SHRM Conference to Reflect Tough Economic Times

June 17, 2009
Now is not the time to be meek in human resources, consultant Margaret Morford says. Morford, who will lead a session about management courage at the 61st annual SHRM conference in New Orleans, says HR leaders must champion honesty in their organizations amid these tough economic times even if it means sticking their necks out.

“You can’t play it safe and be a strategic player at the table,” she says. “I’m not talking about being foolish. But I do think we need to step up.”

Morford is just one of many presenters at the June 28-July 1 event who will speak about navigating today’s tricky economic climate. Beyond formal sessions, the SHRM conference promises other ways to pick up tips for managing the downturn, including networking opportunities. And, in a new SHRM conference feature, attendees can arrange meetings with outplacement professionals from Lee Hecht Harrison.

The Career Transition Pavilion, where those encounters will take place, is designed to help both HR folks who’ve lost jobs and practitioners who have to tell others they’ve lost jobs, says China Gorman, SHRM’s chief operating officer.

Gorman says the outplacement addition is part of a broader push to make sure this year’s show is relevant to HR professionals, who in many cases are struggling with day-to-day cost-cutting tasks even as they try to preserve the long-term health of their workforce.

“We expect the attendees to come away with practical, tactical and strategic help,” she says.

Smaller crowds
SHRM’s annual conference is the biggest regular gathering of human resources professionals. Last year’s event in Chicago drew about 13,600 paid attendees. SHRM officials, though, expect paid attendance to be less than 10,000 at this year’s show, which takes place at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

The lower expectations have something to do with the deteriorating economy. Strapped organizations and individuals are less eager to pay for the show, which can cost $1,250 or more for a full conference registration.

At the same time, the recession is forcing HR professionals to wrestle with a host of challenges, including layoffs, salary freezes, cutbacks in their own departments and demoralized employees.

The speakers and sessions for the 2009 conference were largely set by the end of August before the economy fell into a severe tailspin. But SHRM officials have asked speakers to update their talks to account for the troubled times. Gorman says 90 percent of the show’s concurrent sessions have been retooled.

Sessions that tackle recession-related issues include a Monday presentation on “Hope in the Workplace: Kicking Financial Stress Out of Your Office,” led by personal money management advisor Dave Ramsey.

Attendees whose organizations have laid off workers may want to check out a Tuesday session titled “Using Emotional Intelligence to Overcome Survivor Guilt, Retain Your Top Talent and Maximize Performance,” by Travis Bradberry of training firm TalentSmart.

Conference-goers who attend a Monday session led by consultant Diane Stegmeier will hear about a silver lining in the economic gloom for HR professionals. The rapid, dramatic changes in the workforce give HR officials a chance “to take a leadership role in ensuring the organization creates a balance between cost-cutting and supporting the employees who are expected to help the organization survive critical times—and thrive following economic recovery,” she says.

Communications advisor Alison Davis will tell participants at her Monday session that soft-pedaling bad news will only backfire in today’s economic climate. “Straight talk is really essential,” she says. “People have no more tolerance for sugarcoating.”

On the other hand, Davis says organizations should announce layoffs and the like in a “just-in-time” manner. A warning about possible trouble in the future can “be like kindling to the anxiety,” Davis says.

Although Morford will call on HR officials to show courage amid the tough times, she also says compassion is vital for professionals in the field. Morford, a former HR executive who has laid off employees and been laid off herself, said a day of handing out pink slips should leave one blue. “Part of feeling awful tells me I’m doing it right,” she says.

HR officials upset about downsizing should find plenty of shoulders to lean on at the conference. Options for socializing include tours of the New Orleans area and a Global Networking Lounge for attendees from outside the U.S. and those interested in international HR.

Fred Foulkes, professor of management at Boston University, says one of the best features of the annual SHRM show is the ability to connect with other HR pros. He also recommends checking out the exposition floor. This year, more than 700 vendors are expected to show off their wares.

“You can get a lot out of the conference beyond what’s on the program,” Foulkes says.

One official program event that conference-goers wrestling with the recession will want to attend is the keynote speech Sunday, June 28, by Jack Welch. The former chief executive of General Electric, Welch is a leading—if controversial—thinker on people management. SHRM officials snagged Welch as a replacement for newsman Tom Brokaw, who canceled his appearance.

With Welch, the professional networking, the outplacement counseling service and the updated sessions, SHRM conference attendees should find valuable lessons for managing the downturn at hand.

They can use help, given pressures they face.

“HR matters enormously in the good times,” Welch and his wife, Suzy, wrote recently. “It defines you in the bad.”