There is nothing sacred about the term 'HR philosophy'. What is important is to make an attempt to reflect on, crystallize and leverage the key tenets of people management in the organization. It can very well be called the 'guiding principles of people management' instead of being called 'HR philosophy'. This term 'guiding principles of people management' also drives home the message that this is about an organization-wide aspect touching everyone in the organization and not particular to the HR function.
The key problem with the aversion to 'HR Philosophy' is that no HR initiative or HR transformation effort can be effective if it goes against the basic nature of the employer-employee relationship in the organization. For example, no 'employee engagement' (in its original meaning of 'deep emotional connect with the organization leading to discretionary effort') is possible if employees are viewed primarily as costs. If employees are primarily as costs, then 'business-orientation' of HR should require that the primary job of HR is to control this cost - through downsizing, limiting development investment and reducing the people related spend in general. So, an HR Transformation effort that aims to transform HR into a more developmental role would be irrelevant in that context.
When it comes to HR initiatives, lack of a clearly articulated and consistently practiced HR Philosophy can make the organization susceptible to 'taking up the latest fad in people management and discarding it soon after to take up the next one'.
It can also result in highly inconsistent people management practices in the organization. For example, this can lead to the organization swinging wildly between
- high empowerment and high control
- large investment in employee development and no investment in employee development
- describing the organization as a 'family' and describing the organization as a 'talent market place driven purely by supply and demand'
- 'encouraging employees to form deep emotional bonds with the company' and ''downsizing at the first available opportunity'
- high degree of differentiation for top talent and low degree of differentiation for top talent
- wanting to the 'career destination' for most of the employees and wanting to look at employment relationship as a 'short-term contract to accomplish a particular task'
- high degree of emphasis on organization values and no emphasis on organization values etc.
Examining the unstated assumptions, similar to the ones mentioned above, can also help to avoid the strange 'new normal for HR' that has emerged in some companies in response to extraordinary situation created by the Covid crisis. It goes something like this : 'Make large contributions to Covid relief, fire a large number of employees in parallel to reduce cost and conduct mental health sessions for the remaining employees'!
Now let's look a bit more deeply at the paradoxical issue of 'business orientation of HR'. There are multiple possibilities here - each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, HR can agree to whatever the business leaders say on people related issues ('after all, we get paid to support the business'). HR can take this approach to the next level by trying to ‘guess’ what the business leaders will be comfortable with and advocating that ('business leaders are our primary customers and we should be anticipating customer needs'). HR can also avoid surfacing issues (or suggesting solutions) that they think the business leaders will not be comfortable with ('business leaders are already stretched, how can we risk annoying them at this point').
This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible conflicts between HR and business leaders on these issues, leading to faster decision making and smoother relationships. In this case, business leaders might ‘like’ HR and hence they might be more likely to cooperate in the roll out of basic HR processes and less likely to come down heavily on HR when HR makes a mistake. Hence conflicts are avoided - making life easier for both the parties involved. However, this can also lead to HR becoming essentially an 'order-taker', to sub-optimal decisions (see 'Training the victim' for an example) and even to HR 'perpetuating the convenient collective delusions' in the company.
Of course. we have to be mindful of the possible conflict between the stated HR philosophy in an organization and the 'actual' HR philosophy practiced in the organization. What really matters is the HR philosophy (basic assumptions about people management) that emerges from/that can be inferred from (or that gets reflected in) in the decisions made by the organization.
There is no conflict of opinion on whether HR should be business oriented. HR exists to support the business and hence it should be aligned to the business needs/goals/strategy. ‘HR for HR’ (‘I want to do some HR interventions and I will get the business to agree’) is definitely not a good idea. The paradox occurs when we look at how exactly should HR demonstrate this 'business orientation'.
A more effective option is to work with the business leaders to crystallize the HR Philosophy/the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also enable HR to come with effective responses to various issues/situations – based on the people management philosophy of the organization, HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation.
This is not to say that the people management philosophy is cast in stone. The people management philosophy can be revisited as the organization and its environment evolves. Also, if there are extraordinary situations, extraordinary responses are required. The idea is to be as mindful as possible about the basic tenets of people management in the organization (HR philosophy) while coming up with those responses. For example, some companies will have to downsize because of the headwinds created by the current Covid crisis. However, if the extent and manner of that downsizing should be in line with the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also help in reducing the 'survivor syndrome in organizations'.
While it is unpleasant (or even traumatic), employees understand that 'surgery' is sometime unavoidable in organizations. But they would also expect that that the organization uses it after exploring all non-surgical options, that the organization uses a surgeon's blade (and not a butcher's knife!) and that too with skill, sufficient post operative care and compassion! Of course, in a connected world, the organization's actions under a crisis situation would speak much more loudly than any employer branding efforts in the future!