Will Human Resources grab its seat at the table?

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on June 17, 2020

HR’s ability to aid businesses to measure productivity will be crucial   -  Rawpixel

The Covid-19 crisis has allowed HR a chance to lead from the front. It must seize the opportunity

“The last time I saw my HR colleagues was during the induction presentation,” said one of my friends. For the longest time, the Human Resources function has been burdened by myriad expectations from its stakeholders. I am wondering if it’s redemption time for HR.

This is a crisis where more than 50 per cent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have already taken a pay cut.

Every crisis brings new roles into the limelight. The past corporate scandals like Enron and Lehman Brothers made finance roles more premium. CFOs built their empire with large teams and, in many cases, began getting paid more than the CEOs. I am sure you did not miss the recent ad by SBI with an offered pay three times higher than its current Chairman’s.

When digital transformation became the big buzz in town, CIOs were at the frontier.

HR, however, hasn’t been that lucky over the years. It has had to fight for its share of the limelight, and quite honestly, despite many talented people who don HR roles, most never got the seat at the table.

The paradox of HR’s role

To start with, it is essential to examine why HR never got there. Singapore’s New Strait Times released an interesting survey this week. In this poll, 43 per cent of respondents felt the HR Manager’s role was among the top five non-essential jobs, yet, at the same time, expressed it to be among the top 20 desirable jobs for them.

This pretty much sums up the paradox of the HR job, which people simultaneously discredit and also aspire to. Yes, like everything else, this too starts with the leadership and it’s well known that many CEOs have struggled to position their HR in the right light.

A support function in the past

Citing business compulsions, leaders have often got HR to align with whatever they wanted to do. I remember sitting in a strategy meeting with one of my clients. The sales head presented a new sales strategy. Then the CEO asked the HR Head to frame incentive policies to support the sales plan. HR never got to discuss or design people’s behaviour for the strategy. In fact, in many leadership meetings, HR presentations are the last or sometimes trimmed or skipped as it’s time to attend the dinner party.

On the other hand, business heads complain that HR never understands their business and that it hides behind complex policies.

Despite some notable exceptions, HR has remained a support function that hasn’t stood up to its peer group and quantified the ROI of its contribution.

Covid-19 present

However, the Covid-19 crisis has allowed HR a chance to lead from the front. At a large IT services organisation, the CHRO has been leading the response out of the CEO’s office. Most of my HR friends have been working round the clock to ensure the seamless transition to working from home.

HR teams have swiftly risen to the challenges of rolling out an appropriate framework for remote working, and engaging employees for the new normal. The safety of employees has never been so important and who else other than HR to lead it? HR has had to show the way to business leaders on how to hire remotely, train, and engage.

If HR can only be ahead of business in this evolution, its credibility would be accelerated.

Future of HR

The initial months of remote working have created new dynamics at the workplace.

Thanks to new flexible working policies, HR now has an opportunity to bring in a significant and deliberate diversity to the workforce. In the past, this was something that HR struggled to convince its leaders about, given the attrition of a large number of women workforce due to family care-giving responsibilities.

HR leaders who had the vision and implemented digital training models ahead of time are now reaping the benefits and gaining more credibility from their leaders.

Just like CFOs assumed the power of financial control in the past, HR should now take charge of the individual safety and mental well-being of employees.

Productivity at the heart

The enterprise buzzword for the last two months has been productivity. Many technology organisations maintain they have had productivity increase, some are struggling to figure out if they gained or lost. HR’s ability to aid businesses to measure productivity and facilitate productivity factually will be crucial to its future perception amongst stakeholders.

About 72 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs recently said they will see a reduction in their workforce by January 2021. On a base of 26 million workers that Fortune 500 companies employ, this is a massive ask for HR. How they will be at the forefront of remotely executing this significant reorganisation will also be impacting their roles as HR professionals. If HR can restore productivity in a work-from-anywhere world and bring the much-needed diversity to the workforce, it will deserve to be there at the currently vacant seat at the table!

It’s a rare Carpe Diem moment for HR!


Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm

Published on June 17, 2020

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