Over HR Is It Time to Get Out

By Ed Frauenheim

Jun. 25, 2009

Allen Stone is ready to leave HR.

Years of playing the hatchet man during layoffs with little influence on how companies downsize have him fed up with the field. In this recession, the Ludington, Michigan, resident laid off about 200 people at the mining company he worked for as an HR director, before getting a pink slip himself in January. Now the 40-year veteran of the profession is remaking himself as a consultant.

“We’re being used a lot,” Stone, 61, says of HR practitioners. “It’s been a lot of trying to clean up, in companies that have been mismanaged.”

Stone is not alone. Laying people off in this recession has caused a significant portion of HR professionals to consider exiting the field, according to Workforce Management’s HR Anxiety Survey. The study asked whether HR professionals’ experiences in conducting layoffs had prompted them to think about changing careers or moving to a different, non-HR role in their company. Most said no, but 37 percent answered affirmatively. Just over a quarter of the respondents acknowledged “some thought” about changing careers or roles, while an additional 9 percent said they’d given “serious consideration” to a switch. Three percent said they had begun the process of changing their career or role.

Leaving a profession typically signals dissatisfaction with more than merely one’s job or boss, says John Boudreau, management professor at the University of Southern California. He says HR practitioners’ musings about moving out of the field could have to do with perceptions that HR is regressing to a reactive, delivery-oriented role, rather than rising to a more strategic stature.

“The layoff question may be a microcosm of that question of whether the field is advancing,” Boudreau says. Fred Foulkes, management professor at Boston University, says he’s not surprised a substantial number of HR professionals are thinking about leaving their jobs. HR practitioners are being asked to execute layoffs even though they may favor alternative cost-trimming steps such as furloughs or pay cuts, he says. “Some of them are doing things they don’t necessarily agree with,” Foulkes says.

One HR official with 20 years in the field used to view layoffs in a hopeful light. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said she could see the cuts as good for people losing jobs—she figured new doors would open for them. But in the past decade, layoffs have lost their luster for her.

“I’ve become much more cynical over the years,” she says. “It’s the easy way to reduce costs quickly.”

The official recently left an organization as an HR director. During her last year there, she estimates she spent 70 percent of her time laying off employees.

Although she just started a new HR director job at a technology company in Texas, she’s not sure how long she’ll stay.

“The prevailing theme when you look at my résumé is, I’ve laid off people,” she says. “I’m really, really looking at getting out of the profession.”

Workforce Management, June 22, 2009, p. 20Subscribe Now!

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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