It really isn’t a question. If Human Resources can’t deliver what the business needs when they need it, there’s no place for HR except for record-keeping and payroll. It’s common for ‘burning platform’ issues to arise that HR can only react to no matter how they try to prepare. Some are inevitable, some aren’t. HR typically isn’t the origin of such challenges, but how resilient HR strategy is makes a vast difference in end results. We need broad plans that can meet multiple needs and flex depending on events.
But what about the business meeting HR needs – not, that is, the needs of the HR department as much as the needs of employees that make them more engaged, productive, flexible and valuable to the organization? Yes, those needs that HR is charged with paying attention to and supporting long term, but which also require support and participation by line managers.
In the 2008 recession, many businesses had grown fat during good times. Previous hiring of ‘a few extra’ people ‘here and there’ for a ‘project or two’ turned out to have created companies that suddenly needed to downsize by 25% or more of their workforces. Of course they shouldn’t have hired all those people, but when budgets are easy and competitors are rolling out new offerings, why not take some risks? HR would never be listened to counseling caution in boom times when it’s often under pressure to keep up hiring at a frantic pace, nor apparently were many CFOs urging caution then, so HR has to step up and lay off tons of people to create a chance for survival in a downturn.
But what does that do to long term engagement, which in turn drives productivity and innovation?
Even today when we know we could ramp up results by improving leadership and team function, it’s likely the push to hire rapidly will start up again, slowly at first, but gathering momentum. Fears about boomer retirements didn’t evaporate permanently with the recession. There’s evidence many delayed a year or two, but that only makes the exodus worse when it arrives. So being prepared for rapid response whether adding or laying off, is one key expectation.
As well today the trend for companies to upsize in one area while downsizing in another as business needs and strategies change has become a permanent fixture. Unfortunately we know downsizing creates cynicism and hurts engagement as everyone starts tuning their resumes even while they may not be the ones in danger and even if no jobs are available. It would seem a better strategy to attempt retraining and transfers, but many managers believe they have to have people with direct experience in the specific tasks and that it’s easier to just hire those from elsewhere, even though there’s plenty of moaning that people with the right skills aren’t available. If not, isn’t it better to spend some time and money training people we know already like and fit into the company? We need a strategy of helping them and their bosses think flexibly about learning as a solution. Why does this seem so hard for some organizations?
Throughout all this, HR has to find a balanced approach. Let’s hire for some spots, but retrain for others. This depends on effective succession planning and collection of employees’ interests and abilities beyond just the jobs they’re in. Again this hinges on line managers taking a bit of time to talk with their people and some sort of system for recording this information in ways we can share and understand it. All this is arguably more important than trying to put exact numbers on individuals’ performance ratings. We’ll weed out the ones who can’t be trained soon enough. Today learning ability is widely understood to be the key to organization success, but unfortunately putting that understanding into practice isn’t as well developed.
So key HR strategies for meeting timelines depend on developing a line manager culture such that managers understand and assist in engaging, encouraging and developing their people constantly. We need them emphasizing the value to both the employee and the organization of thinking broadly about possible roles, giving people a chance to work on diverse teams and projects, in part to get a feeling for what’s happening in other areas that they might have an interest in.
If this sounds do-able today in your organization, you’re in a very fortunate position to keep it developing. For many this is a dream goal. But then, what is strategy about if not setting far away, sometimes seemingly unreachable goals and then building toward them? Let’s try to get managers looking beyond just filling that urgent vacancy to get work flowing asap.