Skip to main content

The Commoditization of HR

By Christopher Schneider, Director, Strategic Partnerships
Published March 14, 2023

Once upon a time, HR was a crucial bridge between labor and management. An HR person was a businessperson with one foot in the board room and one foot in the place the work was happening. They had a finger on the pulse of workplace culture but were still tied to the bottom line. When a change happened, HR was the first to know and acted as a shepherd, guiding the flock through the weather, and keeping the wolves at bay. The job grew out of the magical yet sometimes tumultuous relationship between employer and employee. The “human” in human resources was a bifurcated role: an HR professional was themselves a human and they dealt with humans. At their best, they acted with humanity no matter what the circumstances.

Human forms connected with lines on blue background with words "Some would have you believe HR is no longer a person ... it’s just a set of procedures – a function of business. "Fast forward to current times. Some would have you believe HR is a cost center, not a revenue generator, and therefore, inherently dispensable, something you can outsource like document destruction or email servers. They believe HR is no longer a person or people, it is just a set of procedures. A function of business. But what they’ve lost is the connection between employees and management, deep institutional knowledge, workplace culture, and the humanness of a role that was historically essential. These cynical, profit-driven decisions and resultant market forces can be heard in the softening of the language. We no longer have “layoffs,” we have “rightsizing.” No more closing of factories, only alignment of vertical business units. No more tactical decisions, only strategic measures. For those companies facing a downturn in business, who long ago jettisoned their HR professional, it comes as no surprise that these moments are handled sloppily, and I would argue, inhumanely. 

The problem with either ignoring HR or choosing to replace it with some automated "service” is the collateral damage left in its wake. I no longer want to buy a certain popular type of car because a certain well-known CEO has behaved so deplorably to his employees. What may be legal and expedient may move the stock price of a public company, but good luck when your customers rebel. Historically, other outcomes have been the opening of the door to unionization, the mass departure of key talent, the destruction of a brand, livelihoods, and worse. No one wants to see a business fail, but a world without HR is a world without humanity in business. Not a great place to be and an organization as such won’t get my hard-earned pay.

HR Source has grown, in some small sense because we offer resources to employers irrespective of their size who lack access to a large corporate HR apparatus and attorneys. We collect, analyze, and circulate survey data that establish realistic pay ranges for similarly situated jobs. We train, write, and consult topically so that no matter your background and professional acumen, you can learn about how to recruit and hire, manage leaves of absence, and yes, discipline and terminate with confidence you are doing right by your employer and treating employees with deference and respect, all while following the law. 

My hat’s off to the employers doing it right, keeping their people happy and engaged, maintaining a great workplace culture, and navigating challenges with a real human assigned to HR at the vanguard. Remember, you can outsource tasks, but never responsibility. What type of employer do you want to be?