notified that I had just completed the first two or three steps of a five to seven step process. The remainder of the processes included providing detailed education and training background information, salary history, licenses/certifications held, and EEO/Disability/Veteran Status reporting (which were correctly introduced as voluntary).

 I ran into some sites that required additional “short essay” type of responses as to why I was a good fit for the job or why I should be considered for the position (which I had already discussed in my cover letter). I spent close to two hours, if not more, applying for a couple of positions which required you to complete a personality/behavior test online as part of the application process. Some were timed tests; others allowed me to stop midway through and return (if I chose to) to complete.

So are these bad recruiting systems? Bad recruiting processes? Or just a sign of the times where companies are turning to technology to weed out candidates before actually getting to the “human interaction”?

Brian – What you just described were HR Recruiting systems that were designed for corporations and not the people who have to use them.  On today’s analyst Q/A re: Workday’s  new recruiting module, some of their executives described how important it is to design a “great candidate experience." I absolutely agree.

HR how things have changed


Brian – I think bad recruiting systems do more than just damage employer brands. I’d argue that they drive away the best and brightest candidates.  

Connie – I’m not sure I can speak for every “best and brightest” candidate but I can say from my experience (and from talking with candidates when I was on the “inside of the process”), that job seekers want to be treated with respect and dignity. This means adding the human or personal touch to the process.

Simplifying the application process is a great first start. Communicating the time frame for the process also shows respect for the applicant. I heard back from one organization six weeks after I first submitted my application. I had to refer to my own application tracking log to jog my memory on the position. I also experienced a 6-plus week recruiting process from when I first applied for a position, received an email expressing interest in talking with me, a phone screen by a member of the recruiting team, followed by a second phone screen by a member of the HR team, then finally a phone screen by a member of the hiring team.

Scheduling in-person interviews provides an interesting insight into the importance of the position as well. Delays of several days to a week between interviews signaled to me that the position was not important enough to the organization to make filling it a priority. I truly got the sense from a number of organizations that they were doing me a favor by talking with me about my experience and that I should be thankful for this effort. Frankly, I was quickly turned off by these organizations.

If organizations are serious about employing the best and brightest, they must show genuine interest in their applicant and move the process along expeditiously. This shows the applicants respect. And above all, those organizations who truly take that extra step to build rapport with their applicants are steps ahead in attracting the best candidate for the position, winning over a new employee and ensuring these employees refer other great potential candidates to the company.

Brian – At a couple of recent HR analyst briefings, I’ve heard Katherine Jones of Bersin and Lisa Rowan of IDC echo some of your comments. Katherine has made the point that many employers really need to try to apply for a job on their firm’s employment website. If they did, they’d probably be stunned at how badly their job sites work (or don’t).

Connie – I agree with Katherine’s point.  Employers (including members of the Recruiting and HR organization) should try to apply on their firm’s employment website. But applying online should not be the only process employers should review. The entire recruiting process should undergo a test run. Are applicants treated with respect? When in the process is the first point of human contact? How long does the process take? If an organization has created a hire requisition, is the commitment there to see it to the end?

Brian - I liked that you added the time dimension. I recently saw a statistic that showed the time between interviews and a tendered job offer has grown from around 12 days (pre-2009 recession) to 23 days today. While I understand that more firms want to be “sure” of the people they hire today, these time delays are counterproductive to firms that want to hire the best and brightest. One HR recruiter in the Bay Area told me that a good software engineer has three to four solid job offers in hand within 72 hours of coming onto the market. So, apparently, if you want a hot person, taking 23 days to make up your mind will be massively underproductive.

You said you’ve observed that the "human" in human resources is gone now. How so?

Connie –No amount of technology or new processes can replace the benefits of human interaction. It is quite simple in my opinion: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Employees are not machines. They are not objects to be pushed around.  I have found many companies have “people are our greatest assets” as part of their mission statement or “Respect for Individuals” as part of the organization’s core values. So if employees are truly the greatest assets, why are organizations replacing the human interaction with automated processes? The recruiting process has become impersonal for the sake of efficiency. I would even argue that onboarding and new hire orientation is becoming more impersonal, as automation is replacing new hire start groups, again for the sake of efficiency.

