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STRATEGY: Why HR Should Have a Seat at the Corporate Table

Awhile back I was talking with an HR colleague who had been through the worst three years of his long career, having closed several plants and laid off over 1,500 people.  He talked about how utterly demoralizing it was to spend his time dismantling business rather than growing it.  He hated being the bearer of bad news every three or four months.  It had gotten to the point where his presence wasn’t wanted anywhere, and people literally hid from view if he walked around with a folder on a Friday.  He’s concerned that HR has been positioned as the communicator of management policy and not the advocate for employees anymore.

Another HR colleague spoke recently about her fear that as soon as the economic recovery takes hold, she’s afraid that people in her organization will “abandon ship” for more lucrative jobs.  She recognizes that the recession has all but destroyed the notion of company loyalty.  Combine that with the “backpack” Millennial generation who have learned from watching their parents that loyalty is a liability, and no one is committed anymore.  How is it that people can work for a company for fifteen, twenty, even thirty years and be dropped with nothing so much as a “see ya around.”  One plant manager in the steel industry got six weeks severance pay after twenty years on the job when the plant closed recently.  This HR manager worries that senior management has lost touch with the workforce as communication has been reduced to the rumor mill and leadership is no where to be found.

Let’s look at a third HR manager.  This one is in the midst of a huge hiring initiative for a large technology company.  He worries that it has become about getting bodies in the door more so than the quality of people hired.  He sees holes in the hiring process that are cause for concern, but finds senior leadership less than interested in hearing any HR problems.  With so much emphasis on getting results, the process pieces take a significant back-burner

How do these voices get a platform within senior leadership?  And when they get a seat at the table, what do they need to be saying?

At New Directions, we have long said that people are the most important asset for any organization.  Everything else can be copied:  formulas, processes, equipment, raw materials.  An organization is only as great as the people who work for them.  Yet, the past three years has given people a very different message as they see themselves as expendable, temporary, and under-valued.  Oddly, we somehow believe that as the self-esteem of workers is lowered, somehow their performance should get better.  For these same organizations all speak of continuous improvement, the efficiency imperative and quality enhancement.  What would incline a worker to stick his or her neck out in today’s economy when all the messages are screaming – duck and hide?

So how does corporate get the message that morale in the American worker is at an all-time low?  That town meetings and senior leader “vlogs” represent idle words that have no meaning.  Who can bring the message that Trust – with a capital T – is in bankruptcy?

Human Resources is the only department in organizations that has the mandate to speak for the people. Yes, that’s been compromised in recent years, but the mandate is still there.  There is no other department that must present the following facts to senior leadership:

1). HR can easily assess the heartbeat of the people in the organization through surveys and focus groups. They can protect worker anonymity, an imperative to getting at the truth.  They can convert the information they hear into a “voice” for the workers, by sharing and prioritizing concerns.  It requires an assertive, clear voice that can speak to the critical impact worker disenfranchisement will have on business strategy.  Trust does impact speed and cost, and nothing will undermine an organization faster than trust bankruptcy.

2). HR can inform senior management that the organization familiar to them is not the organization that will interest new, young workers.  There are four generations in the workforce (veteran, baby boomer, Gen X and Gen Y).  Senior leadership sees through a veteran and baby boomer lens that is very different from what motivates a Gen Y worker.  They will lose touch with that worker and probably be surprised when the Gen Y worker abruptly leaves, something previous generations haven’t done.

3). HR can be the conduit between senior leadership and the workforce, interpreting for each entity what is truly meant.  Too often senior leadership speaks in lofty, global terms that lack any practical reality.  The workforce hears these talks as so much self-aggrandizing for political maneuvering.   Senior management hears the worker as a complainer who is always out for personal gain and can’t see the limitations the business faces.  Somewhere between these two voices, HR must function as the bridge – the facilitator of understanding – that will get the focus back on a true path of mutual respect and value.

4). HR can introduce a higher level of functioning into senior leadership that is badly needed. Too many organizations today tolerate poorly run meetings because that’s what they see senior leadership do.  Everyone complains; few do anything about it.  HR is skilled in group process techniques – they are the subject matter experts on how to maximize human potential – and yet are rarely called to lead and design a high performance leadership team.  They have allowed themselves to be marginalized as implementers of corporate directives when they have so much more to offer (read Creating and Sustaining Senior Leadership Teams).   

I’m sure I’ve hit a nerve or two writing this blog, but we need to awaken the role of HR in organizations and increase it’s value as a “player” in designing the workplace of the future.  These aren’t soft skills – rebuilding from trust bankruptcy and gaining the commitment of a completely different workforce will be some of the hardest tasks before us in the next five years.  The winners will be those organizations that invite HR to the corporate table and listen carefully as HR explains what’s left after the devastation of our economic tsunami and what’s needed in order to rebuild.

 

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