HR in organisations
“Well that didn’t go well. I thought HR was supposed to be on my side”. I’m in HR, and I have been for a long time. If I had £1 for every shocked and hurt reaction from an employee after an interview with me, I’d just about break even. Reason is, I’d probably have given an equal amount back to every line manager who was disappointed I hadn’t done his, or her, dirty work for them. So can HR in organisations be the handmaiden of management, and the employee’s best friend?
This tension is at the heart of modern HR in organisations. Who, if not HR, is there to look after the interests of employees? When virtually every HR manager or director is recruited to “align the people agenda with the strategic aims of the organisation” how can employees learn to trust HR as an independent, trusted friend? Work can be a difficult place for a lot of people and many of the processes implemented by HR, now that it has stopped being simply an administrative function, are not perceived by some to be helping people as much as they are helping the organisation. And HR people are often the ones who have to make sense of these potentially conflicting forces.
Take, for example, the problems with performance management systems. It is unarguable that organisations need a way to measure the performance and contribution of people at work, otherwise how can the good performers be rewarded, and the poor performers helped to get better, or helped to leave? At the heart of every performance management system is the need to improve performance, not just to measure it, and information derived from these systems is systematically used to inform a wide range of decisions about people. Who seriously expects to be promoted without a good appraisal? Who would expect to be made redundant without objective evidence of their performance being considered as a factor in the decision? More importantly, who knows how well they are doing at work if there is no way for them to be told? So, you would think that an objective system would be in everyone’s interest.
Yet there is still discontent about performance management. Line managers want more scope to deal assertively with poorer performers and believe that “the system gets in the way”. Some organisations impose forced distribution models in their systems, thus ensuring that a percentage of the workforce always ends up being “not good enough”. And discrimination and unequal pay still beset some employees despite the existence of ostensibly objective approaches to performance assessment and pay. It is here that HR can best deliver balance in its approach to meeting the needs of the organisation and its people.
The design and implementation of effective systems for performance assessment and performance-driven rewards have been at the heart of HR work for the last 20-30 years. The best systems have helped to minimise the effects of idiosyncratic decision-making about people in organisations and have gone a long way to creating a more open, transparent and merit-based approach to performance and reward. And they have helped to change the bottom line for many organisations by raising performance levels in the interests of their stakeholders. The needs of employees for clarity about their jobs, their objectives and for feedback about their performance can be met by good performance management. And the needs of the organisation for better performance, productivity and contribution from its people can be satisfied too.
Additional HR services?
Performance and pay are, however, not the only subjects that HR deals with. Any HR manager or director who has been around for a while will have been involved in headcount reductions. Whether it’s called right-sizing, downsizing, streamlining or rationalising, the end result is almost always the same…people lose their jobs. HR in organisations are invariably in the forefront of these exercises. This can involve negotiating headcount reductions with trades unions, setting the terms of redundancy payments, helping managers to organise operational structures to anticipate the leaner organisation, communicating the news to employees, producing the redundancy selection criteria, and affecting the eventual dismissals. There are fewer tasks in which the HR in organisations role is more conspicuous, and the opportunities for mistakes abound, but it is important for HR to get it right here.
Good HR people know the importance of fairness and integrity in redundancy exercises, not just because of the risk of employment tribunal claims if the organisation gets it wrong, but also because of the impact on the remainers. The people whose jobs remain are a crucial audience for the HR in organisations, and one that needs to know that those who lost their jobs were treated fairly and with dignity. The remainers are often quickly identified and reassured that they are safe but there is a risk they can be left unattended while the organisation focusses on the people who are leaving. Good HR people will ensure that leavers are treated fairly and can depart the organisation in the best spirit, but they will also work hard to communicate the progress of the redundancy exercise to those who are staying, to make sure that they continue to perform and contribute in the smaller organisation.
So, in these big-picture ways, HR people can ensure that the needs of the organisation are met whilst ensuring that individuals are not neglected. But a lot of what HR people do is done in smaller, less obvious ways. Take, for example, the HR director asked to begin a difficult conversation with a colleague about his performance, against the backdrop of the MD wanting him out of the organisation within a month. A sensible settlement agreement, a frank and respectful conversation, a prompt resolution of the colleague’s issues and he was sat in his back garden by the end of the week, happy that the burden of his job had been lifted from him in a dignified way. So, meeting your HR professional need not always be a terrifying prospect…sometimes they are on everyone’s side!