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Survey Shows HR in Transition

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Your HR Career, Featured Article
If you’re at work when you’re reading this, be prepared for anything. On this day, you might have to fire an employee who came to work drunk because his girlfriend died of cancer last night. On the other hand, you might receive a letter from Nigeria offering a $350,000,000 bribe. You will interact with others in your department, employees, line managers, vendors and consultants. Someone may ask you how late Disneyland is open, though it’s more likely someone will ask you when payday is. That might be followed by the CEO asking you to identify the biggest impediment to your corporate success. You may get thanks for the work you do directly or indirectly ("Are you really a mean person? You seem nice"), but don’t count on it. If you aren’t careful, you might deliver a performance appraisal to the wrong employee. Through it all, you will deal with the reality that HR is still in the midst of a transition from administrative support function to strategic partner. Perhaps this is the day to launch the new equity-based pay system that you designed for 600 clerical employees—or something equally accomplished—that will leave a lasting impact on your organization and prove that HR is making that transition successfully.

All that—and much more—is drawn from the results of a Workforce survey, "A Day in the Life of HR." Almost 900 HR professionals answered more than 70 questions about their workdays. The survey began by asking what time respondents wake up in the morning, and followed them through the day until they went to bed at night. Some questions were lighthearted ("How deep is the stack of papers in your in-box right now?") and others were more serious ("What percentage of your day is spent on consultative or developmental projects?"). Collectively, the questions were designed to offer readers the chance to compare their average day with that of their peers and to offer some insight into the state of the profession.

The hard numbers yield some statistics that are so trivial they’ll never even make it into an edition of Trivial Pursuit (13 percent of you have vacation souvenirs in your offices), and others that offer more insight (32 percent of you meet with the CEO at least twice a week). But it’s the anecdotal data, provided in response to open-ended questions, that’s ultimately more compelling. The stories show the breadth of issues faced by HR better than any statistics could. They show a side of HR rarely seen by anyone except those living it. And they make it clear that because HR is about people, it will always be an unpredictable, frustrating and demanding—yet finally rewarding—job. A day in the life of HR may be many things, but boring will never be among them.

Often, HR is crisis management.
One person’s crisis ("someone stole my favorite pen") may be another person’s minor annoyance, but responding to crises is a given in HR management. The time lost to crises, in fact, was one of the biggest surprises of the survey. Only 2 percent of you spend no time responding to crises. A majority—40 percent—spends less than 10 percent of time in crisis. But 8 percent spend more than half their time responding to crises, and another 17 percent spend at least 25 percent of their time that way. One respondent concluded, "My job is a crisis in the making all the time."

Those numbers mean that thousands of work hours are being lost to crises every day, hours that might have been spent on long-range planning or project consultation. And the impact is felt in organizations of all sizes. The statistics in this case, however, don’t begin to tell the story. When asked to name the worst crisis they ever faced in the morning, a few of you mentioned computer glitches and two or three mentioned a natural disaster. All the rest of the crises mentioned were, one way or another, about people. One respondent answered the question by stating, "There have been so many over the years, and they have been so horrifying, that I have chosen to black them out." Could HR really be that bad? On some days, it could.

What are the employee-related crises that demand attention? Some respondents told stories of sudden terminations and sexual harassment complaints, but most often—and by a wide margin—you told tales of violence and death. "An ex-employee showed up with a gun, looking for his former supervisor," cited one respondent. Another said, "A psychiatric patient had taken a staff member hostage. A SWAT team and a hostage-negotiating team had surrounded the building." Sometimes the mayhem was accidental ("An employee had cut off a finger in a machine") and sometimes very deliberate ("An employee hit another over the head with a tire iron").

You have had to deal with the deaths of employees and their family members. You’ve faced murders, suicides, plane crashes and car accidents. All of it has taken a heavy toll. The stories speak for themselves:

"An employee on vacation with his family was in an auto accident. His wife was killed, his children were hospitalized and he was in a coma. The plant manager instructed me to do what we could to help the family "

"I found out that a co-worker and friend had committed suicide the evening before. I had to deal with the pain of the loss of a friend while maintaining my role to communicate the incident to everyone and arrange for employee counseling."

"One of our staff members was unusually late for work. I had the manager of her apartment complex go to her apartment. She was found murdered "

"An employee had a heart attack and died in the office. I had to call his spouse "

"An employee in HR came to work for approximately an hour, left abruptly, and drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped off."

"The death of an employee [was the worst thing I encountered in the morning]. Her son was in my office to take care of some business the morning after her death, and while he met with me he finally broke down and cried "

"[The worst thing I encountered was] the sudden death of the Vice President of Sales, who was in New York City on business at the time. He died in a woman’s apartment. He was married. What do you tell the wife, a woman you know well?"

There were dozens more such stories, all heartbreaking. Happily, not all the stories ended so tragically. One respondent made a 911 telephone call that saved an employee’s life; another "intervened to prevent the suicide of a staff member who was found with her head in the oven."

