The Human Resources Princess

In my first year in college, one of my classmates laughed loudly and said,

“I am only here to do two years of time pass before getting married. I don’t want to get so serious and all.”

She was pretty, girly and fluttery. She was also the topper from a reputed engineering college. I rounded on her in fury and gave her a tongue-lashing which included phrases like ‘giving women a bad name’ and ‘wasting a seat’. I wasn’t winning any popularity contests in college anyway but this incident stands out in my mind because it split the factions for good.

HR Princess*Image (without text) via stockimages on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

During the first week, a professor had walked up to me, seated all eager-beaver at the first bench and said,

“Why are you here? You should be at home learning to cook.”

I flushed, all 21 year old awkwardness, belligerence, peer pressure and need for approval rolled into one. The class laughed. The incidents built, one by one. The snide remarks of ‘anyone with boobs gets marks’, the ‘Topper kisko banana hain, I just want to pass’, ‘Main apni biwi ko kaam nahin karne doonga. Bachchon ko kaun dekhega?’ and the ‘Why do you want to work after this?’. Whether I wanted to or not, I was suddenly crusading for a cause I hadn’t even realised needed championing. And here I’d thought all you needed to become a management professional was to study hard and work smart. At the college interview, the dean had asked me why I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I said,

“Because it’s largely Marketing or Finance people who go on to become CEOs of companies.”

He had knitted his eyebrows together and asked,

“You want to be a CEO?”

The question surprised me and I was on the verge of blurting out “Doesn’t everyone here?” but instead I said,

“I’d like to have the option.”

He pursed his lips and told me that not everyone thought that way. It really should have prepared me. Later in the year, we had to declare our majors. The girl who said the above, picked Human Resources. At the time, I was only thankful that I wouldn’t have to endure her attitude on group projects after that. I was going into Marketing. Naively I assumed everyone else was making their choices the way I had. It wasn’t till I heard a conversation among the soon-to-be HR class (all of them in the girls’ bathroom – that should have been another clue). One brushed her hair and said,

“Finance needs too much brains. Marketing is so much travel. HR is best. It’ll be easy.”

Unsurprisingly, when third semester began, the HR class was also occasionally referred to as ‘the kitty party’. What bothered me most was that it didn’t bother the girls in the class in the least bit. Maybe not every woman is a feminist but I did think that women professionals who had worked hard to be there, would want to take some pride in themselves.

To my utter horror, I keep meeting versions of this girl all through my career. She’s the one the men ogle at, say things like ‘She’s so distracting. They shouldn’t expect us to do work when she’s sitting in that seat.’ about. She is supposed to be approached with flattery and wheedling (depending on your gender) instead of approvals and processes like the rest of us professionals. Misplaced documents, incomplete work, rude behaviour to internal and external people – these things, not normally tolerated in others are glossed over when one of these girls commits the folly. Some of them have worked in their organisations for several years. This ineptness seems to be especially tolerated in functions like HR, recruitment and administration.

There is a certain type of woman we all know from the workplace. I am not saying Human Resources is unnecessary. On the contrary, I believe that most business situations require not just the ‘hard’ skills but also the ability to handle human issues. There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Pay little heed to the function, hire the wrong people who are in it for the wrong reasons, do not hold them to professional standards that the other functions require. What’s the end result? A bitchy girl who gets candidates names wrong, delays payments except for the young men who ‘charm’ her and is a part of cliques & factions rather than helping manage them.

I don’t believe that I’m being sexist. In fact, at a workplace, shouldn’t gender be of little to no importance? Why then, should I have to make allowances for a woman being a woman, when she is in this role? I’ve never had allowances made for me and I’ve never asked for them either. The responses I’ve had, usually hint that I’m slightly jealous of ‘the HR babe’ for the attention she gets from men. My father, also a management professional, vigorously protests my observation. He points out that he has hired female HR professionals and directs my attention to one that I know who has done a great job. He also tells me about how most companies don’t value their HR function or enable them to do the job that they can do, well.

One of my good friends is a former HR professional too and I’m sure he’d be able to point out female peers who’ve done great work. Yet, the numbers seem to speak and I must wonder whether those women are the exceptions rather than the norm. Is the average HR woman like my classmate who just wanted an easy ride or is she an independent, equal business professional to me? This feels like a terribly important question to me.

A long time ago, much before b-school, I considered being a Human Resources professional. I only began preparing for MBA entrances when I discovered the HR function. Looking back, I’m glad that Marketing’s glamour distracted me and I didn’t go the HR way. I may or may not have been a good fit. But it would have been heart-breaking to work so hard only to be around people who didn’t even take themselves (let alone me) seriously.

~O~O~O~O~O~

Update: Gautam shared this post on Facebook, asking his vast network of HR professionals to comment. Considering the kind of comments that came up, I feel the need to clarify the following:

  • This is not an HR-bashing post. I do not subscribe to the notion that Human Resources is an accessorial function. On the contrary, I think it is a very important role, one that involves being able to look beyond short-range tactics or numbers, working with ambiguous references and managing non-templatized situations. So I think it is even more startling that the job is represented by so many disinterested and clearly inept people.
  • In addition, as a woman professional, I feel the constant pressure to prove that my gender deserves equal standing in the workplace (and everywhere else). Instances like the ones I’ve detailed in the post, enable our detractors. They make it easier for people to be chauvinistic to women and to the HR function.
  • And finally, I didn’t mention this but since this post seems to have touched a raw nerve, I should clarify. I studied Marketing but I was never a specialised Marketing person. My jobs have all been in more generalist/other areas like business processes, consulting, research and content. I have no reason to pick a side in the Marketing/Finance versus HR debate. I think it’s just silly.  The qualifications conferred by the program are in Business, not one of the specialisations and each function operates in tandem with the others.

