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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

There’s no “heart” in human resources (HR) in most companies today.

Legacy HR departments can be siloed, stereotypical and bureaucratic. In the eyes of many employees, they function as “policy police” and are designed to protect the company’s interest while paying lip-service to its employees’ well-being.

This begs the question: what’s the real function of a HR department?

While there’s need for some by-the-book guidelines for governance and to ensure organizations follows the letter of the law, the current model that is based on compliance needs to go, vocal critics argue.

Typically, HR professionals are well-versed in corporate law, and that makes them more effective at making decisions that protect the company’s best interests through the employee life cycle. But that means HR’s primary purpose becomes reducing the risks associated with issues like lawsuits from wrongful termination or negligent lapse by management, according to Lindsay Mustain, a Seattle-based career coach and talent acquisition specialist.

It began in the 1920s, when labour relations, particularly with the unions, were largely focused on risk mitigation to resolve wage-related challenges and union/management issues. As working conditions became regulated, compliance became an ongoing challenge for HR departments, and so the shift turned to “policing policy” to minimize litigation.

“We might as well call HR the ‘internal risk mitigation department,’” she says. “HR is not there to increase employee engagement, retention and productivity, it’s there to protect a business from its own best asset, its people. Inept organizations that lack transcendental leadership demand managers babysit their employees and micromanage them.”

Ms. Mustain says old ways are becoming redundant as employees – emboldened by a promising job market – are fleeing toxic culture and bad managers.

Employee-centric workplaces, on the other hand, shape their company manifesto around the fundamental belief that their employees are responsible humans and assets.

“Culture drives employee engagement, and engagement drives productivity,” she explains. “When productivity is directed correctly, it leads to profitability.”

In an article in Fast Company, Lars Schmidt, founder of boutique consulting agency Amplify, notes “Legacy HR was built on a foundation that valued command and control and saw that as a path to power. We overengineered systems and procedures, becoming a choke point through which things got done. In our quest for the proverbial seat at the table, we added layers of process and approvals that impacted most areas of the employee experience: promotions, vacations, benefits, hiring, firing, performance reviews, and anything else we could control … The reality with this overengineering process approach is that we shot ourselves in the foot.”

He says contemporary HR should focus less on managing and more on aligning “the people strategy to business goals.” Effective HR polices are underpinned on supporting and empowering workers and creating frameworks that will allow employees to do their best work without managers stepping on their toes.

One example is HubSpot, a U.S.-based software company that espouses autonomy as a core value. Company founders have publicly declared that they frown on micromanagement, and the philosophy is by default baked into their HR policy.

In its transformed form, modern HR’s role will also involve a fair amount data crunching including forecasting trends such as work force analytics, predictive models, etc., to provide the C-suite with relevant tools to make decisions.

Marc Miller, adjunct professor at New York University and an expert on technology solutions for HR, says skilled use of technology can help the staid – and administratively driven – HR to get invited to sit among the strategic inner circle.

The role of HR in an increasingly technology driven world has changed and will continue to evolve as machines and artificial intelligence (AI) systems replace traditional tasks.

“Tomorrow’s HR leaders will need to be bigger, broader thinkers, and they’ll have to be tech-savvy and nimble enough to deal with an increasingly agile and restless work force,” noted Mr. Miller in the HR Exchange Network.

What I’m reading around the web

  • In 2019 one global software company generated up 146,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions from business travel, equivalent to the amount produced by 17,500 U.S. homes over the course of a year. This article in the World Economic Forum discusses the sustainability of transportation options and says employee travel contributes enormously to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) systems currently in use are not nearly as transformative as they are touted. Rather most of the systems merely imitate and follow the “monkey see, monkey do” pattern, according to this article in Big Think.
  • In 20 years since 9/11, the U.S. has spent some US$2-trillion in Afghanistan. In this CNBC article, Christina Wilkie says the money spent on war and nation-building created mini millionaires and a system of mass corruption in Afghanistan, because of plum defence contracts.
  • One of the dangers of cancel culture is that it silences thoughtful and intelligent people who are afraid of how their thought will be perceived out-of-context by the social media mob. This is leading to a flat and dull society, says Anne Applebaum in this thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic.

More opinion from Globe Careers

The hardest part of keeping employees engaged in the pandemic age is that you can’t force fun. Once you get bigger as a company (and add a pandemic on top if it), what comes next? Engagement is no longer as easy to generate, writes Rakuten Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn in The Globe’s Leadership Lab

Moving too fast is getting us into trouble. Try a stillness practice. Not meditation, but simply sitting still for 30 seconds, and then building up to five minutes or more, writes columnist Harvey Schachter.

More from the section

How do I ask for backpay after being on call? In this week’s Nine to Five advice column, a reader asks about what kind of salary he is owed.

Can this resume help a digital product manager in mining make the jump to leadership? In Resume Review, a reader asks about making a transition out of a position where he feels he is “overqualified and underutilized.”

Leadership Lab is a series where executives, experts and writers share their views and advice about the world of work. You can find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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