John Pope examines how HR professionals' roles have changed since the downturn and how they must now adapt to the current climate.
Business is a bit like gardening. To get good roses in summer, you have to prune in winter, root out diseased old stock, get rid of those which flower poorly or are no longer vigorous, and get rid of those you are keeping for sentimental reasons. You also have to be able to see what looks right and what looks wrong. And the same with business.
"There will eventually be a summer, and HR's job is to help your business overcome the winter."
We now have an economic winter, and it looks like a long and hard one, but there will eventually be a summer and HR's job is to help your business overcome the winter and be in a good state for the recovery.
Recessions follow good times, during which time much that should have been done but was put off now has to be done. While the basic role of HR may not have changed, the priorities may be very different.
Clearing the 'rosebed'
You should already know who do not 'flower' well. They are those who don't contribute enough in relation to their cost; those whose performance needs regular stimulation; the one who has been passed from one manager to another in the hope that the new one might revitalise him.
There are those who choke the growth of others, get in the way or obstruct progress. You have, I hope, given them enough warning of the need to change, and refused to allow their managers to overrate them, or fail to take action over serious lapses.
Tough times are testing times
Tough times test and show up those who underperform. Those who do not perform well may be untrained or may never have had the basic aptitude for their work, or may need better, closer supervision. You cannot allow that to continue at any level in the organisation. HR has to advise and support management on the changes that are needed. Problems resolved at senior level can have greater effect on the performance of the whole workforce, provided that the reasons are clearly explained and not glossed over.
You can't afford them anymore. Identify those who can't or won't pull their weight after they have had a chance to respond to the managing director's stirring speech about the 'new world'.
You should know where the problems are
In your regular visits to the workplace, and your contact with managers, you will already know where the performance is poor and be able to advise on what is needed to strengthen the management. While HR departments may not be technical specialists, you will have seen and will have had to deal with the results of poor management; you know who the good managers are and who are the poor managers. You should know what could be done and advise top management accordingly.
Re-educate the management team
The management team may have a general idea of legislation regarding redundancies; it may be out-of-date. You may have to bring the team up-to-date on what can and cannot be done regarding closure, transfers and redundancy so that they are well prepared when discussing employment issues. You need to be there while the issues are being discussed, the decisions made and above all when the plans are being made. You are there to look after the 'human capital'.
"Problems resolved at senior level can have greater effect on the performance of the whole workforce."
Identify the potential
Some people will thrive in these testing times. You should be able to identify, and make sure of retaining, those who:
- Are already high performers who could take the business forward – they will be needed when spring comes
- Have potential and had shown it during the changes which had to be made – they will have been 'flame-hardened' and be needed in future
High potential people may need protection, especially if whole departments or functions are being closed. It is too easy to lose good people accidentally.
When times are tough many organisations take refuge in reorganising. Sometimes this is right, sometimes tough, and as seems to be in government, the reorganisation is to show that something is being done. HR can and must advise management on the need for - and likely effects of - reorganisation as a whole and not just the usual, though important, aspects of job-grading, redundancies and so on.
Keep the management team well aware
The management team will have much on their mind, survival of the organisation being one of the major concerns. They may not consider the feelings and concerns of the workforce as a high priority. HR can and should help by keeping in closer touch with staff at all levels and be able to brief top management on current concerns and impending issues. And that 'keeping in closer touch' is much more than running attitude and engagement surveys. It requires face-to-face contact.
Ensure good communications
Rumours spread quickly when the staff are worried about their future. You can help by making sure that the management keep the staff very well informed. Your questions are:
- What can we tell the staff? How will we explain the issues and the plans? Who will do it, when, how shall we do it, how will we follow up the announcements, and where?
- How will we get and use the staff's ideas and views of what could or should be done?
- How will we discover the real feelings and concerns of the staff and make these clear to top management?
My own view is that this is only possible by face-to-face informal meetings, in very small groups. If there are to be 'secrets' – how shall we keep them secret and how shall we make sure that senior managers don't blab?
"HR can and should help by keeping in closer touch with staff at all levels."
HR can help management understand the likely responses of the staff and identify opportunities to resolve long-standing issues at the same time.
Help senior management communicate
Senior managers may need help, they will need rehearsals where their remarks and delivery can be improved. They will need to be able to answer the difficult questions. They may need help also when they have to face an 'edgy' workforce. Not many managers seem to be able to keep their mouths shut over the delicate issues when dealing with the media.
Prepare for spring
Well, for the upturn at least. There will be key staff you must retain, there will be people who are key to your succession plans, there will be others identified as being of high potential, some of whom will have shown it in hard times. You will need to advise management who they are and how they might be persuaded to remain. But preparing for spring is much more than that, it requires having the organisation and workforce to be well prepared, healthy and in good shape. HR can help management achieve that.
See also: Vox pop: HR's role during a recession.
John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]