… it is, as journalists never tire of telling us, time to go. Like journalists, the point of those in the HR profession is to solve the issue, not to be the issue. Farewell then, Lucy Adams, who will leave the BBC as (according to her LinkedIn profile) Director of People and Director of Business Operations in March 2014. After bruising (for her) appearances before the Commons Public Accounts Committee, she was – when I logged in to check my email this morning – the subject of the flagged news item at the Yahoo! UK portal. What was really striking, however, was the headline of the chosen article, which appeared in today’s Telegraph:
It’s official: Lucy Adams has killed off the HR profession once and for all”
The Telegraph journalist, Louisa Peacock cannot be accused of holding back:
Finally, Adams has managed to confirm our suspicions about HR all along: it is a pointless department that does little for the bottom line of a business. In the case of unnecessarily huge pay offs at the BBC, HR has actually helped to take away from the bottom line. As well as, let’s not forget, failing miserably to uphold the kind of integrity, respect and transparency we could be forgiven to expect from the self-declared “people people”. Nice one.”
Nor is this the only point raised along the way: Peacock points out the predominance of women in the HR profession, and argues that a young woman wanting a business career might pause to question her ambitions and put her skills to better use in a less tarnished function. Or, as she pithily sums it up: “Save their own careers, before meddling with everyone else’s.” Even as a mere reader, I think I may have said “Ouch!” out loud at that point – although Peacock does point out that HR is often in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Balancing requirements for headcount cuts (thus triggering pay-outs to those persuaded to leave) or missing targets, this could be read as a lose-lose situation.
Except, of course, that the bloated managerial ranks and the organisational pay-off customs arose somehow, and someone was heading HR at the time that they did. This might excuse Ms Adams, but the profession doesn’t come off any better for it. As one commentator on coverage of Ms Adams’ decision to announce her forthcoming departure at HRMagazine put it:
We can see that ‘HR’ took no responsibility for getting the BBC so badly organised and heavily populated in the first place, did very little to manage and adjust the culture of the place which everyone now says was so wrong, were brutal and opportunistic in actioning the plans of a DG fretting over his own credibility, applying one standard for the masses and another for the elite, turn up and present an inappropriate ‘Chelsea girl’ image at a public enquiry and with the Chair being forced to reflect on the integrity of the contribution made…etc.”
I’d like to apologise on Ms Adams’ behalf for the rather personal comment that got interwoven somewhere along the line there, but I can’t help thinking that it underlines The Telegraph’s point of view: this ‘news story’ serves to epitomise so many of the prevailing negative reactions to HR as a profession, that it is also almost unavoidable that she has become totemic. Across the media – the industry in which she has been responsible for ‘People’ in a very high-profile role – coverage has been blunt and unsympathetic, whether it be The Press Gazette, The Independent, or The Mirror.
Whether or not she might explain herself as a ‘people person’ in more than title I don’t know, although – whether HR really is friend or foe (see earlier posts) – surely even a foe would hope to operate in an atmosphere of respect, if not trust. Yet, as The Mail reported:
The BBC’s own media correspondent, the respected Nick Higham, tweeted: ‘There was an audible cheer in the BBC newsroom when Margaret Hodge accused BBC HR director Lucy Adams of lying to the PAC.’”
That may well be one of the most pointed uses of the adjective ‘respected’ that I’ve read in quite some time.
I’ve searched this morning for the silver lining in what looks for all intents and purposes like a rather large, pretty damn dark cloud. It’s not been hugely fruitful. Back in 2010, she was interviewed by People Management: the first sentence of the following quote from it was used as the headline –
I’m first and foremost a business person. I’m a leader of an organisation who is responsible for HR, and coming at it from that angle is very helpful,” she says. “One of my real bugbears about HR people is when they say, ‘Why am I not taken seriously or influencing well enough at board level?’ It’s because they’re just not broad enough.”
HR possibly doesn’t need a lesson in the tendency of online life to mean that our past is now always present; if Lucy Adams did, Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson cited the interview during her July appearance before the Public Accounts Committee. In that earlier interview, she spoke of having two advantages. The first was a lack of airs and graces. The second?
“I’m also really positive – my team get exhausted!”
This last trait has proved to be particularly useful when working for an organisation that has to deal with negative press on a continuous basis. “The media aren’t terribly in favour of the BBC, even though the public are, so you could really let that get you down,” she says. “But I have a great team of people that I work with and I fundamentally believe in what I’m doing here, and in what the BBC stands for.”
The rest of the media may or may not be terribly in favour of the BBC, although somebody that is first and foremost a business person might mark that one down to industry competition as well as reputational issues. But the problems build as the quote runs on. That ‘great team of people’, we now know, include many who referred to her as ‘the wicked witch’. And the supportive ‘public’ may, this morning, have a less positive perception of ‘what the BBC stands for’.
As Louisa Peacock’s article pointed out, HR has long had a reputation for hand-wringing and wondering when it will ever be front page news. Today, that moment arrived and I think we can safely say it didn’t run as planned. HR, as a profession, has come out of this as badly as the BBC, and HR didn’t have that long-running groundswell of public support on which to fall back, and to leverage for its reputational recovery. The Yahoo-hosted copy of the Telegraph article has accumulated 1099 comments in just over 24 hours. Let’s just say that most of them may take a little spinning.