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If that's truly the case, why isn't there more respect for the people charged with managing those assets?
It's a problem that nags human resources directors every day. They know how they do their job is vital to the success of the company, but why don't more top executives see that?
"Maybe it's because everyone around the table thinks they can handle the role of the human resources director," says Clark Jordan, assistant dean of the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego. "Of course, they can't handle that job, but that doesn't stop them from thinking they can."
So the Rodney Dangerfields of the corporate world - human resources directors - continue to strive for respect.
The Rady School and the Chicago outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas are hoping to change that. In January, they will launch a series of monthly forums that will pull together chief executives, board members and human resources executives.
"I think HR people bring every bit as much to the table as the heads of engineering, finance or operations, but not everyone sees it that way," Jordan says. "We want to open up a dialogue between these parties in hope that HR will become a more integral part of corporate strategy."
Part of the problem is that CEOs often look at HR as reactionary, rather than as a strategic business tool that can help the company at multiple levels.
The Rady School hopes to show CEOs and board members that hiring the right people, placing them in the right positions, and then providing them with a work environment that inspires achievement and success is integral to the overall business strategy.
Jordan suggests that HR executives have to find a way to prove their roles are valuable, if they are to be accepted at the highest levels of the company.
Susan Guenther, vice president of Challenger, says most companies don't have a direct link from the HR director to the top of the organization.
"I think people acknowledge that HR is important and should have a voice in the highest part of the company, but no one seems to know how to get HR people there," she says. "It's always been a problem."
Jordan and Guenther believe that HR has a role in setting the strategic course of the companies and that chief executives are becoming more aware of that.
"Just look at the venture capitalists," Guenther says. "Most VCs won't put up money unless the right team of people is in place. That shows that they recognize the value of HR's role in putting together the right mix of people to run a company."
Companies are little more than a variety of people working together toward a common goal. The most cutting-edge technology in the world doesn't ensure success unless there is a cohesive team working together to leverage that technology.
Sue Stevenson, who has held senior HR positions with companies such as Elan, Novartis and Xerox, believes that HR has struggled to gain recognition in executive suites because it has been a developing profession over the past few decades.
"It used to be personnel and then it was often seen as some sort of administrative function," she says. "But now you see - particularly in larger companies - the recognition that you have to include HR as an essential component for strategic planning."
She says she expects more companies to acknowledge the importance of HR as part of the general business plan within the next five years.
"We have a tight job market now, but that will be changing in the years ahead," says Stevenson, who runs an executive coaching firm for women called Lifted Fog. "The tipping point will come when the war for talent returns. CEOs will be scrambling to find good employees then, and that's when a lot of companies will really realize the importance of HR, not just for hiring and retention, but for being able to create a culture that is conducive to success."
Jordan thinks some HR executives have contributed to their failure to gain acceptability at the senior executive table.
"Frankly, a lot of them just don't see themselves as someone who can become the chief executive of the company," he says. "If you look around at other divisions - operations, marketing or legal - you see people who aspire to be CEOs.
"But I think they bring every bit as much to the table as engineering, finance or operations. That's what we hope CEOs and directors will come to understand," he said.
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