hr.economictimes.indiatimes.com | July 14, 2021
One common complaint against HR professionals is that they have little understanding of the business and consequently, don’t add value as Strategic Business Partners.
● How can HR professionals play the role of an employee advocate if they are going to play ‘bad cop’?
● Talent Scouts are like hunters patiently tracking their quarry. They are constantly looking for talent irrespective of whether they have a vacancy or not.
● HR leaders must be aware of the strategic as well as the tactical goals of their organisation, region or function, they are responsible for and the progress made on these goals.
● HR professionals and leaders must collaborate and jointly play the role of keepers of the values of the organisation.
● Creating a culture of learning and putting employees on a steep learning curve with a view to create tomorrow’s organisation, should be an imperative for any HR professional.
● It will become imperative for HR professionals to understand technology and learn how to leverage it at work.
Unlike most HR professionals, I started my career in operations, where I spent over two decades. Moving to HR was not by design. I got up one fine morning and found myself in HR, and that too at the helm of HR in a startup business I had no experience in. Surely you can imagine my predicament. Nevertheless, I was excited, a tad nervous, but determined to make things happen. I aggressively networked with senior members of the HR fraternity across industries to play ‘catch-up’, but what stood me in good stead was the support I enjoyed from my boss. He had never worked in HR in his career but nonetheless, was a brilliant people manager.
With the passage of time, I realized that HR was more an art than a science. Unfortunately, Business schools do not teach the art, and this can be learnt only by observation, reflection, genuinely seeking feedback from all stakeholders and constantly benchmarking people practices across industries.
Whenever I start a new assignment, I have a habit of asking my boss – “What do you expect from me or my function?”. Guess what, I have got varied responses across organisations and industries. This has reinforced my belief that HR is a very misunderstood function and it is our duty to make non-HR folks understand the roles we can perform to add value to people and the organisation at large.
So, what is the role of HR? I am using the word role and it should not be confused with function which happens often since you can do the same tasks enacting different roles. For example, Talent Acquisition is a function which can be done proactively by a Talent Scout or reactively by a VPF (vacant position filler), which are roles. When you are talking about roles, the emphasis is on actions and behaviours. I believe that playing the right roles at the right time, in the right place and in the right manner guarantees success.
When I started my HR career, I learnt that HR has four roles – Internal Consultant on people matters, Administrative Expert, Employee Advocate and Change Agent. The term Internal Consultant was replaced by the term Strategic Business Partner, thanks to Dave Ulrich from the University of Michigan who has written extensively on the role of HR.
Dave Ulrich’s model, in my view, is a good starting point to understand the roles of HR but it has some limitations as it uses a broad brush and is a trifle too simplistic. If we believe that HR consists of only these four roles, we will probably be missing the woods for the trees. I found this model difficult to use especially when I had to groom my team members in the HR function.
From my experience and observation of HR professionals over the years, I believe that they play many more roles, consciously or unconsciously, and to be fair to Dave Ulrich, most of the roles are subsumed in the roles mentioned in Ulrich’s model. For example, playing the role of a facilitator of learning is a part of an employee advocate but there are few, like being a Sounding Board, which do not fit in any of the roles mentioned in Ulrich’s model.
We must remember, however, that not all HR professionals can play all the roles well as the skill sets required to enact these roles vary considerably. We tend to spend more time on the roles we are most comfortable with. My wish list for the most important roles that should be played by an HR professional are given in the ensuing paragraphs. This list is not exhaustive and you can add more roles based on your unique talents that you are blessed with.
Strategic Business Partner
Business partnering is an imperative especially at the helm of an organisation, and is a key determinant of organisational performance. This role has to be played by all functional heads and not just HR. When an organisation operates in silos, business partnership suffers and, in the bargain, organisational performance is adversely affected.
As Strategic Business Partners, HR professionals must be aware of the strategic as well as the tactical goals of their organisation, region or function, they are responsible for and the progress made on these goals. They should also be aware of the challenges across the organisation at least from a people perspective. As people experts, they are expected to provide guidance in the form of ideas and opinions to influence business results and resolve issues especially related to people in a proactive manner.
Constant collaboration with colleagues in other functions is an integral part of business partnering. HR professionals who play this role well have a good understanding of the passions and prejudices of different functions and are sought to address inter or even intra departmental conflicts.
One common complaint against HR professionals is that they have little understanding of the business and consequently, don’t add value as Strategic Business Partners. Perhaps, HR professionals are responsible for this situation, but I believe that business heads are equally responsible as they invest hardly any time and resources to onboard their HR colleagues in the business.
In one of my earlier HR assignments, the business head went out of his way to educate me about the business, which I was new to, and in the process, set me up for success. He made sure that I spent a week each in three similar business units in different countries to learn the nuts and bolts of the business as well as the culture and nuances of the business in these units. Can’t help saying that I was confident and raring to work, on my return.
Business partnering can be overwhelming, especially when you are poor at delegation or prioritization. However, those who aspire to be a business head in the future must take this role seriously, and if an opportunity comes your way, do a tenure in any other function.
As an employee advocate you are expected to ensure that employees are treated fairly, equitably and set up for success. In other words, you should be the go-to person if an employee feels discriminated against, harassed or is not provided adequate opportunities or tools to perform by the line manager. To be a go-to person, one needs to have good service orientation and should be willing to put his job on the block when required.
During my career, I have not seen many HR professionals excelling at this role and it is probably due to job security. When you take cudgels on behalf of an employee, you run the risk of being shown the door.
