In these difficult times, how can the 'people' department escape their negative image, asks Stefan Stern?
up with cost-cutting measures and making redundancies, the corporate
'people' department is in danger of becoming a bureaucratic pariah. So
how can it eliminate the negative - the black humour and the
resentment? Stefan Stern shows the way forward for HR professionals -
if they are bold enough.
Good old Yellow Pages. It doesn't
help just with the nasty things in life, like a blocked drain. It's
there for the nice things too, like tracking down an old copy of Fly
Fishing by JR Hartley. How unlike those dreadful old HR managers. They
really are only there for the nasty things in life, like sacking people
- legally. Busy time they are having of it right now too.
It may sound harsh, but the unfortunate truth is that of all the
functional departments, HR vies only with IT for the amount of
opprobrium it traditionally attracts from everyone else, and the
sourness of the gibes made at its expense. It's 'Human Remains' or the
'business prevention department', filled with 'no' men and women who
spend their days doing pointless surveys and ticking boxes, apparently
unencumbered by any appreciation of the commercial imperative, or of
where their salaries come from. Best avoided by normal people if at all
When, in hard times such as these, harried line
managers do get in touch with their colleagues in HR, too often they
are met with a level of bureaucracy and lack of interest worthy of the
civil service. As one such manager, currently engaged in the gruesome
business of having to make compulsory redundancies, told MT in
exasperation: 'They simply aren't on my side. Dealing with our HR
department is like having to contend with a little bit of my local
authority at work.'
If, God forbid, they contact you, it's
usually some breathless communique about the latest pointless
initiative. No wonder no-one takes them seriously. This particular
stereotype is cruelly nailed by an old gag. 'How many HR people does it
take to change a light bulb?' Answer: 'None, but they'd really like to
be represented at the meeting.'
Ouch. It's cracks like these
that help bolster HR's position as reigning corporate scapegoat. It
remains one of the iron laws of organisational life: when the computers
go wrong you send for the IT people (yes, them again), but when just
about anything else goes wrong you send for the HR people. It's a bit
like the job that Dirty Harry used to do for the San Francisco police
department, except without the impressive hardware. And the
unconventional but effective methodology.
But smart HR
professionals - and despite the cliches there are plenty of them - are
only too aware that current economic difficulties are likely to trap
them in this purely negative role. As Jackie Orme, the new-ish head of
the professional body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development (CIPD), said in a recent speech: 'Whatever else we do,
let's not allow this recession to brand us only as the ER of the
Karan Paige, chief people officer for the HR
consultancy Ceridian, agrees. 'It is critical for HR not to get sucked
into the place of delivering a redundancy plan and slashing training
budgets and nothing else,' she says. 'Without sufficient business
understanding and a fully integrated HR strategy, this is where HR will
inevitably end up in these tough times.'
Good diagnosis, but will the patient respond to treatment? And what is HR for, anyway?
its lingering credibility problem - or perhaps because of it - the
profession is not short of advice from the outside. A research report
published by the Boston Consulting Group, produced with the European
Association for People Management, contains a 12-point plan for a more
purposeful HR function. Among its key recommendations are that HR
should be: focusing on strategic workforce planning, anticipating
future shortages and 'redeploying competencies'; developing a more
long-term approach to performance management; building greater employee
engagement by focusing on 'motivation and accountabilities';
strengthening leadership capabilities by 'equipping leaders for stormy
weather'; adopting a 'systematic, cascading' approach to change
management; and 'walking the talk' of internal and external
communication. (And that's just by Monday lunchtime). How much easier
to be giving such advice, rather than being the one whose job it is to
At the end of April, the Tomorrow's Company
think-tank launched its latest report - Tomorrow's Global Talent: How
will leading companies create value through people? The report's
authors are clear that talent, or human capital, is central to survival
in the 21st century. So, more pressure on HR here too. 'Tomorrow's
companies will be good at discovering, engaging and leading every ounce
of individual and collective capability in people,' says the report.
