The Last Word The Mood Is Subdued

June 29, 2009
Never let it be said that SHRM conference attendees are out of step with what’s going on all over America. In fact, the vibe here in New Orleans very much matches the vibe you get from working people everywhere—it’s quiet and subdued.

This is what so many in the army of amateur bloggers, Twitterers and social network aficionados miss as they blast their impressions of the 61st Annual Society for Human Resource Management Conference & Exhibition. They just don’t see, or appreciate, the huge difference in what’s going on here in New Orleans compared with previous years in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

Even the exhibition hall—the scene of so much unrestrained excess by swag collectors at past conferences—is less frenzied and less crazy. It’s bordering on boring.

The SHRM conference has been hit hard by the economy—and really, what hasn’t been? You can see that in the raw numbers. As of Sunday night, attendance stood at 6,800, compared with about 13,400 in Chicago last June and 14,900 two years ago in Las Vegas. That’s nearly a 50 percent drop from last year, which is at the high end of the 30 to 50 percent drop off that I have been tracking for conferences in HR and workforce management.

My prediction early in the year was that conference attendance would get uglier as the year dragged on, and these numbers from SHRM New Orleans seem to bear that out.

But there’s more behind SHRM’s conference attendance than just the state of the overall economy. There’s also the very real fact that HR people are feeling beaten up, worn down and just plain tired of the unrelenting wave of layoffs, cutbacks and furloughs they have been handling since the start of the recession. No wonder so many HR pros have opted out of spending money on coming to New Orleans.

We captured the essence of this in the HR Anxiety Survey published in June’s Workforce Management magazine and now available on our Web site. The survey found that many HR professionals “are finding themselves on their fourth or fifth round of layoffs in the past 18 months and consequently under mounting personal and professional pressures.”

It also showed how hard it is for so many HR people to cope with the fallout from the ongoing economic crisis. “Some say they drink more alcohol or have taken up smoking cigarettes,” wrote Jessica Marquez, our New York bureau chief. “A large number are considering a career change, [while] still others complain that they are called the company’s ‘Grim Reaper’ behind their backs. What’s worse, few who are feeling stress have followed their own advice to use company-sponsored assistance programs.”

The survey found that many HR pros are fed up with the economic carnage they have been forced to deal with. One question asked whether HR professionals’ experiences in conducting layoffs had prompted them to think about changing careers or moving to a different, non-HR role in their company. Most said no, but 37 percent answered affirmatively. Just over a quarter of the respondents acknowledged “some thought” about changing careers or roles, while an additional 9 percent said they’d given “serious consideration” to a switch. Three percent said they had begun the process of changing their career or role.

This is the vibe that underpins SHRM New Orleans: beleaguered HR people who are not only fewer in number than at past conferences, but are also worn down from this annus horribilis that is 2009.

I give credit to the HR professionals who are here in New Orleans, even though there are just half as many of them as there were last year in Chicago. It’s an act of faith just by being here.

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