Can HR Transform Itself and Reclaim a Valued Place at the Table?

Human Resources Employment Teamwork Business People CommunicatioYou may find this hard to believe, but there was a time when the HR function was viewed as “glamorous,” in fact as the most glamorous function in business  – says Peter Cappelli in “Why We Love to Hate HR… and What HR Can Do About It,” in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review. Capelli directs the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

The 1950s, he says, was a time when 90 percent of positions were filled from within and a significant focus was placed on developing staff to move up through the ranks to assume key roles. HR played a pivotal role in identifying, developing and positioning talent to meet organizations’ needs.

Today, though, Cappelli notes that only about one-third of positions are filled from within and the in-house HR function faces stiff competition from executive search firms for filling vacancies, especially at the top of the ladder. Other HR functions are also increasing outsourced, resulting in those who hold in-house positions being relegated to more administrative roles.

As the 1950’s gave way to the 60’s and 70’s, and labor shortages were no longer such a big deal, the HR function lost some of its aura. Today, Cappelli says, the HR role has shifted from recruitment and development to attempting to influence supervisors and managers to assume responsibility for employee engagement—along with all of the documentation and rule-following that comes along with that role. And when supervisors and managers push back, HR is left in the unenviable role of nagging or, as Cappelli puts it, “managing with ambiguous authority.”

But this trend may shift, especially if labor shortages begin to emerge as already may be occurring for certain key roles—STEM roles, for instance. And, certainly Baby Boomers will eventually leave the workforce in droves as they have been predicted to do for some time.

So, in the interim and in preparation for what might one day again become a coveted role, what should HR professionals be doing in 2016? Based on some of Cappelli’s recommendations we would suggest:

  • Setting the agenda by taking a stand, and a clearly articulated position on issues related to layoffs, recruiting, flexible work arrangements and performance management.
  • Focusing on the issues that really matter today and shift away from historical practices that may not have modern-day relevance.
  • Gaining business knowledge. You’ve heard it before and you need to keep hearing it: HR professionals must “speak the language of the C-suite” and that means becoming familiar with the world of finance and how HR decisions impact the bottom line in meaningful and measurable ways.
  • Demonstrating the bottom line impact of HR initiatives. Don’t assume that senior leaders, supervisors or staff recognize the real value that various HR initiatives bring to them or to the organization. Be explicit in quantifying the benefits of the services the HR function provides.
  • Eliminating programs that don’t generate results. You know the areas where you’ve been continually spinning your wheels with no measurable results. Is it time to let certain initiatives go and shift your focus to more potentially productive areas?

Moving forward, Cappelli suggests, it may make sense for HR to take a short, rather than a long view, in supporting business strategies. Face it, by the time certain initiatives have fully developed, most organizations have already moved on to something else. The pace of change moves too quickly these days to put too many resources into potential long-range gains. Instead, what are the current strategic initiatives that your organization is focused on? How can the HR function help drive those initiatives forward?

Why do so many persist in “loving to hate HR”? Perhaps because the profession has not yet done enough to demonstrate its impact in ways that align with the corporate mission, vision, value and strategic initiatives. We may yet return to the heyday of the 50’s when HR held a valued place in organizations across the country. If we do, will you be ready to grasp the opportunity?