Sometimes you just want to take a minute and be thankful things aren’t worse in your own territory and wonder where HR strategy goes off the rails. The past week brought news of a shake up at Bonneville Power in Oregon in which the top two executives were relieved of duty (COO and Administrator) due to “HR problems.” It’s one measure of the importance slowly emerging for HR processes in organizations worldwide if they can get top line managers fired. These aren’t small organizations either – with 3100 serving employees, more than 31 hydro projects in the US Pacific Northwest, liaising with aboriginal tribes, working under US Federal rules and programs, it’s surprising to read that somehow 27 ‘human resource specialists’ were ‘decertified’ in the lead up to a series of still-secret HR audits resulting in the top-level suspensions.
It’s times like these when the news isn’t always as edifying as you want though. Sounds like a lot of HR there, but can’t wait to hear more details. I felt the same with an item from Istanbul’s World Bulletin in which the Turkish Foreign Minister is quoted repeatedly saying more or less, “…they had not found new natural gas and oil resources for the last ten years, but they had discovered the power of their own human resource.” His solution to their energy deficit is simple, "What to do is that human resources should be put under order of energy and economy with privatization." I’m not totally certain what this means, but when major government departments with long standing clout are insisting HR should be theirs or even privatized, this suggests it’s being recognized as important albeit not always by people who seem to know how it works. Or did he simply mean a lot of energetic HR people could be harnessed to peddle really hard to churn out enough electric energy to make up the deficit?? News reporting is an inexact science so I apologize if I’ve misinterpreted some of these items.
Sometimes though HR is still recognized as important only by its absence. One reporter headlined a story with “Where was HR?” It’s the tale of a car dealership employee suing the owner for encouraging and video-recording other employees zapping him with a stun gun more than 20 times in a year. (I’ve linked a more balanced report with video included.) My guess is that a dealer-owner who would encourage this is not one who would hire or tolerate HR, so I’m not sure why this is somehow laid at the feet of HR by the headline, but, as we all know, there’s no such thing as bad publicity… I guess. Now it’s a million dollar law suit.
Another notably absent HR person was apparently not doing CEO coaching well at AOL, which was recently taken over by a group of very rich ex-Googlers apparently trying to show they can transplant their experience. Strategically that doesn’t work piecemeal as we’ve noted before. Immediately turfing most of the existing senior execs must have established a new culture. At a widely attended, internal conference call the CEO ‘publicly’ or at least ‘audibly’ fired a creative director live during the call and subsequently had to apologetically acknowledge some level of error, although the victim was not rehired. Listeners were probably either horrified thinking they might likewise be summarily fired in the layoffs being discussed (not the best HR approach) or thrilled to know one less person would have to be terminated thanks to this new high level vacancy so cavalierly created. If it was all about maintaining confidentiality as the CEO claimed this sure has blown that effort, with bootlegged copies of the call being circulated publicly.
Meanwhile on LinkedIn, someone asked if it’s OK to fire by email – case in point where a restaurant owner emailed staff not to come in because the restaurant had just been closed permanently and all jobs lost. My take: in this day of instant communication, you’d rather get ahead of the rumor mill, but why not use it as a chance to tell these laid off staff where they can meet to find out about severance and benefits? Unfortunately that didn’t seem to figure in this case. Again HR is missing in action undoubtedly through no fault of HR, but owners who try to manage without it. More law suits waiting to happen… like the dentist who fired his assistant for being too attractive. He engaged his church minister to sit in on the termination instead. He won the law suit, if losing customers and respect is winning. Not much strategic thinking at this level.
Abercrombie and Fitch discovered how long and how widespread this sort of reputation can become as their boss’ 2006 comments still are echoing today. For Abercrombie saying they hire only good looking youth is probably strategic since it makes the point their customers should want to be equally ‘cool’ (and the company can probably afford legal battles as a good advertising investment). They likely won’t lose by being jerks, but for a dentist? The only thing I look forward to at a dentist visit is friendly assistants, so it’s more likely the assistant will be getting a better job and taking clients in my view.
So, is HR’s importance being recognized more? You won’t be able to tell for sure from the front line media apparently, but there are certainly plenty of opportunities one way or another. As always HR logically assumes it’s better to be neither seen nor heard directly. Maybe that has to change? Maybe there is such a thing as (exclusively) bad or absent publicity? Can we envision another strategy?