Personnel officers are a waste of time, says new study

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The Independent Online
LECTURERS at Hammersmith and West London College are now learning what employees of private companies have long suspected: personnel managers do more harm than good.

A year ago the college got a personnel department - virtually all further education colleges got one as part of the Government's plan to turn them into 'corporations'. The results, according to staff, have been unhappy.

'There's a procedure for everything,' said one lecturer who was anxious not to be identified.

'We've got discipline procedures, sickness procedures, capability procedures, grievance procedures . . . you name it, we've got a procedure for it.' Informal chats have given way to official hearings and warnings from powerful personnel officers, say college staff. One lecturer who handed out Anti-Nazi League leaflets - deemed propaganda for the Socialist Workers Party by the college principal - was given a formal warning.

'Everyone is scared by the atmosphere of antagonism - we're all desperate to get out,' said a member of staff.

Desperation is a condition widely inspired by personnel officers, according to a study released last week. It sent tremors of fear through the 100,000- strong army of human resource managers in personnel offices - who now outnumber miners in Britain by 10 to one.

A team of academics led by Professor David Metcalf at the London School of Economics (LSE) analysed job performance in 2,000 workplaces for the Employment Policy Institute from staff turnover, absenteeism and productivity.

They found that personnel directors on the board or specialist personnel officers in the workplace detracted from a company's performance.

The climate of management-employee relations was worse, productivity poorer and the staff turnover rate higher when personnel managers were in place. Although human resource techniques - employee involvement, merit pay rises and blurring distinctions between management and workers - did work, their success had nothing to do with the presence of personnel officers.

The results provoked cries of pain from the personnel industry. The Institute of Personnel Management said it was 'surprised by the startling conclusions' and added that other academic findings contradicted those of the LSE team.

But John Purcell, lecturer in human resource management at Templeton College, Oxford, whose work, the institute said, supported its view that personnel managers were effective rather than harmful, defended the LSE study.

'There is nothing 'surprising' about the findings of the study,' he said. 'People have been getting the same results for 30 years.'

The LSE researchers' biggest problem is to explain why the work of personnel officers is not merely irrelevant but positively malign.

Sue Fernie, one of the academic team, said she suspected that relations within a firm worsened when a personnel department was set up because people no longer felt they could take their difficulties to the managers they saw every day. 'Workers see a personnel department as an external agency which distances them from their company and knows little about their work.'

Many companies are coming to the same conclusion. Only 30 per cent of British companies had a personnel officer on the board against 70 per cent in the early 1980s. Tesco, British Gas and the RAC are all joining the list of large companies cutting or reorganising personnel departments.

It was in the Sixties that personnel work became a growth industry, inspired by Harvard Business School thinking on specialist departments. Now industry has coined new buzzwords such as 'delayering' and 'flattening out the pyramid'. In practice, it means firms are devolving power to departmental managers from remote personnel officials.

But paradoxically, just as businesses are giving fewer jobs to specialist personnel officers, the Government is stuffing them into quangos in the cause of making the public sector more business-like.

'NHS trusts and further education colleges are all getting them,' said Ms Fernie. 'The anecdotal evidence we are getting is that they are helping to make relations between management and staff absolutely dire.'