'For tomorrow's global company this will be their route to world-class
And now even Jack and Suzy Welch, that
entertaining guru double act that features regularly in Business Week
magazine, have thrown themselves into the HR debate as well. 'HR
matters enormously in good times,' they wrote recently. 'It defines you
in the bad.'
Jack 'n' Suzy imagine writing a memo to HR
departments right now. 'Layoffs are your moment of truth,' it would
say, 'when your company must show departing employees the same kind of
attentiveness and dignity that was showered upon them when they
entered. Layoffs are when HR proves its mettle and its worth,
demonstrating whether a company really cares about its people.'
are true believers in HR's role and purpose (even if the conversion may
have come late for Jack: as boss of GE in the 1980s and '90s, his
nickname was 'Neutron', because he eliminated people but left buildings
standing). 'HR is the engine of an organisation's hiring, appraisal,
and development processes,' they write. 'Too many companies relegate HR
to the mundane busy-work of newsletters, picnics, and benefits ...
Every CEO should elevate his head of HR to the same stature as the CFO.
But if there was ever a time to underscore the importance of HR, it has
arrived. And, sadly, if there was ever a time to see how few companies
get HR right, it has arrived ...'
But enough negativity. It's
depressing, and it may just be beginning to get out of date. Lurking in
the undergrowth of the corporate world are some more hopeful signs -
we'd better not say green shoots - of a different and more positive
future for HR.
How's this for some fighting HR director talk?
'The CEO knows I will tell him if there's an issue. If he doesn't like
what I say, I remind him it's what he pays me for. He knows I have no
baggage and my loyalty to the company is unquestioned.
to me for personal coaching about his interactions with the board,
chairman and deputy chairman. I attend all board meetings and guide his
thinking on issues concerning the executive team, appointments and
'I have to be the thought leader on organisational
development, talent management and executive change. I'm also the
closest confidant of the CEO.
'My CEO expects to be challenged
and receive insights about his leadership style. I tell him things he
won't hear anywhere else. He has learned the hard way that this is in
his own interests.'
The speaker is David Russell, group HR
director at betting company William Hill, and his words can be found in
what is quite the best piece of research to be produced on the HR
profession in recent years: Configuring HR for Tomorrow's Challenges,
published by the Corporate Research Forum (CRF) earlier this year.
came up with a robust and persuasive vision of an HR role that might
have a useful future. Yes, there is an ongoing credibility problem -
too much paperwork, too many self-serving 'initiatives', too little
commercial savvy. And, yes, HR professionals need to be seen to be
contributing valuable insights and interventions before that
credibility problem will go away. They need to be real business people,
with a grasp of profit-and-loss realities.
The CIPD's Orme, for
example, can explain at some length why Walkers' 'Sensations' crisps -
she was formerly HR director for Walkers' parent company Pepsi in the
UK - have been such a hit. Something to do with a 'hard bite',
apparently. Not all HR directors would be able to talk so knowledgeably
about their company's business.
But once some of that precious
credibility has been (re-)established, there is an open corporate door
for HR professionals to push at. And the prize is large. CRF puts it in
these terms: there is a big job to be done on 'organisational
effectiveness'. HR's efforts should be directed towards creating a
high-performance work environment that will make the organisation stand
out as a winner.
HR professionals will need to change if they
are to succeed, says CRF. They'll have to have the courage to speak up,
to be the guide and guardian of high-quality management within the
business. HR needs to think in terms of (internal) customer
satisfaction and 'added value'. (No more light bulb jokes.) And it must
always be ready to speak up when the organisation is falling short. But
it will take brave and competent HR staff to achieve all this.
other reason why courage is required is that the HR director may be the
only senior manager in the business who is able or willing to raise
inconvenient facts at the highest level. Patrick Wright, professor at
Cornell University's school of industrial and labour relations, has
suggested that the HR director could also become a 'chief integrity
officer', licensed to challenge CEOs without fear of being dismissed
for simply doing the job. Certainly, the current crisis has exposed the
lack of rigorous truth-telling at the top of some of the world's most
powerful financial institutions.
