Wednesday 10 December 2014

HR has left the building. Who’s going to help me now?

This week, I attended a stimulating conference at the Work Foundation (@WorkFoundation), organised with Prospect (@ProspectUnion) called:
 "The contemporary role of HR: custodian of organisational conscience, deliverer of financial targets or strategic business leader?"
I have particular angle on this question as a business psychologist who focuses on stress. I speak to thousands of managers every year about stress and have done since the late 90s. This blog has been informed by that experience.

I’ve seen stress levels rising, especially since the last recession. Managers are at the sharp end, having to manage stressed employees and deal with their own stress. Frankly, they're struggling. And a day of training [though excellent!] won't solve all the problems.

Stress cases are demanding and complex. There are significant business and legal risks if managers get it wrong.

Managers are under pressure and need support.

But where do they go for help? Until a few years ago, HR was the go-to destination for 'Human' issues that managers faced. Now, especially in the public sector, HR has been largely outsourced. Support, if available, often comes via a call centre run by a large HR consultancy.

I find this outsourcing of management support deeply troubling.

Based upon the many conversations I've had with managers about this, the quality of such support can be poor. What managers need is someone who is actually there, someone who understands: them, the organisation and the daily situations they are facing.

What kind of bizarre business world have we entered where we don't 'get' the value of supporting managers internally? The return on investment is obvious. Consider just one stress case where a manager is supported at the right time in the right way. Prompt action is taken to reduce the risk of stress for an employee and a long-term stress-related absence is prevented. Not to mention the additional savings accrued related to recruitment, retraining and business continuity. And that's just one stress case!

I hear a lot about HR being ‘strategic and sitting at the top table’. I also hear HR buzzwords, which fuel cynicism and break down trust with managers. HR is increasingly seen as ‘ruthless’, an instrument of corporate power and yes a ‘deliverer of financial targets’. Managers no longer see HR as being ‘on their side’. The psychological contract has been broken.

Of course, this might not be a true reflection and it might not be entirely fair either. But my experience suggests that these negative perceptions of HR are widely held in line management populations.

How did this happen? What happened to the 'Human' in Human Resources? I know personally many HR professionals. I know they care. That's why they went into HR. They're people-people.

Why then didn't more HR leaders fight, tooth and nail, to make the Human case about the need to be there to support managers? Why didn't the HR profession’s leadership kick up the biggest possible stink about outsourcing?

If they had, I'm sure they would have found powerful allies inside and outside their organisations. They would also have gained credibility and influence with line managers and been seen rightly as ‘custodian of organisational conscience’. Instead, they appear to have wholly embraced outsourcing as the way to go, and it’s since been adopted on a massive scale.

It seems the caring, Human, side of HR is ‘down’ (though hopefully not ‘out’). 'Resources' has won the day, at least in the eye of many line managers.

At what cost?

photo credit: net_efekt via photopin cc

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