How to save HR from itself

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The writer is author of ‘How to Be a Better Leader’ and is a visiting professor at Bayes Business School, City, University of London

They are supposed to be the bridge between senior leaders and rank-and-file staff, but often end up receiving flak from both. They are the human resources professionals. And they are not happy.

Several recent surveys point to high levels of burnout and unhappiness within the profession. One does not have to look far to see why. As management jobs go, human resources is probably the most thankless.

Employees often see it as the voice of the boss, working against their interests. Bosses rarely think it a good thing if HR has to get involved. Last year, a headline in one UK newspaper declared that HR professionals were “strangling the economy”.

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University, understands some of the criticisms made of the HR profession. At times, they may be justified. Problems arise, he says, when fads or flimsy ideas are deployed unthinkingly.

“People are cynical about HR and management because they keep being asked to do stuff, and then five years later they are told to do the opposite, and five years later told to do the opposite again,” he says. “If you keep telling us to do stuff and none of it works we’re going to start thinking you don’t know what you are doing. Which seems quite a reasonable conclusion.”

The failings of HR are complex. Even apparently good ideas often get too much weight placed on them, or may be adopted without giving enough thought to the context. Employee engagement, for example, sounds like a plausible goal, says Briner. But does it meaningfully — and demonstrably — relate “to anything that’s important to the business”?

Another risk is that useful concepts are not properly understood, even by HR professionals themselves. Recent research from the consultancy Behave, for example, asked HR directors what was meant by the term “psychological safety”. Some 44 per cent defined it as “an environment where employees feel secure and protected”. Another 22 per cent thought it meant employees “bringing their whole selves to work”. Only 16 per cent identified, correctly, that it means “an environment where employees balance comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks”.

So how can HR enhance its ailing reputation? A good place to start would be to focus on more effective interventions that will be appreciated, and noticed, by the organisation. “The question is: what is the business problem? What is the business issue? And what can HR do to help resolve it?” Briner says.

A report from the Corporate Research Forum on evidence-based HR gives more detail on a way forward. The report warns against fads, or simply copying what others are doing, and advocates for action based on data and multiple expert sources.

It contains persuasive examples. When French defence group Thales wanted to improve its staff retention, it found that its traditional approach — financial incentives — was not working. Managers called on stakeholders, professional expertise and academics to create a new assessment tool, which measured and developed intrinsic motivation. It worked.

When the British transport group First Bus wanted to improve its dreadful attrition rate for bus drivers, it carefully studied internal survey evidence. Changes were made on the basis of its finding that drivers were feeling unappreciated and stressed. The company replaced a cumbersome performance management process with 20 minute catch-up conversations. It transferred issues around customer complaints away from line managers, improving their relationship with drivers. Some basic “hygiene factor” changes — painting depots, new uniforms and toilets, free tea and coffee — were made. Staff morale and turnover improved.

This may all sound dangerously like common sense. But the continuing bad-mouthing of HR stems partly from the perception that its contribution in the workplace too often lacks this sort of basic practicality. A new paper in the Industrial Relations Journal has found that many wellbeing and resilience initiatives at work — training, or apps, for example — have failed to leave employees feeling any healthier. What might work? Better job design and work organisation. But interventions are too rarely based on multiple sources of good evidence.

When managers are using ChatGPT to produce performance reviews it is time for HR to wise up. But it is not all bad news for the profession. One of the fastest growing jobs in the UK, according to the website LinkedIn? Chief people officer.

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