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LEADERSHIP: In The Trenches – Quite a Year for HR Departments

deb stairs 4 v2I have a good friend who came on board as the HR manager for a manufacturing plant in the past year or so and within the first month he was required to lay off about 75 people. In the beginning, it was probably a bit easier for him because he didn’t know the people well, but as time went on and the layoffs continued, it became harder and harder. You could see it on his face and hear it in the tension of his voice, especially when some of the layoffs included members of his own staff. It wasn’t what he signed up for; it wasn’t what he envisioned for his career. This has been quite a difficult year for HR professionals.

First, they have had the unenviable job of determining who to keep and who to let go in a continuing rollercoaster of an economy. They have had to enact policy, even when that means letting go of some of the best workers. It’s not just organizing and sitting in on countless “release” discussions, but having to answer the same questions over and over, while sounding empathetic and understanding. Then, they have had to figure out how to motivate the workers remaining who are suffering from survivor’s guilt and/or are incredibly overworked. There are no pay increases, reduced health care coverage, less flexibility about work hours, plus the insecurity of “Will I be next?” More often than not, they know the answer to that question months in advance, but can’t say anything – a miserable position to be in.

There is also the realization that a widening skill gap exists between the competencies of the current workforce and what will be needed to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace in the next decade. Take, for example, one pharmaceutical company that recognizes that new regulatory requirements, scientific advancements, and the demands for automation and speed, will escalate the need for improved workforce competency. So while some of the best talent is being let go due to downsizing, organizations are ironically going to need to recruit and/or try to keep top talent in an unstable environment. Not an easy task to say the least.

I have great respect for – and no envy of – today’s HR professionals. For the HR manager who envisioned a career of hiring, orienting, training and developing staff into a highly motivated workforce, the current climate is very stressful and disappointing. Help may come in the book, Peaks and Valleys, which suggests that what we do in the valley will determine how quickly we reach the peak. The HR professional who can handle layoffs, support de-motivated staff, contain testy and demanding senior management, and address marketplace uncertainties with professionalism and compassion, without losing confidence and hope in a new future,  will survive the current chaos and be stronger for it.

I wish I could suggest that 2010 will be different or maybe a return to the way things used to be, but more and more I’m convinced that those days are over. HR professionals, like all others in today’s organizations, must embrace constant change – including the changes we like and the changes we don’t –  as the new normal. We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?

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