Do senior execs ‘engage’ with HR issues?

One advantage of reading a lot of HR blogs and news in a short time is that items fall together and suggest new ideas. The Canadian HR Reporter piece about HR in Vietnam and Cambodia (“Growing HR in Vietnam, Cambodia,” March 8, 2010), got me re-reading last year’s piece about HR in China (“Business of people behind Great Wall,” Canadian HR Reporter, May 4, 2009).CHRR Great strides are being made in all three countries, but some toss-away comments stand out most.

The author’s observation that there is “universal appreciation that a happy workforce is a productive workforce” reminded me that this is the origin of a major debate about how to define engagement versus commitment versus “employee satisfaction.” The latter, presumably, is closest to “happiness” and doesn’t correlate with productivity as well as the others, according to a number of observers.

Are we just splitting hairs or is this a key point to make with senior executives, especially those who equate these factors and are particularly skeptical of being sold plans designed to “make employees happy.”

Happiness may well be, and usually is no doubt, a long term byproduct of both engagement and productivity, but likely can’t be purely the purpose. On the other side of the coin, this is the reverse of the truism that money shouldn’t be made the primary object of business either, but is more often a byproduct of good service and filling customer needs. You can make money or make employees happy short term but, to sustain results, you need engagement, productivity and good service consistently for both. Focusing solely on outcomes – whether money or happiness – tends to overlook the core human issues that really engage and satisfy employees and drive results over the long haul.

I was even more interested to note the comment (about China) that they have a problem getting senior HR people engaged in their HR association as is the case in Canada (and in the United States) – another “engagement” issue, this time in-house so to speak. The Strategic Capability Network and the Human Resource Planning Society specifically target and do well at attracting senior HR people versus main-stream, certification-granting associations. Perhaps it’s just that there’s a place for both or perhaps a desire for exclusive focus on senior issues or smaller groups (since both these fit) for senior execs. But even within these focused groups, the number of senior executives turning out is still very small as a percentage of the total.

Is it that we in HR feel we have human resources all figured out and so want to attend meetings with a broader range of functions and function heads or do those other areas seem more important to learn more about? We now know effective HR can make a far bigger difference to organization results than finance or technology, in part because there are so few companies that do it well and knowledge of how to do it well is not as widespread. So rather than us engaging in their territory, perhaps we have another engagement issue of pulling these other function heads into our association meetings along with us. Somewhat like an insightful comment on my last blog post – that engagement has to go two-ways. As much as we want employees to engage in key issues, we need senior execs to engage with the key issues that stand to really drive results: HR issues. That’s something we – and they – still have more to learn about.