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Songs Of Love And Hate For HR
HR must be willing to invest time with employees to understand them and their organizational needs better
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In my total corporate experience of over 35 years, I have been working in the field of human resources by default - a function that perhaps today ranks at 8th or 9th amongst the most important functions in a company. As I have headed various roles including the HR department for many years in a row and gradually moved on to heading operations, reasons why HR is blamed or is perceived as a frazzled part of the organization remains not so elusive to me. In the last three decades I met hundreds and thousands of HR executives. Very recently I also interacted with over 15 heads of mid-sized companies. Unfortunately the feeling seem to be growing strongly; the group largely believes the function's value is sapped and immediate line executives, supervisors or managers do not find HR effective or one creating a significant impact. This is certainly discounting their reputation and relevance.
The feelings aren't new. It is human nature to be defensive about things or people who try getting into 'behavioral' space, its personal after all. The HR are deemed as the monitors one had once in school instructing to act as per norms, processes or work flow in order to ensure a systematic follow up. Going back to history, during The Great Depression, globally employees wanted to be employed at any cost. Line executives then believed in a 'drive system' which was slightly coercive a measure to get things done. Similarly during 2001 to 2008 recession HR was not considered to be relevant at all. It was only post World War II, in 1920's when talent was felt in need and industry was in dire need of hiring. A typical business predisposition is that if there are labor issues within a company, HR is seen as a treasured partner else more or less it's a hate song from line managers sung to HR invariably considering them as merely 'administrative' or lacking strategic insights.
In 50s and 60s, India was an agro-economy and therefore high skills in manufacturing sector were not an urgent requirement. Industrialisation was slow; shortage of workers and employees was not felt too badly. Before this, companies like Tata Steel used their personnel department representatives in the most prudent manner. Work life at a steel plant was tough, rugged and hazardous; one had to think a lot about the power of persuasive hiring in those times of no internet and social networks. There were instances when Tata steel had sent off executives from their personnel department to ask or convince passengers traveling in trains that touched Tatatanagar to join the company. Off-site interviews and on spot selections were perhaps first introduced by them. One can observe that Tata's management was visionary. Some of their practices of early industrialization era were picked up by ILO like the 8 hours working; overtime pay etc and many practices of Tata Steel were ratified in India itself.
India's industrialisation status improved with time and by early 90's talent shortage had badly hit the industry. HR realized its renewed relevance in India as employees were in demand, employee attrition became high and talent started to aspire for a suitable or best fitting career. They were working overtime to meet demands. Later, more and more of the work load traditionally been performed by a HR function got pushed to line managers and that has been the case ever since.
Managers feel besieged by the HR brigade as they lack powers to control them directly but still would want them to follow a framework governed by and in best interest of the organization. A democratic way to look at the arrangement so to say, only if the HR was a choice and selection by the managers but thankfully it remains a neutral and unbiased, hired function, largely by board's unanimous decision or by the top management. So while HR executives feel they should be seen as custodians of a tradition or culture passed on by the board or management in managing organizational goals, they are attempting to do so with ambiguous authority and those on the receiving end i.e. the managers and executives feel they are nagged and meddled.
Other than the blow hot blow cold need that usually arises in need of a talent crisis or labor issues with union, HR has the responsibility to demonstrate their skills and relevance that prove they are future ready.
I also found, in India the number of Chief HR Officers (CHROs) with exposure to other functions of an organization is limited and almost negligible. That leads to a critical challenge. Today, a highly competitive, globally spread out business thrives on a HR department that holds deep insights to business and immediate environments. This is what makes the role of HR truly effective and unsurpassed.
A premium international institute of HR expertise and talent management conducted a survey few years ago. The study of top US companies listed in their database revealed that 40 out of the 100 CHROs at Fortune 100 companies had significant work exposure and enriching experience outside the HR purview before they came on board to lead or head the HR function.
It is of prime importance that HR in India understands business numbers i.e. profitability and operational costs. This has a direct link to the angst the line managers demonstrate when talent does not reciprocate as per performance metrics set. HR needs to go in tandem with how the managers think; they cannot afford to hold mediocre knowledge or lack sense of prerequisites for running successful businesses. They must not turn a blind eye to number crunching, not shy or run away. Conflicts or disagreements can always be handled differently but just walking away or brushing things under a carpet can annoy a lot of people.
Second area of deep consideration is to know the crucial stakeholders - employees, good performers, opinion makers and to know them well. HR must be willing to invest time with employees to understand them and their organizational needs better. This will enable them to assess business perspective talent needs and link business to human issues or human behavior easily. They will be able to take wiser decisions that benefit both organization and the individual. The primary CHRO burden comes from the organisation's need for results in terms of people and organizational effectiveness. The CHRO's promise of value is measured in terms of talent attraction, engagement, performance, development, retention and also how he has managed to effectively weave all of these seamlessly almost effortlessly or naturally. If it can't be a love song from line managers, let it be a happy song for all for all times!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.