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Survey Results Show HR's Progress

August 1, 1999
Ask your colleagues how they'd characterize their most recent years in the HR field and their response will likely suggest the following: It's been a mixed bag of pleasure and pain--the highs have been high, the lows have been low. Many will tell you they're exhilarated and excited to be at the center of the phenomenal level of change and reconstruction taking place in organizations today. Others might confess to being, well, a little dazed and confused.

There's no question--it's a new playing field for HR. The pressures as well as the opportunities have never been so great. Downsizing, rightsizing, reengineering, labor shortages and more have created a virtual survival test for HR-one that's left casualties along the way, shaking some out of the profession altogether. The traditional HR folk-well, many of them have left in search of work that's of a kinder, gentler nature. The survivors, on the other hand, and you're likely one of them, have dug in their heels, absolutely determined and committed to the task of reinventing their role and overcoming years of bad HR baggage and a lousy reputation.

There's little doubt that HR leaves this millennium on the verge of its own revolution. And in spite of the fact that there's much, much more work to be done, feedback indicates that for better or worse, most of you will stay in the profession and stick it out because you believe that progress is being made and your time has finally come.

These results and more were captured in "The Official End-of-the-Millennium State-of-HR Survey," conducted by Workforce in conjunction with Tustin, California-based Scantron Technologies. An average of 360 professionals participated in a series of three surveys that explored how HR professionals view their role, the state of their progress and their perception of how they're viewed by others inside and outside the organization.

Change is in the air.
The survey results suggest that HR's role in the organization is in a metamorphic state. In fact, 70 percent indicated there's been significant to dramatic change in HR over the past three years, and almost half believe change will be continuous and ongoing.

The forces driving this change stem from both internal and external pressures related to a more demanding business environment, advancements in technology, changes in legislation, global expansion and an increasingly diverse workforce. And in spite of, or perhaps because of these difficult and challenging times, many believe their position in the organization has improved; 98 percent of the respondents feel they're gaining ground on becoming more strategic.

The survey results also show that HR is feeling pretty good about the progress they've made to date. The power base is finally shifting, the gap between what HR and top-level management view as job one, is slowly narrowing, and HR's image is officially on the mend. There's new credibility to be had inside the organization, and the future for HR has never looked so bright. Finally, it would appear, HR can relax and enjoy the ride into the new millennium.

Ah, ah, ah, not so fast-there are some big cracks in this story. There are several contradictions in the survey results that don't support this newly found pride. OK, the data do suggest that HR is feeling more strategic, but as always, it's actions that speak louder than words.

For instance, the research showed that for whatever reason, many in HR are still bogged down by administrative activities and transactional-based business. Sixty-five percent indicated that employees' primary reason for coming to HR continues to be for this type of low-impact support, which can involve anything from changing an address, asking about vacation time, clarifying company policy or checking on a procedure. This doesn't sound too strategic; in fact, it suggests that we've hit another plateau, and many remain stuck in the traditional HR support role.

But if HR is still stuck in the same old place, where's all this talk about change coming from? Well the truth is, progress is being made. If we take a closer look at where HR actually stands at the end of the century, we can see that the progression actually follows a traditional change model that has four distinct phases. The first stage is the frozen or "unconscious" stage, when the individual or group in question doesn't even recognize the need to change. The second stage is the "defrosting" or "conscious" stage, when awareness is raised and the need for change is acknowledged. The third stage involves real change that's marked by new behaviors and attitudes, and the final stage involves re-freezing, which is actually a return to "unconsciousness," when the new behavior becomes so familiar and comfortable that it no longer resembles or feels like change.

Where is HR in this change model? If the survey results are a true reflection of the state of HR, it's probably closer to the second "unfreezing" stage, meaning HR sees the need to change, but old behaviors continue to hinder progress. This is further supported by the fact that the respondents actually ranked accounting and finance skills second to last on their list of important competencies to master (right next to record keeping-see "Top 12 Future HRCompetencies"), a disappointing and concerning revelation.

Should we be worried about feedback that suggests HR still doesn't recognize the importance of the quantitative side of the business? Dr. Jac Fitz-enz thinks so. Founder and chairman of Saratoga Institute, a Santa Clara, California-based research firm, Fitz-enz finds this data more than a little disturbing. In fact, he argues that HR hasn't really gained much ground in becoming more strategic or earning more respect. "I haven't found non-HR folk speaking any better of HR now. Since [HR] continues to ignore the fundamentals of business, namely money, how can they expect to be more respected? How can you advise a business executive about the structure of the company and the use of human assets when you can't discuss it in financial terms and you don't know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet?"

