Leading HR: Combatting Pathological Tendencies

HR leaders have an essential role within organizations to combat the pathological tendency to pursue profit at all costs. Joel Bakan calls corporations “pathological institutions” that are dangerous possessors of great power over many people. By their very nature, corporations do not care for people; only profits. They care about people only when they contribute to profits. Bakan’s pessimistic assertion is probably correct, but it can be combatted or limited by bold HR leaders. Done effectively, this will paradoxically increase profits long-term.

Bakan’s views are poignant for HR leaders to understand and organizations desperately need HR leaders to be a voice of reason. Dave Ulrich advocates for HR leaders to be “credible activists”, where HR professionals are willing to take personal and professional risks that create value for the business. Are HR leaders willing to speak up with tangible facts and data when egos get in the way of the business? Where are these gutsy and credible HR leaders hiding? I asked one HR leader if he had advice for other HR leaders. He replied:

“It’s a great time to be in HR. It’s a time where industry is struggling for talent, especially in Alberta. My advice is to be bold and believe in the discipline. If you don’t believe in the discipline of HR, then get out of it, because chances are, you are not going to add value. You will continue to erode the perception that this profession has in the business community.”

HR is not a profession for the passive or timid. I get angry every time I hear an aspiring HR Professional say they want to get into HR because they “want to work with people.” HR requires boldness. Without that boldness, it adds no value. HR leadership requires “chutzpah” to speak against the grain when the organization needs the HR leaders to.

HR leaders have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They have information on hiring practices, demographics, benefit utilization, sick time usage, employee turnover and many other things. This information, if used effectively, can tell a story of individual departments and leaders. It can help identify departments and leaders that approach their employees with psychopathic tendencies, and help senior leaders deal with them accordingly. It can outline trends and propose solutions to combat those trends. Facts are one thing, but those facts must be weaved into tangible solutions that understand the context of the quest for profits corporations operate in.

HR leaders may not be able to fully prevent corporations’ psychopathic tendencies, but they can minimize their impact by having the credibility to speak up when organizations inevitably begin exercising their pathological tendencies. The long-term success of the organization may depend on them doing so effectively.

Bakan, J. (2008). The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power. Toronto, ON: Penguin Group.

Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W. & Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the outside in: Six competencies for the future of human resources. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.


About Tim Vanderpyl
I am a student of leadership and human resources, and I'm blogging to share some of my thoughts and ideas with readers. I'm a CHRP (Certified Human Resource Professional) at a large healthcare organization, a graduate of Regent University's Doctor of Strategic Leadership program, and lover of the life that God has gifted me with.

2 Responses to Leading HR: Combatting Pathological Tendencies

  1. Interesting perspective. We see this as a key source of breakdown in relations between management and labour. Management has a responsibility to shareholders to maximize their return on investment which can lead to poor decision making when a short term return is the focus. Employees often forget that the company doesn’t exist to serve them which causes them to sometime lose focus on why they were hired in the first place. HR leaders and professionals can and should be the ones to bring both groups together but this often isn’t the case because they lack the “chutzpah”, as you put it, to separate themselves out from both groups and do what is best for the “customer” which is why every company exists in the first place.

  2. Your statement that “employees often forget that the company doesn’t exist to serve them…” is so true. I think that both employees and managers can fall into that trap though. Managers/executives can focus so much on the perks to their job (benefits, salary, options etc.) that they forget the primary purpose of why they were hired. A strong and credible HR department will counter that and help focus the organization on why they are really there.

    In a perfect world, we (HR Pros) wouldn’t be needed though. But we operate in an imperfect world, with imperfect managers and employees, all looking out for their own selfish interests. We need some form of framework and checks/balances to ensure the selfishness doesn’t implode our organizations.

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