Rehumanize HR: Putting the humans back into HR

Katerina Bohle-Carbonell

Guest author Katerina Bohle-Carbonell is an adjunct lecturer for the Master of Science Program in Learning and Organization change, where she co-teaches MSLOC 455 Evaluating Culture, Connectivity and Engagement, and a researcher at Maastricht University, where she completed her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Education. Her expertise is in team processes, organizational network analysis and employee development and management. As a researcher, consultant and educator, she applies data-driven decision making to solve organizational challenges and provides strategic consultancy, training, workshops, and coaching for all executive levels. Katerina blogs at

A couple of years ago Harvard Business Review published an article about the future of HR, how HR should be less of a support unit, and take on a more central, strategic role. One way this strategic role could be achieved is by using HR data to underline the importance of HR topics and calculate return on investment on HR projects. While this might help to be heard by managers, it still turns a blind eye to employees. To move the focus away from HR processes and towards employees, companies should consider the employee experience to understand how it feels to work for them. That understanding will be a springboard to create better work experiences. This post addresses how dehumanized HR has been and what steps can be taken to rehumanize HR by focusing on the experience of employees.

What HR topics are trending ?

I looked at search volumes for various HR related concepts to get an initial understanding of which HR topics are of interests to the global population. I compared employee experience, people analytics, HR analytics, and digital HR with each other, and with the more general search term of digital experience. This broad term served as a base line against which to compare the trends for the other topics.

Now, when I did this analysis in March 2018, there is a general upward trend for all search terms, except digital HR. Among the HR search terms, HR analytics has the highest average search volume. But importantly, the interest in employee experience is not much behind. This could indicate a combined interest in making HR more strategic by using data (as evidenced by the search volume on HR analytics) and providing better work experience (as indicated by the trend in searches about employee experience). Let’s begin by taking a quick look into the past and consider what HR was for long, and still is in many companies.

DEhumanize HR

This dominant perspective sees HR as a support function that helps the management of human assets in organizations. This view neglects the human side of ‘human assets’. It emphasis the knowledge and skills employees bring to the organization, and neglects that employees are human beings with human needs who prefer to be treated like humans instead of (dependable) resources the company ‘possess’. This resource-based view on humans is supported by the dominant mindset taught at business school. Both the resource-based view and knowledge-based view of competitive advantage view the knowledge humans posses as a company’s asset. The first perspective has a very strong economic and materialistic focus, viewing all the resources of a company, machinery, real estate and knowledge, as company assets. The knowledge-based view provides some room for the human, by pointing out the importance of optimally combining the knowledge employees have to achieve competitive advantage. However, it still neglects the human-side that inevitably occurs when combining different brains. With the propagation in business schools of these perspective on how to achieve competitive advantage it comes to no surprise that for long HR paid only attention to HR processes and not how these processes impact the people they were targeting.

REhumanize HR

When RE-humanizing HR, the focus shifts away from HR processes to the humans which hold the knowledge companies like to make use of. The key here is that employees are in the spotlight and the question that HR needs to consider is “What are the problems of employees” “What do employees need to perform better?” Now of course, HR staff can partly answer these questions as they are also employees. However, a complete answer requires interaction with other employees to find out what their problem is. Employees from different backgrounds have different views on what the problems are and they will perceive developed solutions differently. For HR to again put the focus on humans the concept of employee experience is important.

Employee experience might be a new topic for most HR employees. This generally means a lot of learning and experimentation. But HR does not have to start from scratch. They can learn from the marketing department about how to create an enjoyable experience. In marketing, consumer experience has been the dominant perspective for quite some years. This approach to customer relationships considers the complete supply chain, from sourcing the material to how the customer experiences a product or service. By including the customer in the supply chain, her/his needs become part of the needs of the company. Consequently, the products and services of companies are better aligned with their customers.

The employee experience

For HR, an employee experience has similar consequences. It means that the needs of employees while working at the company are central. Here it does not help to think along the lines of traditional HR processes, such as recruitment, on boarding, performance management etc. Such a perspective will shift the focus from understanding employees problems, towards creating solutions that fit the old thinking. As advocated in design thinking , considering and truly understanding the problem of the client (for HR the client are the employees) and building prototypical solutions helps to create a positive employee experience.

Searching the academic landscape on the topic of employee experience reveals meager results. The topic of the current issue of Harvard Business Review is talent management, and an interview with Diane Gherson on the topic of employee experience has been published . Except for that, I was able to retrieve a review article by Fiona Edgar and Alan Geare of the University of Otago, New Zealand on An employee-centred analysis: professionals’ experiences and reactions to HRM. In their article they examined closely several of the employee-focused relationships on performance. They conclude that employee experience, employees actual experience with HR processes or their perceived experience, is related to employees attitudes towards HR processes. However the attitudes do not help to understand task performance. The authors point out that one conclusion from their research is that it is not entirely clear what employee experience is: Is it the utility employees receive from a process? Is it how they experience it, the emotions and level of arousal?

Making work enjoyable

While academics might not yet be sure how to accurately define and operationalize employee experience, what is clear from the discussion among HR practitioner is that work should not be dreadful. If HR can stimulate more frequent states of flow by creating a work environment and work processes that put employees in the zone and let them be immersed in their task, employees and their employer will benefit.

This post published with permission of the author. Originally posted at

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