The times they are a changing ... and aren't they always?
For HR professionals, it is no different. With a brief to support organisational change, they must also change themselves to deliver what the Board says it wants (and probably needs).
There are many theories about why many organisations choose not to have an HR Director on the Board. If people are an organisation's greatest asset or provide the only source of competitive advantage, it would seem a 'no brainer' - yet it's not.
Some HR teams are still delivering the welfare role that originated in the Personnel Department in the 60s and 70s. They think they are there, at best to walk some sort of tightrope between managers and their employees, and at worst to offer 'tea and sympathy' to employees who perceive themselves as badly treated by the organisation.
Many HR teams are so wrapped up in 'firefighting' and dealing with the basics - and still getting them wrong - that they have little credibility with directors and senior managers. Getting the routine transactions right, like paying people their pay rise in the month it's due, is fundamental to belief in what HR does.
Many HR professionals can tell you why you can't do something much more easily than why you can - and this is not what managers, with many competing pressures, want to hear. Having said that, in many organisations there is little incentive for managers to have an honest dialogue with employees or for delivery of performance improvement through effective people management; and insufficient training and support to enable them to feel confident and competent to manage people effectively.
All too often HR is dragged in to rescue the situation after a manager has not dealt effectively with performance or behavioural issues or worse, not tackled them at all. Some HR departments are nicknamed 'Human Remains' because after they put in an appearance, an employee disappears off the scene, never to be seen again. This is a no win situation for the employee, manager or HR.
And then there are the unclear HR policies and procedures that do not deliver the outcome the manager wants. Employment law is getting more and more complex and few organisations want to fight an employment tribunal claim, especially on the grounds of discrimination, where the financial award has no ceiling, unless they believe they have a very strong case.
Managers want clear advice on how to deal with a situation, ideally quickly and effectively, but then they need to follow it rather than seek a second opinion from someone else in HR who will give them what they perceive to be a more palatable solution.
The answer in my view is for clear accountability for people management to rest with managers, with recognition and reward linked to achievement; and a partnership between HR and the line, rather than the blame culture that exists in so many organisations between the two, especially when things go wrong.
So how would this work in practice?
Firstly, HR needs to get the basic transactions right. This involves clarity between the line and HR about who does what - and doing it.
Secondly, HR professionals need to understand the issues the business faces - and to be involved in shaping its response to them at the outset. That's where the HR Director comes in. Developing a strategy that supports an organisation to achieve its goals is essential, so that it can then be used as a route map for all to see - directors, managers, employees and customers - and achievement measured against it. This will cover all the key activities that are needed to deliver business success through its people. For example, a business's ability to recruit and keeping good people is critical to its success, particularly in service industries where businesses are their people.
Thirdly, HR must work with managers to coach them to deal with the people issues - and early on, before relationships have deteriorated and a win/win situation could never be achieved. Managers who deal with the people issues effectively (rather than those who demonstrate technical excellence) should be held up as shining examples and encouraged to work with colleagues who need to develop those skills.
HR can support the delivery of organisational change, but only if it has the skills to do so, is demonstrating this in practice and has the confidence of those at the top to deliver the change needed. The HR Director in an organisation like that has earned their place on the Board.
Hilary Jeanes (a former HR Director) is Director of PurpleLine Consulting Limited, a consultancy which helps organisations realise the potential of their people. www.PurpleLineConsulting.co.uk