Brian – I concur. The lack of human interest in a fellow employee is getting scarcer. To be more efficient, I see this spread of automation into all aspects of HR growing. And, it seems fewer executives have the interest or time to mentor anyone anymore. What other areas are suffering from a lack of human interest?

Connie - Training, if offered, is through on-demand training programs and services so employees can take training after hours so as to not lose valuable working hours. And the message being sent?  Hurry up, get your paperwork done and get to work. Time is wasting. Revenue is being lost. Where is the respect for the individual in this process? Where is the “human” in this process? Who is spending time with the applicant, the recruit, the new hire, the employee making them feel like they are valued and are a valuable member of the team? Are managers and executives spending quality time with new hires and current employees, teaching them the ropes, or even just getting to know their team members?

During the last recession, large numbers of organizations cut training and team-building budgets. The focus became one of staying alive and keeping people employed.  Organizations stopped investing in their people. How is a company to grow if they are no longer investing in their people? How does a company expect to retain their people if they no longer invest in the human aspects of the job?

Brian – And, I suspect that this lack of training over the last five to six years has contributed to some of the carping I hear from employers that they can’t find trained talent in the market. I suspect the companies complaining the loudest may be some of the worst when it comes to professional development of their own personnel.

When we worked together at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), you took a personal interest in our people. You got them on projects that were going to stretch them a bit and help them develop professionally. You also made us in the leadership ranks free up these folks from time to time to make sure they got the training they were supposed to get and at the right time in their career. Do employers do a lot of that anymore?

Connie – Back then I took a deep personal interest in the success of our people, their personal and professional success. My role as Resource Manager extended well beyond the dollars and cents of chargeable hours. It was important for the organization to build rapport and trust across our team members regardless of where they were working. I was their advocate: their employee champion who truly cared about them as a person. Their growth, personal and professional, was a key consideration when assigning them to client projects, internal projects and training. 

Do employers do a lot of this anymore? I would say sadly that this aspect of human resources, like training and true professional development, appears to have taken a big detour during the economic downturn. A number of companies didn’t take the time to invest in maintaining (or even building) employee skills and trust. I have talked with a few companies that have said they want to build up their employee relations, but admitted they did not know how to go about this effort.

Brian – The recession clearly triggered a number of bad HR behaviors in companies and now these firms will pay the price. Employees want their careers to get back on track. They want to catch up on lapsed training and skills development. They want raises. They want an employer that respects them personally and the contributions they’ve made. And, in many cases, that means they’ll look for a new employer.

I know the work force is full of pent-up angst. But are HR professionals feeling some of that angst too? Have employers invested in the human capital in their HR organizations? I’m curious if employers get serious about professional development for the people responsible for professional development?

Connie – My experience is that professional development for internal HR people has been tied to short-term budget realities instead of to the importance of the HR team in achieving corporate goals.  I continue to be amazed at how the budget for training HR team members to be “human” resource professionals is constantly scrutinized and often cut. Organizations that look to grow and grow rapidly should not overlook their HR team. HR is a team of individuals who can either help make or break a company’s growth. Technology and reinvented processes may help with efficiency, but it’s the HR team that must ensure the personal touch is in place for the sake of the people of the organization.

Brian – For your next gig, what would you like to do in regard to HR? How are you going to make your next employer a better employer?

Connie My success has depended on the success of employees. Usually the firms I helped had people across multiple office locations, often across the globe. To be successful, I had to wear the hats of both “HR”/employee advocate and business management. I had to understand the mission and vision of the organization, align them with the expectations/goals of management and translate them into meaningful opportunities for the employees. Growth of the organization was dependent on the growth of the employees and it was my responsibility to find and drive the opportunities allowing for employee growth.

My next gig? I plan to continue my career in HR/Resource Management as a valued executive of the HR team and the organization. I’d like to find an employer that wants to put the “human” back into human resources. I’d love to see a firm that wants to re-invent its organizational processes and practices to include human interaction.

Editorial standards