Which is the better dog a Labrador or a Rottweiler? Its a ridicules question one makes an excellent guard dog the other is ideally suited to be a guide dog. So it makes no sense to compare the type of HR support the public sector previously experience with the type it currently receives unless of course you want to highlight how the public sector has changed.
If I had to come up with a word to describe the old school public sector HR approach it would be " reasonableness". The head of HR would ask if management's proposed action was reasonable or was it reasonable for the Trade Union to ask for this to be taken into consideration?
The polite word to sum up the new approach of HR is "professional",
in that they know their way around employment legislation as in how to get round it! Like the lawyer who gets their guilty client off on a legal technicality the modern HR professional helps the organisation impose inferior terms and conditions of employment , makes it easier to sack people who are off sick and introduces a smooth compulsory redundancies process.
At one time HR were the conscience of the organisation, they policed the equal opportunity policy to ensured recruitment was fair, they challenged managers to employ a representative workforce they encouraged managers to be reasonable and not autocratic in how they managed their staff,to explain and negotiate not order and impose. They would say they aimed to safe guard the reputation of the organisation as a good employer not back management regardless, to up hold employment legislation not find ways round it.
It was the head of HR who said to me that organisations get the TUs they deserve by which she meant if managers are inconsistent and act with out thinking then it is hardly surprising if unions are suspicious and antagonistic. Today the head of HR would say the unions are just one of a number of ways of communicating with staff since less than half the workforce are members and even Union members are too worried about being made redundant to make a fuss about changes.
The changing role of HR reflects the public sectors move away from the desire to be a good employer to the aim of being an efficient business. Those of us who are old school think being a good employer is not incompatible with providing good services but being a bad employer is.
Blair McPherson author of People management in a harsh financial climate published by Russell House www.blairmcpherson.co.uk