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HR viewed as the least productive department by employees, survey finds

HR viewed as the least productive department by employees, Ciphr survey finds

Newly released survey research by HR and payroll software provider Ciphr suggests that UK employees perceive HR teams as being less productive, compared to other colleagues and departments in their organisations.

Ciphr’s findings reveal that many employees self-rate their own productivity far higher than they rate other people’s productivity levels at work – with HR, marketing, and senior management faring the worst in people’s estimations.

Of the 1,000 people polled, the vast majority (92%) viewed themselves as being productive or very productive. Just two-thirds (67%), however, said the same about their organisation’s leadership team, and even fewer workers (62%) were positive about the productivity of their own HR departments.

Indeed, HR was thought to be the least productive department (of all those rated in the survey), with one in seven (14%) surveyed employees labelling their firm’s HR team as unproductive or very unproductive. That figure increased to 19% among middle and lower-level managers.

These are alarming stats for anyone working in HR, as it would appear to show a notable lack of understanding by many employees about the important role and responsibilities of the HR function in UK businesses.

What the results also highlight, more generally, is that people’s perceptions of productivity are clearly influenced, to varying degrees, by proximity bias. Put simply, it means that employees – at all levels – may be more inclined to favour colleagues that they work with most often, and people in job roles that they’re more familiar with, over other teams and departments at their workplace whose output is perhaps less known or visible.

For example, over eight in 10 survey respondents think that their team and the people they manage (their direct reports) are productive or very productive (84% and 82% respectively). But, as the data indicates, they are more sceptical about the productivity of colleagues at their organisation who they have less contact with, and, likely, no close working relationship, such as their HR or leadership teams.

Employees who work remotely face similar bias. According to Ciphr’s survey, just half (52%) of in-person workers believe that fully remote workers are productive or very productive (and 18% think they are unproductive or very unproductive). That’s a significant level of distrust aimed at one specific group of workers.

The most and least productive workers, as ranked by employees:

Most productive

  • Themselves: 92% of surveyed employees think they are productive or very productive
  • Their team: 84%
  • People they manage: 82%
  • In-person/workplace-based employees: 82%
  • Their wider team or department: 80%

Least productive

  • Their organisation’s HR department: 62% of surveyed employees think they are productive or very productive
  • Marketing department: 63%
  • Leadership team: 67%
  • Remote workers: 69%
  • Finance/accounts department: 69%
  • IT department: 69%

What can HR do to increase awareness about their crucial role?

Claire Williams, chief people and operations officer at Ciphr, says:

“The perception of HR as unproductive – while unvalidated – could stem from a variety of factors. Much of HR’s work happens behind the scenes, focusing on policy development, compliance, employee support, and long-term strategic planning. This low visibility could lead employees to underestimate the productivity, importance, and impact of HR functions. There’s also often a gap in understanding about what HR does in the business. Many employees view the role as purely administrative, transactional, and compliance-driven. They may only interact with HR when they are first recruited, then for administrative or disciplinary reasons, so they won’t necessarily see the broader strategic role HR plays in talent management, organisational culture, and employee development.

“Productivity in HR is also not always quantifiable in the same way as it might be for other roles, or other departments, such as sales or manufacturing. HR’s impact is often seen in long-term outcomes, like employee retention and satisfaction, which are harder to measure and appreciate in the short term.

“That said, it’s important to raise awareness of HR’s crucial role and highlight how productive we are. Regular internal comms from the HR team is a good place to start if you don’t do it already. It’ll increase transparency about your activities and successes, and you can also share case studies or examples of how HR initiatives have positively impacted the business. You can also use this channel to get employees involved in HR-led initiatives, such as culture-building activities or feedback sessions, which can help foster a better understanding of HR’s role.

“There’s much that HR teams do that’s not always quantifiable. But, there is a huge array of data that HR leaders can use to demonstrate to the business where progress is being made. Use the insights from your HR system, dig into historical and current data and look at the trends, it will help you drive more strategic ‘value add’ conversations and enable more educated decision-making about your organisation’s most important asset – your people.”

Another way for employers to address this misperception – that HR professionals, remote workers, or leaders etc aren’t perceived to be as productive as they probably are – is to introduce objective measures of productivity, which can supplement self-reported assessments.

Williams adds: “The disparities around perceived productivity evidenced in Ciphr’s research highlights the need for organisations to ensure they have robust performance management frameworks in place, which include clear and measurable goals, documented performance reviews, transparent metrics and KPIs, and feedback mechanisms. And these need to be well-communicated across the business. That way every employee understands how they can achieve their objectives and track their progress. They can also clearly see how other teams and departments contribute to organisational success.”

Good employee engagement is also shown to play a key role in reducing some of the negative impacts of proximity bias. Interestingly, employees who feel motivated at work express much more positivity about their colleagues’ productivity levels. Of those who reported feeling engaged and motivated by their job (62% of survey respondents), 88% described their manager as productive or very productive, and a further 81% said the same about their organisation’s leaders.

In stark contrast, those who are unengaged and unmotivated at work are, unsurprisingly, considerably more negative about the productivity of others at their organisation. Just half (51%) of this group of ‘unhappy’ workers viewed their manager as being productive or very productive, and just a quarter (23%) said the same about their organisation’s leaders.

Employees who enjoy their jobs are also more likely to have self-rated themselves as being productive or very productive than those who don’t enjoy their jobs (95% vs 81%) – demonstrating that high employee engagement and job satisfaction are vital to business productivity and success.

The results from Ciphr’s 2023 survey of 1,000 employed UK adults are available here.

Ciphr is a leading UK-based provider of integrated HR, payroll, learning and recruitment solutions. Ciphr also offers off-the-shelf and bespoke eLearning content, through its subsidiary Marshall E-Learning. More than 600 organisations use the group’s people management solutions globally across the public, private and non-profit sectors.

For more information, please visit here.

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