Getting HR hitched to the rest of the business

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There’s no doubt that HR departments are under pressure. Many HR functions were cut back during the recession – but have not grown again to their previous levels, leaving staff stretched and struggling with an ever-heavier workload.

survey by Hay Group in 2013 found that as many as 94% of HR directors said their teams had reduced in size, with 30% saying cuts had been anywhere between 11% and 25%, and we’ve seen little change since those findings were published. In fact, these deep cuts have left HR feeling stretched and under pressure – resulting in a lack of confidence in themselves, and making it difficult to form a strong connection with the rest of the business. 

This was underlined recently in a KPMG survey which described a ‘crisis of credibility in the boardroom’ for HR, finding that many C-suite executives don’t have confidence that HR bases its decisions on hard data – relying on ‘instinct’ instead. 

These problems are only intensified by the fact that demands on HR from the business are growing. For instance, many HR teams feel that they spend large amounts of their time dealing with routine enquiries for information from line managers in the business – preventing them from getting to the really value-adding, strategic areas of work. This is a real vicious cycle.

So, how does HR get hitched with the rest of the business? Perhaps they need to take some advice from Will Smith’s character, Alex Hitchens in the 2005 film Hitch in which he professes that to be loved you have to ‘leap and hope to God you can fly! Because otherwise, we just drop like a rock ... wondering the whole way down ... Why in the hell did I jump?”’.

HR functions need to take this leap and start seeing themselves as core to enabling the business to succeed and recognise the huge strength in what they can offer. To do this HR directors will need to get the business to the point where it self-serves where it can – so that the HR function has the time, belief and empowerment to add strategic value to the organisation in terms of the things that will make a real difference to performance: talent management, retention, reward, diversity, flexible working patterns suited to the new generation, and so on.

To really get a place at the top table and be seen as a strategic partner to the rest of the business - rather than being seen simply as an administrative ‘pen-pushing’ function - I believe HR needs to shift its thinking. This is the shift from being HR professionals to business people who happen to be in HR.

There are four key steps to achieving this: 

  1. Permission and confidence. HR needs to stand up as an equal within the organisation. They have hugely important roles and until they respect that in themselves the rest of the company will never ask them to the dance. 
  2. Shift perceptions. The HR team needs to start challenging the status quo, not just accepting things because ‘that is the way they have always been’. Their perceptions need to be shifted just as the organisation also needs to shift their own perception to give HR the respect it deserves. This requires a unique set of skills that are not easy to come by.
  3. Leading the agenda. Through more strategic thinking and organisational savvy, the HR team can start to contribute more to leading the agenda, instead of just following it. This occurs when you start thinking big and can switch between modes: facilitator (simply helping make things happen), expert (being consulted on how to make things happen) and coach (teaching and mentoring people on how to make things happen).
  4. Executing the agenda. Whenever you look to strive for more there are always pitfalls. The more ambitious you are the more pitfalls you are bound to encounter. The key is navigating these roadblocks and turning resistance into momentum: don’t take the path of least resistance and revert back to old ways at the first sight of trouble. Instead, expect some setbacks and look for solutions so that you can execute what you are trying to achieve.

We have seen HR functions engineer just such a change and transform how they partner with the business. They can then start to achieve real breakthroughs - and get their feet properly under the top table. 


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