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SHRM 2018: The Evolution Will Not Be Televised

The second day of the 2018 SHRM Conference featured a call for HR to finds its voice and adapt to a volatile business environment.

Changing times call for an evolving role for HR. Business operates in a world that demands transparency and honesty. News – good or bad – travels fast. Failure to adapt just might mean that HR gets left behind.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, left, speaks with SHRM’s Johnny C. Taylor Jr. Photo by Anne Ryan.

That was one message Johnny C. Taylor Jr. shared with the approximately 17,000 members gathered in Chicago for the 2018 SHRM Conference and Exposition as he addressed them for the first time as the association’s president and CEO.

The challenges facing HR are significant, Taylor said. From the 6 million jobs that will go unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates, stop and start efforts at immigration reform and the apparent failure of HR to adequately address workplace harassment as evidenced by the #MeToo movement, there’s no shortage of issues to occupy HR’s time. But tackling those challenges will require HR leaders to step out of their comfort zone.

“Our very existence as a profession depends on it,” Taylor said. “If we don’t … business leaders are showing us they will find someone else to do this work.”

One of those business leaders took the stage to begin the second day of the conference on Monday. Oscar Munoz, CEO of Chicago-based United Airlines, the world’s third-largest air carrier, told the assembled group there is an opportunity for HR to grab and keep a seat at the executive table.

It used to be HR was the last resort when a problem already arose, Munoz said. That’s no longer the case. “HR is evolving,” he said. “I don’t think it has evolved yet but it is evolving.” The success of that continued evolution depends on HR’s ability to address critical business issues as they arise, often unexpectedly.

Munoz knows that firsthand. United faced a series of PR disasters in 2017, beginning with the rollout of a poorly received bonus program that sent employees into revolt and followed by the release of a video showing airport police forcibly – and bloodily – removing a paid passenger from his seat at the request of gate agents so United staff could make a connecting flight.

Rules and policies are important especially at a 130,000-person company that aims to operate as efficiently as possible, Munoz said, but in that case United got it wrong. “It’s important that we have rules and procedures … but they cannot reflect the values of the company when it comes to customers,” he said.

HR played a role in helping United redefine its approach following those missteps. United’s head of HR is formerly the company’s chief customer officer and is working to directly tie employee experience to the experience of United’s passengers. As a result, Munoz said the company has defined four core values for employees to rally around, with safety as the top priority. “Caring” is the no. 2 value, leapfrogging over efficiency and dependability. The aim is to make sure the human touch is a core part of the company’s operations.

As Munoz can attest, business is unpredictable and the actions of just one employee can put a company’s reputation into a tailspin. HR is increasingly part of the strategic value chain of a company, Munoz said, and businesses need their HR departments to elevate their game. “Increasingly we are a visible world,” he said. “Human interactions are going to be a part of the dynamic for a long time.”

As he closed out his conversation with Taylor on the main stage, Munoz offered some final advice to HR: Speak plainly and be empathetic. “It’s not only what you do but how you do it,” Munoz said, adding that the strategic evolution of HR is more than just a temporary trend. “That prospect of where HR is headed is a valid one and a real one.”

SHRM’s Taylor echoed that point during an afternoon press conference, saying he aims to make SHRM a vocal advocate for workplace issues in a manner the association has avoided in the past. He pointed to immigration, workplace harassment and the #MeToo movement, gender pay inequality and “second chance” legislation for ex-convicts as issues that SHRM plans to directly address.

“There are positions that clearly require the voice of the profession … and we’ve decided to speak out on that,” he said.

In the past, SHRM has avoided taking a position on controversial issues, Taylor said, but he sees his role as the association’s leader to speak out as a force for social good, specifically as it relates to the workplace. Failure to do that risks irrelevance. “That’s what delineates us as a profession [and] we’ve ceded the work to other organizations,” Taylor said.

Addressing the risks inherent in that evolution to a more forceful approach, Taylor said HR has to accept those risks as part of the obligation of being in HR.

“We’ve got to dig deep down and be courageous,” he said. “If I’m willing to sell myself out for a paycheck then shame on me.”

Mike Prokopeak is Workforce’s editor in chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. 

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