Other crises cited that weren’t literally matters of life or death were still traumatic. Among the incidents shared were a bomb threat; a tuberculosis scare; a hazardous chemical scare forcing the evacuation of an entire facility; an employee’s psychotic break; and several requests to bail employees out of jail.

The point here is not to dwell on the macabre or bizarre. Instead, it’s important to recognize that some sort of crisis happens often enough to make crisis management an ongoing and time-consuming part of HR’s job. That reality is rarely noted when HR is discussed. Furthermore, the nature of most crises faced by HR makes them emotional and complicated. They are imperfect situations without easy answers. Their resolution is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, managing crises well has substantial impact on the business and potentially incalculable impact on individuals.

The responsibility for dealing with such crises might be unendurable if it weren’t for a sense of humor. One respondent advised, "no matter what, laugh a lot," and most of you seem quite happy to comply. Sometimes the laughs are at our own expense ("I forgot it was the weekend, and wondered why I was the only person in the office," one respondent cited as the worst-ever crisis) and sometimes they are in recognition of other people’s foibles. You are privy to every quirk of human nature there is, apparently, and sometimes you just have to smile. If you have any doubts, consider another worst-ever "crisis":

"It was brought to my attention that one of our associates, thought to be a female, was in a stall in the ladies’ restroom with ‘her’ feet pointed in the ‘wrong’ direction. Several female associates witnessed this and came to me to complain about it. I had to speak to the associate. She admitted that she was genetically a male, but that she had been living as a woman for two years "

Time spent on administrivia is diminishing.
Beyond the crises, your work may not be so fraught with drama. It is, however, of equal or even greater impact. After all, HR is still a business function, albeit an atypical one. To maximize its contribution, HR has been evolving into a more active business partner. Your typical day shows that the transition to strategic partner is not complete, but it also shows that HR professionals are not the paper-pushing, picnic-planning policy police that they used to be. Evidence for the shift to more big-picture thinking can be found in how you spend your day, your relationship with the CEO and your reputation in the organization.

Respondents were asked to divide the time spent on a typical day into four broad activities: routine or administrative tasks, strategic or big-picture thinking, consultative or development projects and responding to a crisis. Although one respondent asserted that, "I’m not paid by my employer to think," most of you are paid to think and spend your time fairly evenly divided among the four activities.

That division makes it clear that administrative tasks no longer dominate the profession. Only 20 percent of you spend half your time or more on routine tasks, and only 5 percent spend 75 percent of the time on such work. In contrast, almost half (45 percent) of you spend one-quarter of your day or less on the routine, and for 11 percent of you it’s 10 percent of the day or less. A very strategic 1 percent of you spends no time on administrivia at all.

So, how are you spending the time that was once spent on the routine? A big part of the day is spent on consultative or developmental projects. Twenty-eight percent of you spend at least one-quarter of the time on such work, and 9 percent spend more than half the day consulting. More than a third of you (34 percent) spend somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of the time in consulting or developing.

Big-picture planning also constitutes a significant portion of your day. Seventeen percent of you spend at least one-fourth of your day on strategic planning, which amounts to the equivalent of more than one full day each week. One in five of you spends more than half your time on the big picture.

Still, for those who believe that the future of HR lies in strategic planning and consulting, the news is not all good. Almost one-third of you (30 percent) spends 10 percent or less of your day on consultative or developmental projects. An even greater proportion—40 percent—spends less than 10 percent of the time on strategic planning.

Those numbers make it easy for cynics to say that the glass is half empty and HR still is not the strategic partner that it wants to be. There is ample evidence, however, that the glass is half full. For one thing, the shift away from administrivia extends through all levels of the HR function.

Almost one-third (32 percent) of respondents report directly to the CEO. Another 21 percent report to another top title, such as the COO or a site manager. A total of 54 percent of respondents, then, are the senior HR officers in their organizations. Exactly one-third of respondents report to the senior HR officer, and have less responsible positions. Yet those at lower levels of the HR function are just as likely to spend time on consultative work or big-picture thinking as their executive counterparts.

In fact, how time is spent is determined more by the size of your organization than your title. Those of you with the top title in smaller organizations, where the HR function is smaller, spend more time on the routine than do those who have lower-level titles at larger organizations where there’s more depth in the department. For example, when all 874 responses are considered, almost half of you (48 percent) spend at least 25 percent of your day on administrative tasks. Yet when the responses of those in organizations with 5,000 employees or more are broken out, the percentage drops to just 20 percent. On the flip side, 18 percent of the total respondents spend one-fourth of the time or more on strategic issues. But when those in the largest organizations are broken out, the figure jumps to 34 percent.

Focusing on the numbers for too long is enough to make all but the most fanatic statistician get cross-eyed. What’s important to note is that HR, overall, is spending less time on administrivia and more time impacting the business in broader strokes—and that’s true even in organizations with limited resources.

HR has the CEO’s attention.
It may be a chicken-or-egg question whether you have the CEO’s attention because you’re focusing on strategic issues or the other way around. Either way, you do have support from the top.

