Holding HR to Account – June 2021

Working in HR is a predominantly reactive, rather than proactive, role. Whilst we begin each week with plans, aims and objectives, it doesn’t take long before the first piece of urgent business comes in. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to land on Monday morning without a pile of work waiting for you!

It’s this focus on firefighting which means as HR professionals we often measure the wrong things. Counting the number of fires we put out is much easier than calculating the number of fires we prevented.

As leaders we recognise this isn’t a great way of improving the function, or proving our own competencies. It’s why auditing, benchmarking and assessments are so popular in HR (as a measure of success; it’s rarely popular for the people having to complete them!)

And there’s no shortage of people offering magical checklists that’ll help your HR team do better. At my last organisation I initiated a whole package of them! But what goes into these assessments, and how do we know they’re looking at the right things? Are they genuinely independent assessments, or are they just a marketing tool with which to sell more services?

And the bigger question: do they actually introduce any accountability into the HR profession?

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HR has long been seen as purely functional, and those who work in it are often perceived as technically talented, but lacking strategic competence. That results in HR being held to account at the micro scale (sorting out an employee issue) and not being accountable at the organisational scale.

Part of the reason is cultural. HR can be seen as an obstacle: “I’ll have to get it past HR”. We’re seen as coming up with problems, rather than solutions.

We know it’s because we’re bound by regulations and laws. Just as finance departments are. But when finance managers say no to something, they’re protecting the business. When HR says no, it’s because we’re being difficult.

A HR Magazine survey from 2018 gives us a few clues why HR isn’t taken seriously at the highest levels. One respondent to HR Magazine’s survey was candid: “There is a gender issue with females (myself included) continuing to focus on what we believe we cannot do, while our male counterparts are not even considering or voicing any such development areas.”

We all recognise HR is dominated by women. Except at senior levels, and indeed, the HRDs who make it to the CEO position. Of the five examples in HR Magazine’s article on HRDs progressing to CEO, three were men.


Greater accountability within organisations is linked to an increase in commitment to work, morale, creativity and innovation which leads to higher performance.


HR leaders have high levels of emotional intelligence, an eye that’s spent its career looking years into the future and are experts in collaborating with every part of the organisation. The perfect skill set, you’d think, for the CEO position.

And yet us HR veterans are few and far between in the CEO hotseat. Research from Mullwood Partnership in 2013 puts the number of CEOs who are ex-HRDs at 5%; and the fact that no-one’s bothered to repeat that research in the eight years since speaks volumes!

Strikingly though, finance directors make up 55% of new CEOs (according to the same research).

That’s right. The person responsible for the organisation’s financial capital is 11 times more likely to be appointed CEO than the one responsible for its human capital. They’re the only other person in the organisation who makes investments that won’t pay out until years into the future. The only other person who has to negotiate and resource the needs of every other department in the organisation.

The HR Magazine survey found 47% of HR professionals believed the perception of the HR function among senior leaders would prevent them from becoming a CEO. So why is human capital management so much less valuable than financial capital management?

And how can you demonstrate the value that you, as a HR leader, generate for your organisation?


It’s been clear in my career that HR has to deliver a higher level of proof. Part of that proof is what people can see; typically greater integration through HR business partners. We also need to deliver proof of impact; how has the HR function tangibly improved things?

I’m coming to the view that benchmarking doesn’t provide true proof. For one, both you and the other participants are self-selecting. Which suggests that the true indicator isn’t which benchmarks one participates in, but the ones they don’t.

That’s why, despite spending years developing and optimising benchmarking systems, I’m taking a different direction. We should all be aware of ISO (the International Organization for Standardisation). But were you aware that they’ve developed standards for both HR and D&I?

Using ISO standards means you’re operating to the same standard of proof as other parts of the organisation, using a framework that other leaders will understand.


So how can HR leaders demonstrate a strategic level of accountability?


The first thing is to be proactive. At the start I pointed out that HR’s workload is reactive. But to progress the function, we need to push things forward. It may seem obvious, but you’ll be more likely to get extra resources for your ideas if you demonstrate how your workforce plans align with the organisation’s plans.


Establish your personal accountability. It’s not enough to have great ideas and push them forward. Owning failures can be just as important to the organisation as one’s successes.

Take the US attitude to company founders as an example; serial founders who leave a trail of failed ideas and burnt shareholder cash are still highly sought after, as investors recognise that they’ve learnt valuable lessons and are a better choice than someone who has yet to make those mistakes. 


Thirdly, acquire proof. That includes outside audits, and yes, if it’s important to organisational leadership, external benchmarking. Doing an HR audit using the ISO 30414: 2018 standard (or a D&I audit against the ISO 30415: 2021 standard) means your results are internationally recognised.

If you’re part of a global organisation, the ISO 30415: 2021 standard is a far more tangible measure for your leaders to understand compared with, for example, your position in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.


Accountability, at both the organisational and the individual level, is crucial to keep your organisation moving forward.

Download my top tips to establish accountability systems in HR and D&I.