Q: I've worked in HR for 10 years because I want to help people do their best in the workplace. But I'm disillusioned as my job now focuses on redundancies, grievances and stress management. I feel HR is not respected and is even despised. Is it time to change career?
A: I recently attended a conference where a speaker quipped that HR stood for 'Hatred and Revenge'. He got an easy laugh, but it set me thinking about the potential reversal in fortunes of the human resources community.
True, 30 years ago, what was then 'Personnel' was not always a highly regarded profession. Practitioners were often seen as administrative busybodies with little understanding of what made the organisation successful. But the role evolved, so that the best HR managers and directors were well in tune with the aspirations of the business and skilled at supporting senior management in achieving their strategic aims.
HR even made it as an executive function on the boards of many Plcs. I myself was appointed by a newly promoted and far-sighted CEO as group HR director for a FTSE 100 company. He understood that a successful firm has to think strategically about its people, not just managing them in the day-to-day; and that having a focus on people at the highest level would be crucial if the business was to fulfil its wider ambitions.
I know from my friends and contacts in jobs like yours that the recent emphasis on cost-cutting and redundancies is having a depressing effect on their morale, especially where they feel a severance deal is not commensurate with the contribution the outgoing employee has made. They're despondent that budgets for development have been trimmed or even axed, and that 'performance management', a term coined to describe a manager's ability to bring out the best in people, has now become synonymous with a less costly way of ousting troublesome people.
Retrenchment is understandable, given the economic climate, but it is short-sighted. Companies that treat employees unfairly can expect less energy, less loyalty and diminishing returns from retained employees, and a reduced reputation among prospective hirings. Ironically, all these factors have attendant costs to a business. It will be a shame if the strategic and supportive role of HR is translated into that of enforcer for draconian management policy.
Like you, Veronica Wheatley, HR director at an ad agency, has not enjoyed the necessity of making people redundant, but she has focused on managing the process humanely.
'Cut with precision,' she says, 'and treat each individual on an adult-to-adult basis. I coach managers to look people in the eye and make sure they understand the reason for their redundancy. They may be upset, but they emerge with their dignity.'
Her approach is simple: 'If you can't pay money, pay attention.' So she spends time creating low-cost ways of providing development for people and in tailoring benefits to reflect the motivations of individuals. 'Getting recognition for a job well done is disproportionately motivational. We may not be able to pay big bonuses, but we can pay for a nice dinner for a deserving employee and their partner.'
Another senior HR professional, Simone Crawford, has a clear view on your situation: 'If you're feeling really negative about your role, it rubs off on everyone else. HR has been through a horrible time, but so has everyone else. The rest of the management team don't like making redundancies either and it's worse for them because they have to do it to members of their team, whereas HR is one step removed.'
Her suggestion? 'Move away from your role for a few months and explore other options. These could include becoming an HR specialist rather than a generalist - for instance, in learning and development or as a trained mediator.'
Crawford herself chose redundancy in the wake of the many redundancies she had responsibility for making in her previous company. She took time out to find a new position with an organisation that is growing and future-facing and is aware of the importance of people - and where she can use her best efforts to help it succeed.
So should you abandon the HR world? Not if you can see a way forward that allows you to do the job in a way consistent with your original aim of helping people to perform to the best of their potential, for the good of the organisation.
- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.