A third of you report directly to the CEO, and another 9 percent report to a CEO-equivalent, such as plant manager. The reporting relationship is more than a formality. Three-fourths of you meet with the CEO at least monthly, and some considerably more often than that. Sixteen percent of you meet with the CEO every day.

When asked to name the best question ever posed to HR by the CEO, a few naysayers sneered that the CEO only focuses on trivia ("Pretty good Danish, huh?" was one respondent’s best-question evidence) or that the CEO only surfaces when there are problems. As one respondent put it, "When I see him, it’s always about a situation that someone has blamed us for." Most of you, however, volunteered that you’re regularly asked your opinion about business issues, and many offered specific evidence that CEOs challenge you with serious, thought-provoking issues.

The topics for discussion ran the gamut from employee turnover to marketing challenges. Among the other issues that HR was invited to help address:

  • Employee retirement planning
  • Learning organizations
  • Legal issues
  • HR’s internal clients
  • Employee morale
  • Competitors to the business
  • Financial issues
  • Diversity.

There isn’t an employee picnic on the list, which is perhaps why HR’s reputation is improving. (Judge the CEOs best questions yourself; please see "HR at the Table: Best Questions Posed to HR by CEOs," page 74.)

Despite what you might think, Catbert is not the HR norm.
Observers point to Scott Adams’ comic strip character Catbert, or to the lead character of TV’s "The Drew Carey Show" for evidence of HR’s image problem. Fortunately, from where you’re sitting, the situation isn’t nearly so bleak.

True, there was one respondent who lamented that "even my boss calls me Catbert, the Evil HR Director." At the other extreme was the 1 percent who reported that HR in their organizations is "universally loved and admired."

In between was the majority. When asked to select the phrase that best described how HR is perceived in their organization, more than half (54 percent) say that "some people in the organization see our contribution and others don’t." That’s a long way from being universally ridiculed, as DILBERT® would suggest is the case. The best news is that almost one in five respondents say, "we’re seen as allies and partners." A mere 5 percent say that HR in their companies is seen as "obstacles and enforcers."

These perceptions are based on more than blind optimism or denial. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, HR is appreciated by at least some people. When asked when they last heard someone in the organization (outside HR itself) say something nice about HR, 14 percent cited the current day and another 14 percent cited the previous day. A total of 74 percent, in fact, had heard something nice as recently as the last month. And only 11 percent had to go back to the Bush administration to find an example.

An even larger percentage of respondents have been thanked by someone in the organization for something they did in the course of doing their job. Forty-eight percent of respondents heard "thank you" on the current day or the day before. All but 7 percent of respondents have received thanks within the last month.

Unfortunately, the number of respondents who have heard HR criticized recently is almost as high as the number who have heard praise. Whether that reflects the transition state HR is in or an inevitability built into the function remains to be seen. In the meantime, you are working hard to demonstrate your value.

To begin with, you’re spending a lot of time interacting with your constituencies. Thirty-eight percent of you spend most of your time with employees on the average day, and 29 percent spend the most time with line managers. During that time, both groups are seen as customers. When asked to name the smartest thing you’ve ever done in the course of doing your job, several of you cited examples of work intended directly or indirectly to prove HR’s value.

One person took pride in "being visible to employees and the boss." Another got an assignment in operations and "newfound respect was established on both sides." Indeed, you are making a lot of effort to link your work more directly to the business. "I job-shadow hourly production workers to better understand our manufacturing process and day-to-day work issues," said one respondent. And one brave HR professional imperiled any sense of a personal life when he or she "met individually with managers to see what they needed from HR and then made myself available any time of the day or night."

HR is making an impact.
It may come as a shock, but even HR professionals aren’t perfect (to see how imperfect you can be, please see "Oops! HR’s Biggest Mistakes" on this page). Still, imperfections and all, HR is making a substantial positive impact on business.

When identifying the smartest thing they’ve ever done, respondents offered numerous examples showing the impact they have. Sometimes the impact is on only a single person ("I helped an employee get help for a drug problem"), but more often the impact is broader. Respondents cited issues ranging from flexible compensation to grievance procedures in identifying their contributions. Among the other successes cited:

"I saved my organization $250,000 by responding promptly and thoroughly to an FLSA audit."

"I put together a personal career path for each employee."

"I produced a product that brought national recognition to our CEO."

"I implemented an attendance management program that drastically reduced absenteeism."

"I headed off a class-action sexual-harassment suit involving 40 women."

"I was lead negotiator and returned a three-year union contract with a 0-0-0 wage increase."

"I put together a key retention program before turnover rose above 10 percent."

"I completely developed and implemented a new compensation program in six months without the use of outside consultants."

The accomplishments speak for themselves.

HR is about people, so it will always be an unpredictable, frustrating and demanding—yet finally rewarding—job. But it’s also about business. So the next time someone asks what HR (or the "human remains" department as one employee dubbed it) does, you can tell them, "HR makes businesses better—in spite of everything."

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 73-80.

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