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March 31, 2009

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You've come a long way, baby--as a profession, HR has made great strides. From welfare secretary to talent management, HR is now a function no business can afford to be without. But a common frustration many HR leaders face is a struggle for respect. Most companies have executive teams that make the key decisions for the company, sitting at the so-called boardroom table. However, in some companies (but not all), HR doesn't have a seat at that table, reporting to another senior executive who does. In SHRM's 2005 survey on the HR profession, less than 50% of HR practitioners think that senior management believes HR professionals are true business partners.

Why doesn't HR always have the respect of its business colleagues? The answers vary. Part of it can be blamed on the early days of HR, when HR professionals weren't tapped for their strategic expertise. Many HR professionals have worked hard over the year to change that perception.

In other cases, smaller or high-growth companies are more focused on their products or services. Hiring good people is important, but key decisions and funding may instead be focused on how best to grow the company or bring on a key customer. A famous saying goes: Manage the product, then the people.

Another reason? Ask your friends and family what they think about the HR departments in their companies. Chances are you'll hear mixed reviews. HR often suffers from lack of attention, not enough staff, and minimal resources. But working in a company where HR doesn't have a seat at the table, or isn't a company's key focus, can have its benefits. The future of HR is change, and that change could be you. In a start-up company, for example, there are often only one or two HR staff members who have a tremendous amount of responsibility. This can be an opportunity to take on a key leadership position early in a career and learn multiple HR roles and tasks at once.

In a high-growth company, one that may be gaining momentum in the market, or has just gone public, working in HR can be a chance to focus on the future and try out innovative ideas.

"When [a high-growth] company is focused on revenue and sales are really important, the pressure is off HR a bit. Working in this situation really gave me a chance to suggest some new recruiting mechanisms and alert my boss to some potential HR problems I saw down the road," says one HR Manager who used to work for a technology company. "Even though I am not working for that company anymore, I hear from my former colleagues how strong the function is, partly because I was there to help lay the groundwork."

And HR isn't always on the backburner. In some companies, HR is making headway as one of the most important parts of the business. As an HR professional, getting respect from your clients, the employees in the company, is essential for getting that much-deserved seat at the table.

"I would say that there has been a somewhat negative perception of [HR] in the past," says one Account Director with a large, public service firm. "However, I think that is changing. I believe that HR is making some progress to try to become more strategic, less transactional and more of a partner with the businesses." And at Marriott, Kippen says HR is respected: "I don't ever need to tell [my boss] why it is important." Kippen's advice to HR professionals who don't get any respect?

"I think it goes back to the organization. You have to link HR back to the business and catch business leaders' attention by improving products or reducing costs for services. That could manifest itself in turnover or sales per employee hour. The opportunity for HR in how a business differentiates itself is huge."

While a seat at the table isn't universal for all HR professionals, companies are beginning to realize the importance of a strong HR function to manage employees, create a positive workplace and provide career development opportunities. Now may be just the time to get your foot in the HR door.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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