There has been significant commentary regarding the steep rise of the status and perceived value of the HR profession over the last 18 months. Research undertaken by David Collings, professor of human resources management at Dublin City University, observes how the pandemic has thrust HR into the limelight, just as the financial crisis did so for CFOs and Y2K did for CIOs.
The demands of the reaction to Covid-19 on the HR profession have been extensive and, now evidently, protracted. The navigation required to steer their business through both the legislative and procedural aspects of their business’s survival plan, was more challenging than normal as HR professionals have had to learn the new Covid-19 vocabulary (furlough, quarantine, self-isolation etc.) and then be able to explain and advise others accordingly.
It is apparent that the ongoing demands of the crisis have taken their toll on many HR professionals. The sheer volume of work and the need to react in the short term while considering the longer-term consequences in such uncharted territory may have pushed the boundaries of the general HR skillset. My daily conversations with HR professionals across numerous industries have highlighted the common experience of intense workload, excessive hours and feeling out of their depth. This is not okay. While the HR profession has largely risen to the challenge, it is important that as we emerge from the crisis that we stop and take stock.
If HR is to retain its more prominent position in the strategic debate, it will need to strengthen the HR skillset and levels of influence. This is a window of opportunity that must be capitalised on quickly.
I believe that there are five key attributes that will determine the success of HR practitioners and enable them to retain their leadership voice, or not:
The commercial understanding of an HR professional is the core foundation for credibility. It should be business first, HR second. A thorough knowledge of the business, how it operates, makes money, its business cycles, how it competes for customers, etc. are all crucial to being able to advise the business and take leadership of the most strategically impactful (not off the shelf) people priorities.
The professional expertise of a HR practitioner regarding employment legislation and the management of people levers bring a perspective to the business that must both protect it from risk and enable its performance. Having this influence requires HR professionals to not only be well-trained but also confident that they can be creative with how best to support their business as it continues to adapt and overcome obstacles. At a time when change is constant, professional creativity is crucial.
It is HR’s unique role as conduit between the expectations of the employer and the employee experience that requires HR professionals to demonstrate significant emotional intelligence and compassion. The ability to empathise with the experience of others is key to mitigate potential employment disputes and has a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of employees. Having ‘HR’ in your job title does not mean that it is an inherent strength. The skill needed to listen generously, hear what is really being said and ensure that employees feel heard and valued should not be underestimated.
HR professionals need to have courage not to turn a blind eye. Whether it is identifying inappropriate behaviour, challenging potential unconscious bias or exposing unfair treatment or expectations, the requirement for impartiality and resilience is crucial. The #MeToo movement has highlighted how it takes courage to stand up and say what others are not willing to. This resolve must be demonstrated by the HR function.
As with any area of functional expertise, the ability for HR professionals to excel requires that they demonstrate ownership, tenacity and accountability. They need to do what they say they are going to do. Retaining composure during times of change and pressure is demanding, requiring emotional resilience. Self-discipline when managing confidential and sensitive information is crucial to build a trustworthy reputation – particularly when dealing with a business’s dirty laundry.
It is the development of these key attributes and the skill with which they are deployed in a business that can truly transform business performance, the employee experience and the credibility of the HR function. What has underpinned the transformation of HR to date is not going to be sufficient to drive our future success. HR urgently needs to invest the time and commitment to equip HR colleagues if they are going to provide the expertise and strategic direction that businesses so desperately need.
Sandra Porter is managing director of The HR Dept and author of How to be an HR Superstar