“Here comes HR.” How do most people react when they hear that? Happiness? Relief? Wariness? Dread? Respect?
We talk about objectification of people, but is there a more objectified department than HR? I vividly remember moving into HR from a money-making role. When Anakin turned to the Dark Side he kept more of his friends than I did. In 2002, if my former employer was anything to go by, HR wasn’t universally respected, valued and trusted.
I wonder how HR is seen in 2020. Profoundly valued, I hope, because HR has made an incredible - unsung - difference to lives and livelihoods. HR continues to be the lightning rod for the big workplace issues of our time – Covid-19, reimagined work and inclusion to name three. Going forward, HR will continue to be at the centre of the change. HR itself has adapted and now people are thinking about how it could be reimagined.
My byrne·dean colleagues and I have spent a lot of the year with HR and managers working on issues such as culture, unbiased decision-making, racial justice, change, mental health, creating deliberate calm, building trust and investigating, mediating and resolving problems. We see exciting changes afoot, and also some warning sings. We think any reimaging needs to include three priorities.
1. Protect HR’s wellbeing. HR have taken on a lot of other people’s ‘stuff’ this year, as well as dealing with the same personal challenges as everyone else. We’ve asked a lot of HR people how they are doing. Remarkably well overall, but there is a limit to how much anyone can take - even if it is their job and they have been trained (neither of which can be assumed). Worryingly, we are seeing signs of burnout.
Reimagined HR needs to start by ensuring that it fulfils its duty of care to its own people. Organisations need good answers to four questions. First, to people managers in HR - do the people you manage look at you and feel respected, supported and safe? Are you clear on what you need to be doing? Second, HR performance - do HR people have confidence that their colleagues are performing? They need to as high-performing teams are resilient teams. Third, do people in your HR team have enough meaningful connections with each other? Often, the best support for an HR person is another HR person who truly ‘gets it’. Once we start those conversations people never want to stop! Finally, are there any roles that need formalised support, akin to how some professionals - psychologists to coaches - receive supervision? ER spring immediately to mind.
2. Equip all HR with trouble-shooting skills. The type of concerns coming to HR has changed. Issues relating to alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour have been replaced with historic complaints and fundamental challenges to those at the top, structures and culture. Racial injustice and sexual harassment continue to be a major concern for individuals, and therefore organisations.
In reimagined HR, the ability to notice, recognise and deal confidently with issues when they first emerge will be essential. What issues? Bullying, harassment and wellbeing for sure. Reimagined HR needs to increase organisational capability to nip problems in the bud. An organisation’s reputation is only is as strong as its weakest link. There are three focus areas. First, HR itself. People can raise a concern with anyone at any time, so everyone in HR needs to be confident and prepared. Organisations can’t be complacent about this. For example, we find that many are not clear what they need to do to fulfil their duty of care to colleagues. Second, people managers. They are critical, but in our experience they rarely see themselves as a potential stressor and many do not address warning signs confidently. Third, all staff. The knowledge and ability to voice a concern effectively is not innate and is rarely taught. This needs to change – it is inefficient, it creates stress, it damages trust and it gets in the way of the right thing being done. It needn’t take much to achieve, but in the future everyone with a concern needs to know what to do, how to do it and how the options may play out in practice. Some organisations are creating new structures to deal with this.
3. Make HR more visibly impartial. Building and sustaining trust is critical; from Priti Patel, to the Diana interview at the BBC, to anti-Semitism in the Labour party, the establishment has a problem. HR has too. This year has highlighted structural and cultural issues of bias, unfairness and discrimination. HR has spent decades positioning itself as a strategic business partner to leadership – part of management, defender of management and seen by some as part of the problem. People with concerns need to able to trust HR, but many have no personal connection with the function and doubt whether HR can ever be impartial. After all, who does the firing?
Reimagined HR will never be independent, but it can do more to be impartial and be seen to be impartial. We are seeing a focus on HR being more comfortable in having challenging conversations, especially upwards. This needs to be baked in to reimagined HR for it to be widely seen as the custodian of the organisation’s values.