The concept of a 'chief
integrity officer' appeals to Niall FitzGerald, now deputy chairman of
Thomson Reuters and for eight years boss of the Anglo-Dutch consumer
goods giant Unilever. The idea chimes with him partly because he had
already thought of it and has put it into practice in the past himself.
'At Unilever, I told my HR director that he was to come and tell me if
my behaviour or that of the company was in danger of crossing a line
between what was acceptable and what was not. I said I was holding him
accountable for doing that, but that obviously I wanted him to speak
freely about any issues that arose.'
Is a glorious future for HR
a fantasy, or is it coming slowly within reach? Someone with a ringside
seat is Jonathan Hogg, senior partner at PA Consulting, who works with
clients specifically on HR and change management. 'A lot of HR people
are currently deeply bogged down in cost-reduction exercises and the
question of headcount,' he says. 'It's very time-consuming to do that
properly, and that doesn't leave a lot of space for more interesting,
forward-looking or strategic work.
'You also need courage,' he
adds. 'It is a bold person who strides into a room and raises some of
these bigger questions at a time like this.'
But Hogg is not
completely pessimistic about the prospects for an invigorated HR
function to emerge. 'There are lots of able people out there who would
love to rise to the occasion,' he says. 'The door is open - but I don't
think it will be flooded with people coming through with the right
skills and experience to change things. Are they prepared to "die on
the hill" for this? I'm not so sure.'
observers wish the profession well but are similarly uncertain as to
whether HR will seize the opportunity that lies before it.
are not going to train our way out of this recession; we are going to
trade our way out of it,' says Ruth Spellman, head of the Chartered
Management Institute. 'This is not a time for HR to try and look busy
by running lots of arbitrary training programmes which nobody knows why
they are running.'
Penny de Valk, head of the Institute for
Leadership and Management, can see HR's opportunity too. 'But will they
get out from under all that administrative work and really make a
difference? It's not clear which way it will go.'
But we all
know what will happen to HR professionals who are not proving their
worth right now: a one-way ticket to the offshore HR service centre in
Undoubtedly, the HR profession has brought
upon itself a lot of the ridicule that it has had to endure - through
pedantry, an obsession with process, an inability to see the bigger
picture, and a lack of courage to stick up for what is right.
it doesn't have to be that way. With the financial and business worlds
in turmoil, and with so many of our other preconceptions being
shattered, why can't HR arise gleaming and reborn from the wreckage?
Why shouldn't the 'people people' step forward to assert their right to
speak up? Have the past 10 years of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and the
splendours of the now largely defunct investment banking industry
turned out to be a glorious advertisement for the old way of doing
things, for 'business as usual'?
Something had better change, and perhaps now is the right time for HR to take a lead.
TWITS OR TWEETERS?
one way the human resources profession can shatter some of the tired
old stereotypes that cling to it: get online. Indeed, it is already
doing so in large numbers, as new research reveals.
A survey of
257 senior HR managers carried out by Communications Management, a PR
agency that specialises in workplace issues, shows that eight out of 10
of them are using social networking to some extent. Online search was
already playing an important role to help them with decision-making -
for example, in finding suppliers and providers of professional
services. But now HR people are embracing the net enthusiastically.
Trevor Merriden, a director at Communications Management: 'About half
the HR professionals we surveyed were active users of online media -
they are in chatrooms, they are discussing and recommending suppliers
and business partners. The other half are more passive, looking and
listening but not yet so actively engaged.'
As HR departments
come under pressure to achieve greater efficiency, it's not surprising
that more and more HR managers are using the web to bring savings. But
it is not just their employers that this new cohort of surfers are
worrying about. There is self-interest here too.
chief marketing officer at StepStone, an HR service provider, pointed
out at a recent seminar that the online world has transformed the
recruitment business, including the way that individual candidates
market themselves. That mild-mannered, unassuming HR director may just
be out there right now touting himself on LinkedIn, Plaxo and all the
other professional networking websites.
And just when you want
to march into their office to give them a bollocking or ask for some
help in planning the next wave of redundancies, you may be greeted with
a resignation memo - if it hasn't already been e-mailed to you. By the
way: have you checked your in-box in the past couple of hours?