Jeanette Kehoe, global HR manager for Cargill Investor Services Inc. in Chicago, echoes Fitz-enz sentiments. "I'm growing very intolerant of whiny HR people who say nobody involves them. If you want to be involved in the HR profession today, you better be damn sure you walk away with accountability. You have to be able to speak the language of the business, and that means understanding the principles of accounting and finance, and being able to quantify results and measure the value that you add."

Not everyone shares such strong views. Phyllis Mayo, director of HR and diversity for The Seattle Times, says she thinks HR has made solid progress, which is evidenced by the type of conversations she's hearing at HR business events. "A few years ago, the discussion was about how to become a strategic business partner. Now it's about being one."

Mayo also feels the focus on accounting and finance skills is overrated. "HR professionals don't need complex accounting and finance skills-what's more important is that you understand the lexicon of your organization, you understand the key indicators in your particular business and you understand simple math that allows you to calculate things related to retention, staffing, lost business opportunities, etc. Can you speak the language of the company? That's what's important."

HR looks for new opportunity to move up and possibly out.
Despite all the scrutiny HR continues to receive, the majority of respondents are apparently taking the pressure in stride, and most are excited about the opportunities ahead-53 percent indicated they're very satisfied with their HR career and are proud of what they do. Almost half the respondents indicated that not only do they plan on remaining in the profession, they expect to play a more significant role in the field by moving into a higher-level HR position.

What's also interesting to note is that contrary to previous trends, HR won't be staying in one organization for too long. Almost half the respondents plan on staying in their current position no more than two years, and almost 40 percent plan on leaving their current organization, but plan on continuing their work in the human resource field.

What's behind this newly emerging trend of mobility within HR? "Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity," says Linda Lane, president and CEO of Strategic HR Services, a $48-million, full-service HR company based in Newport Beach, California. "This is the greatest possible time for HR because those with the skills can finally operate at a true business level. The CEOs and the CFOs are now seeking out HR's advice to help solve critical business issues. And as a result, HR's eyes have been opened to the possibilities in the field."

Lane also sees another trend emerging-one that indicates more HR professionals will be leaving the corporate world altogether to pursue opportunities as independent consultants in the HR field. "A lot of HR people have had it with the corporate world. They're tired of working ridiculous hours for companies that treat them like dog meat and worthless corporate overhead. If people feel they're appreciated and respected, that's one thing, but the talented HR people won't put up with it anymore. They'll leave to go out on their own, get the respect they deserve, and make a lot more money in the process."

Kehoe also feels movement within the HR field is likely to increase, and she believes it's often to HR's advantage to move around. "There's tremendous opportunity right now for business-focused HR people, and if you've got the skills of the profession, you can move into just about any industry. It's really a nomadic function. You also get more best-practice experience by working for a number of different companies."

On the other hand, Kehoe feels that sometimes the best learning opportunity is the one right under your nose. "If you're working for a company that isn't HR focused, the most valuable and rewarding experience can come from fighting the battle and successfully repositioning HR. After all, HR has the ball right now and it's our responsibility to make things happen. Unfortunately, there are still too many people in our profession waiting for someone else to tell them what to do."

Redefining HR's role.
This can be good news or bad news depending on what managers think they need from HR. Although there's evidence to support the fact that managers are turning to HR for help more often, the survey results suggest HR is handling too much of the managers' work, particularly in the area of employee support. This raises the question of managers' work vs. HR's work:Are the lines of responsibility becoming blurred?

According to Fitz-enz, the matter of who does the work isn't as important as the content of the work. In his opinion, the first order of business should be to eliminate the transactional work through automating systems and promoting employee self-service through intranets, call centers, outsourcing, etc. Most agree that this is the only way to free up time for both parties to focus on high-impact work.

Kehoe believes once the transactional work is eliminated, there's little difficulty in defining work functions between HR and managers. "Managers will continue to be responsible for managing the day-to-day business that involves coaching, guiding, mentoring and focusing on productivity and customer satisfaction. HR's role should be to help them do a better job in all these areas."

However, the survey results indicate that HR is most concerned with employees, who they view as their primary customers. Fifty-two percent ranked employees first on the list, followed by the CEO and senior management, leaving line managers third. And though one could argue over who should be viewed as HR's primary customer, the argument might best be settled through the comments of one survey respondent, who indicated that "HR's primary customer is the working community itself. That includes employees, management and executives. To be successful, HR professionals must find a way to satisfy them all." Now, doesn't that sound like a piece of cake?

Workforce, August 1999, Vol. 78, No. 8, pp. 68-74.