Comment: A legal qualification for HR

Why is it that even though companies invest heavily in HR systems they still find themselves suffering from legal compliance or HR standards problems? Surely, having an ERP or HR Service Delivery system in place and using its powerful, easy to use tools to customise and streamline HR processes must be all it takes to produce a smart HR function?

The answer is that however commendable such systems are they still rely a great deal on an employer having policies in place that are appropriate, practical, up to date and lawful. OK, systems providers do a lot to ensure that they do not break key statutory requirements, but the problem is that laws require constant interpretation and reinterpretation, case law tumbles out of courts each day to modify confidently held positions and not all laws are logical or amount to refined common sense. It is also one thing to understand a legal obligation and quite another to be aware of how much it is enforced in the jurisdiction concerned.

It is a little known phenomenon that the more complex and ornate a country’s laws are, the less its laws will generally be enforced. Moreover, because many line managers are not aware of their legal obligations – or just do not think that they can be found out – their organisation is only as strong as its weakest

human link. Another fact is that a failure to achieve compliance will undermine the whole structure of an HR system. That is why Employment lawyers are part of a multibillion dollar business. Almost everyone gets it wrong sometimes – whatever their investments in HR process automation and sophisticated procedures.

Systems overconfidence make a company more vulnerable than if it did not have the colourful pie charts and whizz graphs – because the attractive overlay and sense of order it brings prevents people, who should know better, from seeing the tidal wave until it is about to hit them (and maybe not even then).

So what is the solution? It certainly is not in abandoning the systems that have replaced the heavily administrative approach necessary to run an old-style HR department. What is frequently lacking is the existence of ‘in-department’ legal expertise.

The company probably has its own in-house counsel – but they are often hard pressed to keep up with demands from other parts of the business and especially the increasing compliance burden imposed by anti-money laundering regulations. Only a few companies have the benefit of lawyers with expertise in employment law – or (more rarely) labour law. That is why it is necessary for HR to secure its own body of such expertise.

Many HR departments already have at least one individual who provides legal advice and maintains close relationships with in-house or external lawyers. The problem is that these professionals lack training and recognition – especially in multinational environments. The CIPD in the UK is establishing an ‘advanced award in employment law’, but this requires attendance at regular face-to face sessions, is expensive for what it provides and leaves the HR participant with only a better grasp of one jurisdiction. Even lawyers are generally only trained in a single jurisdiction and feel vulnerable when they are called to step very far out of it.

What multinational companies would therefore benefit from is a professionally recognised qualification leading to the creation of a new HR job function – the HR Counsel. This role is not that of a fully-fledged lawyer – nothing can replace them. But they will be equipped to understand a wide range of employment and labour laws, apply HR standards (such as those established by the ISO), maintain HR policies, monitor and advise on individual disputes, handle obligations like nonfinancial and gender equality reporting and interface with external lawyers in an effective and well-informed way.

That is why FedEE is currently in the process of registering ‘HR Counsel’ as a trademark and designing a part-time distance learning course heavily drawing on the data available in our knowledgebase. The focus of the course will be in applying legal developments and HR standards to a company’s own situation. A number of scenarios will be posed and how they are handled examined in the context of countries where the company has operations. This may be responding to a call to hold works council elections, dealing with a mass redundancy or handling individual disputes through the courts or an ADR approach.

This twelve month course will not only lead to a new qualification – “Qualified Profession HR Counsel” – but the new “HR Counsel” job role, which FedEE will promote as an essential component of a multinational’s group HR function. We anticipate not only that this position will become a career goal in itself, but also a logical stepping stone to the HR Director role.

Are you a graduate with five or more years experience in HR? Might you be interested in joining our pilot programme at a much reduced fee?  Then please contact our Membership Secretary for further details.

Return to all FedEE Blog stories