After agitating for "a seat at the table" for so long, some HR managers have damaged the profession's brand by showing they weren't ready to make a strategic contribution during the recent downturn, says the principal of Mercer's human capital business, Martin Turner.
Mercer observed during the GFC that some organisations were disappointed when tough decisions had to be made and HR people "weren't able to deliver the answers", Turner told HR Daily.
"HR has for a long time, and continues to, agitate about getting a seat at the executive table. One thing we've observed with some clients is that where that's been done, and then the very hard questions are asked around talent management, leadership development, developing talent pipelines, and what strategies do we use to get through this financial crisis and so on, in some cases HR folk have been found wanting."
Turner believes that has "probably set the cause back of HR in some organisations".
"This is not universal by any stretch," he says, "but I think there's been some reputational damage potentially to HR, where what's been proven or shown to be is that HR is in fact transactional rather than strategic."
He points out that "HR's no different from any other profession - there are some really good ones and some that aren't so good, and some of the 'aren't so good' ones managed to get a seat at the table and when asked the hard questions perhaps just haven't been able to deliver the value that CEOs and so on wanted from them".
To truly deserve a place at the executive table, Turner says HR professionals must consider what their value proposition is. "What is the nature of our contribution to the corporate outcomes? Is it about genuinely thinking longer term about how do we develop our pipeline, and how we acquire and retain the talent we really need? What are the critical roles and who are the critical people, and how do we reward them and nurture them, and develop them?
"That's how reputations are won, by delivering on and answering those sorts of questions.
"What should be taken as a given is that HR departments or folk who deliver that stuff will still, as a matter of course, deliver operational excellence as well, whereas those that are doing operational stuff as well but just aren't able to lift their eyes to the next level will continue to struggle."
Re-engagement 2010's biggest focus
Restoring employee engagement should be HR's key focus this year, Turner says.
"The last 18 months have been really tough in some parts of business and there are some people who have been a bit demotivated and demoralised by the tough times we're going though, so to try and win those hearts and minds back is really important."
The talent shortage "continues to chug along", he says, and "as we're now experiencing some economic buoyancy, hanging onto those people whose engagement levels have diminished a bit should be a focus of attention".
He recommends that employers provide clarity to workers around:
the organisation's goal, objectives and vision;
careers and career paths;
capacity and competence; and
the work they will be doing in the next year or two.
"All those sorts of things that good organisations can do, need to be done, to re-engage those employees.
"If organisations aren't doing it, someone else will be... What will happen is all the best [employees] will go, and the danger is that organisations will be left with those who aren't the cream of the crop."
Do more with less
HR learned to "do more with less" during the downturn and, with few employers keen to quickly recommit to their pre-GFC staffing levels, departments will need to continue this way, Turner says.
HR should critically analyse every role for its contribution to the business, and whether it can be executed in a different way - "perhaps part of the role didn't really add a lot of value, so we can just buy the services as the need arises, or we can reallocate some responsibilities, or we can do something else".
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