Long reads

What's top of HR's to-do list?

6 Jun 2019 By Eleanor Whitehouse

We put together a panel of People Management readers from across all areas of the profession to discuss the biggest issues facing HR today

With automation, diversity and Brexit just three of the pressing issues the people profession has to tackle at the moment, there’s never been a more interesting – or testing – time to be in HR. And while it’s easy to assume we know what’s top of HR’s agenda, does that differ from its day-to-day practical concerns and long-term strategic frustrations? People Management conducted a survey of 272 people professionals to find out the most pressing issues, and assembled a team of our guest editors from across the function to deliberate the results.

The survey respondents told us they spend the majority of their time on short-term recruitment, grievances and disciplinaries, and HR transformation – far more so than tasks like learning and development or diversity and inclusion. So the first dilemma we put to our panel was why the profession still appears to be focused on transactional work and spends less time concentrating on being more strategic. Is it purely a lack of time, or is more long-term work not being given the airtime it needs by those higher up in the organisation?

Luca De Sio highlighted that HR needs to have a place at the table where business strategy is concerned, but first needs to prove itself as a “functional expert” in order to earn it. “HR needs to be at the centre of those strategic decisions, but I think we have a gap in going back to basics,” he said. “Prove you’re functional experts, then start playing the role at the table.”

Similarly, Damola Adepeju pointed out that the people profession needs to develop more business acumen in order to be taken seriously at the top. “As HR professionals, we need to show we understand the essence of the numbers and the direction of the business,” she said, adding that HR’s understanding of the numbers was sometimes “lacking” – one of the reasons the wider organisation often thinks HR should just “paper push and not do anything else”.

One of the ways HR can develop greater acumen is to understand the organisation from the point of view of those on the front line – as seen in an example given by Jon Formby during the discussion. On starting his career, he recalled being advised by a director to spend a period of time “at the coalface” to understand managers’ pressures – which he did. “It changed my attitude,” he told the group. “When I came back into HR, I changed all the processes and got rid of the paperwork, thinking ‘how can we make it easier?’.” 

Formby also highlighted that making the transactional aspect of the profession easier frees up more “quality time” to partner with different areas of the business on the more strategic elements of the role, which in turn results in other departments realising they need HR’s involvement in issues early on.

It’s something Bethany Samson has also experienced – she told the panel about a time early on in her career when, after trying and failing to work with a particular manager to solve an issue they were having, she realised she had to take a step back, learn the business and solve the immediate, more functional issues like sickness absence and persistent lateness, before she was able to gain the “credibility” to introduce more innovative, long-term ideas.

Our panel all agreed that the advent of new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) was beginning to help the HR profession streamline the transactional side of their roles and focus more on the strategic. For Ayomi Soremekun, technology can help massively with the onboarding process – she highlighted how, with the right system in place, a new hire can almost be left to onboard themselves in advance of starting in their new role, leaving the HR professional more time for strategic work, but with sufficient reports and data to demonstrate the process has been completed. 

However, as Lucinda Carney pointed out, HR is often last on the list when it comes to tech investment – the finance department, for example, wouldn’t be able to function without an invoicing system, so why should HR be forced to make do without the right tools?

And for those who are concerned that the increase in automation of some lower-skilled roles will mean job losses, the panel largely agreed this is unlikely to be the case. Soremekun described the onset of automation as “transformative”, and – while HR is by no means the only area affected – everyone concurred it will make the function “more interesting”, allowing people to focus on more complex areas where strategic thinking is needed and AI is not so easily able to take over.

Technology may be helping the profession in some areas, but as the panel pointed out, the growing question of automation – particularly within recruitment – is bringing its own set of issues. 

Teresa Rose posed the question of how HR would be able to continue to drive the diversity agenda with these developments, when there is a danger algorithms can in fact introduce bias into the recruitment process. However, Samson added that any human-run recruitment system was also likely to be subject to a certain level of unconscious bias, making it’s very difficult to have a baseline to compare an AI-led system to.

Discussing the inclusion agenda more broadly, the general consensus among the panel was that HR needed to do more to encourage diversity both within the profession itself, and the organisations it’s part of. 

De Sio made the point that HR sometimes “sits behind a policy” and says it’s got a diversity agenda, but perhaps isn’t bringing it off the page and into real life. And what about the unconscious bias training that’s supposed to help improve diversity? Soremekun said it “hasn’t been as effective as people hope” – perhaps because many don’t want to be “trained out of” a behaviour. 

Finally, the panel moved onto the role of learning and development, whether it’s taken seriously enough, and if not, what can be done to better empower L&D professionals. More than one member of the panel said the function needed to be better at holding the rest of the organisation to account, both when it comes to the importance of learning as a whole, but also just turning up to planned training sessions. 

De Sio highlighted a particular issue with senior managers – if they fail to attend, they are less likely to be reprimanded compared to a more junior member of staff. Sue Potter even advocated a formal sanction for those who miss training – especially those newly promoted to management roles. 

The fact that the managers in question fail to see learning as a priority also sets a precedent for the rest of the organisation. Engagement with L&D needs to happen from the top down, but learning professionals can help by, as Carney put it, “linking it to the why” – which means why it’s going to help you do the job better. 

Thanks to our panellists

  • Damola Adepeju, HR business partner, Standard Chartered Bank
  • Lucinda Carney, HR consultant
  • Luca De Sio, leadership and talent development consultant, Yell
  • Jon Formby, HR adviser, Guildford Borough Council
  • Sue Potter, owner, Spotter Talent
  • Teresa Rose, learning and performance consultant
  • Bethany Samson, reward manager, financial services
  • Ayomi Soremekun, recruitment lead, The Transforming Autism Project
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