About IdeaSmith

IdeaSmith is the digital doppelgänger of Ramya Pandyan. I am a writer-storyteller. I work as a Content Specialist, consulting, training and delivering Social Content that drives conversations & builds communities. Tweet me at @ideasmithy or write to me at Ideasmithy[at]gmail[dot]com.

Posted on May 22, 2014, in Being Woman, Seriously speaking, Sex & sexuality, Women @ Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. So I’m going to try and be as coherent and rational as possible, but bear with me if I ramble a little. I understand your viewpoint, and I understand why you hold it, and there are parts of this are not completely wrong, but I refuse to accept it’s entirely true, and I’m going to try and articulate why.

    #1 – Yes, there are women who enter the field of HR because they think it’ll be “easy” or “less serious”.
    But (a), HR is not the only field where women join the workforce for these reasons. I can thinking of teaching, at least, for one, where I know of women who have got into it for similar reasons. Women have that choice (okay yes, it’s not always a choice; sometimes it’s a compulsion due to other pressures which I won’t get into now) and it’s their choice. If I shouldn’t be judged for choosing a career over other things, I shouldn’t judge anyone who chooses family and marriage over a career.
    And (b), just because *some* women do enter HR for these reasons doesn’t take away from so many of them who do their job competently and effectively. Which brings me to my second point…

    #2 – Yes, HR departments can be ineffective and disorganized and all sorts of things. But to say that it is usually this “certain type of woman” is unfair and untrue. I used to be an HR consultant in Delhi, and worked with HR folks from a variety of organizations and industries (rants on that were made when I quit my job three years ago here: http://ramblingsonthejob.blogspot.com/2011/05/learnings-and-take-aways.html – some of this may even validate some of what you’ve said!). And in all fairness, I came across competence and incompetence, *but* in both men and women. Let’s also not pretend that this kind of incompetence is *only* seen in HR. I’ve seen similar incompetence, idiocy, and sheer lack of interest in the job – again, in both men and women – in sales, marketing and finance.

    #3 – And since we’re talking about HR, let’s clarify what you mean by HR. There’s the more transactional side of it, which yes, can be exasperating and inefficient, but there’s also the more “transformational” – to be utterly cliched – side of it, which while far from ideal (in my personal opinion) does often do some very good work in many organizations. It’s often not seen as doing very good work, and this is due to a variety of reasons – budgets, top management giving nothing more than lip service to the importance of HR, great ideation but not very good execution, competence (and its lack thereof), and sometimes just a lack of good PR, to be honest. But while the brickbats are flung frequently, very often do the bouquets come in when good work is actually done.
    And the honest truth is that most of the painpoints with HR come from the pure transactional parts of HR, the more administrative aspects of the job, which honestly just gets lumped into HR because where else will a company put it?

    #4 – Finally, some of your comments about your classmates. In all fairness, I’m not the best person to comment on this. I did my MA in India, where HR was a logical career path. So HR was never the “easy” or “fallback” option for me. On the other hand, my father did his MBA from one of the top institutes in India, close to forty years ago, and he has mentioned to me in the past about HR being the fallback option for many men in that era – men who didn’t get into anything else went into HR. Today, on the other hand, I know men and women – friends, former classmates, ex-colleagues, former clients – who went into HR because they love it, have a passion for it, see its importance and value, and do some damn good work.

    I chose to move on from HR for a number of reasons, but the importance of HR and what it can and does do has never been lost on me. It’s a hope that someday I’ll go back to the HR side of things; whether that will or will not happen remains to be seen. But to dismiss an entire profession, and a whole group of women, based on anecdotal evidence – while true for the people you have met – is untrue and unfair for a large number of people who don’t deserve it.

    You said on twitter this wasn’t meant to be a hating post; neither is this reply, so I hope it’s taken in that spirit.

    • @a traveller: Thank you for taking the time to put this comment down.
      1. I agree that every field attracts its share of people who come in for the wrong reasons. I think though that some of those fields are better at penalising or weeding out such undesirables. The people functions of a lot of companies seems to be neglected and so such non-performance may go unchecked. I would not judge a woman for choosing family/kids over career. What I have a problem with, is a woman who enters the workforce not intending to give it a serious shot. Such women devalue their departments/companies as well as their gender. If a woman does not want to be a wife/mother but is one and shrugs off these responsibilities because she wants to follow her career would not be pardoned. Why is the reverse allowed?

      2. & 3. My post was not about bashing the HR function so I won’t add anything to what you’ve said. Do read the Update that I added to the post (in case it wasn’t up when you read it)

      4. I agree that my experiences are not numerous enough to be an accurate indicator of an entire profession, subgroup or gender. But they are enough for me to address as a pattern that I’ve noticed and raise some questions, which is what I’ve done. Like I said, this wasn’t to be a hating post. I keep hearing conversations in and around the workplace which diss Human Resources. I believe most of those judgements stem from the behaviour of the kind of people I’ve detailed in the post. Don’t you think it makes sense to bring it up into the open and give Human Resources/Women professionals a chance to add perspective?

      I was rather taken aback by some of the personal comments that this post attracted (one called me jealous of the HR woman, another accused me of writing illogical controversial things for attention). I’m happy to open and engage in a conversation like the one we are having. But hate comments only prove the inadequacies in people that I point out in the post. Once again, thank you for commenting.

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