Josh Bersin: “Some people only get into HR because they’re nice – but nice isn’t enough anymore”

20 Aug 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Ahead of his keynote at this year’s virtual CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, the eminent industry analyst explains how Covid has changed the people profession so far – and what’s still to come

It’s a great time for HR,” says Josh Bersin, referencing the pandemic that’s turned the world of work on its head this year. It is, says Bersin, a “once in a lifetime career opportunity” for people professionals. “HR has realised it can do things in an agile way, and has adapted very fast.”

Bersin’s world-renowned expertise in corporate HR, talent management, leadership technology and the intersection between work and life primed him to devise a new theory on today’s working world: The Big Reset. His piece in Forbes on the topic back in March laid out his belief that five things are going to change as a direct result of coronavirus: the workplace, budgets, leadership, trust and HR. Pre-Covid disruptors such as AI have, he says, been “pushed aside” in the face of the virus, resulting in a radical shift of business priorities. 

Ahead of his keynote at the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in November, People Management sat down with Bersin (via Zoom, of course) to find out what else might be due a reset as part of our ‘new normal’.

Will the pandemic change people’s perception of HR? 

For the last 20 years there’s been constant debate around HR having a seat at the table, and in that time it’s moved slowly but steadily from being a more administrative function to becoming a strategic part of the company, but the pandemic has definitely accelerated that. Of course it’s not the case for every organisation, but people professionals are absolutely becoming more consultative and less administrative. 

If HR is getting a seat at the table, what is that going to mean for organisations?

HR professionals have been wanting more relevance, and now they have it – so they’re going to have to step up. Someone is going to ask them to deliver on everything they’ve been wanting to,  so this is an opportunity to live up to the expectations people have of HR.

The other thing they have to say to the business is that they don’t have the perfect answer but they can make it work. No one has been through a global pandemic before and we don’t really know what it’s going to be like for the next year, so all we can do is put things in place that make the company better day by day. People want HR to be committed, apply its expertise and keep making the workplace better. There is no nirvana answer and no one is going to expect HR to fix this, but they have to be willing to jump in. 

In your Forbes piece you said employee trust is critical in a crisis. How can organisations that have made unethical workforce decisions rebuild trust?

The companies that don’t behave correctly are going to find it harder to hire and grow, because not only do they get bad press, people don’t want to work there. It isn’t just CEOs talking about these issues anymore, it’s HR as well. 

In the economic growth cycle after the 2008 recession, businesses were trying to be ‘purposeful’ because it made them look good. But the penalty for bad behaviour was relatively low because the economy was growing and there were lots of opportunities. Now, the penalty for not being trustworthy is very high. If your work practices make people unsafe or feel threatened at work, either for diversity or health reasons, or if customers don’t feel your space is virus-free, you’re going to suffer. Trust is essential and it’s a lot more than just lip service – it’s an entire strategy. 

You also discuss how Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on digital competency in HR. Why is this so important in the current climate?  

Analytics and data are a vital part of people management and you can’t go into HR without them. There’s a definite upswing, especially in big companies – they all have people analytics teams, and those that don’t have analytics skills are going to get stuck in small firms doing administrative work. 

Some people in HR got into the role because they failed in another business role and found a home in HR because they’re nice. But being nice isn’t enough anymore. Analytics is now the key to progression in HR. If you’re in HR and you’ve never looked at a spreadsheet or worked with numbers, you’re not going to find many jobs that are any good for you because the bar has been completely raised. 

Black Lives Matter and the attention on racial inequality has recently brought HR’s role in D&I into sharp focus. What advice would you give to people professionals unsure how to move their business forward? 

You really have to lean into this issue, roll up your sleeves and use the tools and skills you have, because if you don’t the company is going to deal with it in its own way. But what you can’t do is suddenly decide to start a bunch of D&I initiatives just because it’s a big topic at the moment. It’s going to look really tone deaf right now unless the company is willing to candidly look at its work practices, pay structures and promotional packages. 

If you’re not comfortable with the topic, talk to others in HR. One of the great things about the profession is that people are willing to share what they are doing, so join HR groups and talk to people in your network, because so many are going through the same things.

What can those attending the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in November expect to take away from your keynote?

There are four stages of this pandemic. The first is reacting, the second is responding, the third is returning and the fourth is transforming. We’re currently somewhere between stages three and four and, by the time I speak in November, we’ll have a bit more information on what those look like. In the process of managing the crisis we have to train people, understand how to pay correctly, conduct performance management and change the models of leadership. 

At the conference, I’ll talk about how all those things are changing to react to stages three and four. The answer to this pandemic is being invented in real time, so by the time the conference comes round, I’ll have a lot of stories to share.

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