In one of the organisations, I served, I was clearly told by my boss that my performance would be measured largely by how I played this role, highlighting its importance. In this organisation, it was important that I be perceived by all employees as an internal trade union leader. For example, when an employee committed an offence, he was to be disciplined only by his line manager and not the HR manager.
The role of the HR manager was to ensure that the employee gets a fair hearing from his line manager and even in a worst-case scenario, if a cardinal offence is committed, warranting termination of services, the employee should be treated in a civil manner, so that he leaves on a good note. This is one of the many factors due to which the organisation consistently makes it to the best workplace lists in many countries.
If you do a survey, you will find that in most organisations, employees are sent to HR for counselling or disciplinary action. I wonder why HR folks fall into this trap. Often, it is the HR Manager who signs warning letters. Unfortunately, HR managers justify this act as they believe that they are the only qualified people to discipline employees. Small wonder that employees tend to steer clear of HR managers in some organisations.
How can HR professionals play the role of an employee advocate if they are going to play ‘bad cop’? Surely, it is their responsibility to ensure that line managers are competent in matters related to disciplinary action, but they should never do their job. I believe that if HR professionals are fair, warm and approachable, employees will gravitate towards them and the HR department will be a secure base for them.
Keepers of the Values
HR professionals and leaders must collaborate and jointly play the role of keepers of the values of the organisation. They need to role model the core values and reflect them at all times. They also need to act like missionaries, spreading the core values of the organisation and sharing stories that reflect these values. They need to inculcate these values in new hires and constantly reinforce them so that they live the values day in and day out. It is also imperative that they exhibit fundamental values of respect, trust, fairness and transparency. Successful HR professionals are usually high on values.
Another role which is rarely played by HR managers is that of a sounding board. Here you are providing feedback to the line manager as and when required, to minimize their blind spots. This enables them to calibrate their leadership style to get the best from their teams. Unfortunately, not many managers expect their HR colleagues to play this role, which may be out of ignorance or insecurity. Small wonder that we are such a feedback starved nation!
Facilitator of Learning
One of my favourite roles is to be a facilitator of learning. My prior experience as a flight instructor and operations trainer stood me in good stead as a facilitator for behavioural programmes. It is sad that few HR professionals don a facilitator’s hat. I strongly urge them to play the role of a facilitator, coach or mentor as this improves their connect and equity with employees. Creating a culture of learning and putting employees on a steep learning curve with a view to create tomorrow’s organisation, should be an imperative for any HR professional.
Employee Experience Creator
There is a lot of talk on employee experience these days but this isn’t new to organisations with a strong people focus. HR professionals in such organisations go to great lengths to craft differentiated employee experiences at different touch points. The rationale is straightforward - happy and engaged employees will go the extra mile to deliver superior performance.
A classic example of a great experience is when employees receive their ‘full & final settlement’ cheque on their last working day. Such moments of truth create a positive word of mouth which reinforces the employer brand. Organisations which focus on employee experience usually make it to the best workplaces lists and have a relatively larger percentage of ‘repeat employees’.
Talent Scouts are like hunters patiently tracking their quarry. They are constantly looking for talent irrespective of whether they have a vacancy or not. Once a potential employee is identified, they maintain periodic contact to build a relationship. This enables them to build talent pools which come in handy when they need to fill a vacancy.
Good talent scouts look for needles in a haystack in their quest for talent. They are aware of the organisation’s value proposition and like smart solution sellers, know how to customize it to a potential employee. They will also have a good network of partners with common values.
We are living in a world which is characterized by accelerating change. The winds of change are weeping the planet. There are political changes, social changes, economic changes, technological changes, environmental changes and among these changes, technological changes are the most disruptive and have the potential to adversely affect or even obliterate your business or function. We can see some of these changes coming but some of them are black swans or events which are difficult to predict as they have no precedents in the past. The current pandemic is a case in point.
Technology is impacting not just HR but all functions. The amazing confluence of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, 3D printing, nanotechnology et al are going to change the way we live, work, communicate, collaborate, decide and relate to each other. Hence, it will become imperative for HR professionals to understand technology and learn how to leverage it at work. Technology will impact how we acquire, select, develop, appraise, recognize, reward and manage talent. It will also impact how we design, produce, sell and market our products and manage our teams.
HR professionals play an important role during any change initiative, irrespective of the type, scale, magnitude and severity of change. Any change causes anxiety and insecurity and this must be proactively managed by HR professionals. They should be visible and communicate constantly with employees, both formally and informally. They should create excitement for the change initiative and clarify the rationale behind the change as and when required. It is a challenging role to play especially when you have to confront employees who will be adversely affected by the change.
In the future, technology will leave a lot of redundancies in its wake – people, systems, methods, standards and what have you. We will have to rapidly adapt to new normals. In such a scenario, I see a new role emerging for HR professionals as creative destroyers or re-inventors, where we will be responsible for getting rid of old systems and ushering new systems, standards and normals. Hence, the role of change agent will acquire even more prominence in the future.
One final caveat - the roles you play will depend largely on your boss, the business, company culture and your own strengths and limitations to play these roles. Therefore, it is a good idea to periodically review your roles, take feedback and marshal all your knowledge, talents and creativity to fine tune them or introduce a new role to increase your effectiveness, and thereby, improve your personal brand in the organisation. All said and done, it will be your internal customers who will finally decide what roles you will play in the organisation.
- Lancelot Cutinha, Director - Human Resources, FLAME University
*Views expressed are personal.