What Would the Workforce Say

Commentary: Have the actions that HR took during the recession eroded its credibility with rank-and-file employees? Professionals would do well to ask themselves this most pertinent of questions.

April 28, 2010

One of the many benefits of my role in human resources executive education is that I get to listen to a lot of different senior HR managers and chief HR officers talk candidly about their organizations and their function. While I obviously have to be careful with what I share, every once in a while a conversation comes along that demands to be written about. Last month I was privileged to be part of a conversation that not only needs to be written about, but needs to be joined by HR professionals at all levels of all organizations.

At the close of a teleconference of about a dozen high-profile current and former chief HR officers, the chair and moderator asked if there were any other topics that were on anyone’s mind before we all signed off and got back to work.

After a moment of silent contemplation, Bill Conaty, my former boss and the retired head of HR at GE, asked if anyone was worried that our behaviors as a function in support of the business through the recent and prolonged “Great Recession” may have eroded our credibility with the workforce. The silence now was deafening. But eventually, one participant acknowledged that though perhaps not completely front of mind, the concern was valid, and real. Others quickly chimed in, recognizing that the role of HR in a business crisis behaviorally favors the needs of the business, it has to. But they all admitted that the question made them think.

Over the next week I thought more about Bill’s question. I remembered a vignette from early in my HR career when I was forced to confront my personal commitment to employee advocacy. I was less than six months out of college, working in a factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when the corporate HR office asked me if I would be interested in returning to Cornell as a recruiter for the company.

Interested? I was thrilled! Eager to share my excitement with others, I decided to ask for input on how to select the right people. I started with Dave Langland, the surly leader of HR in the unionized factory, and someone whose perspective I valued. His answer stopped me cold, and has stayed with me for 32 years.

I asked Dave, “How do you know who will do well in an HR career?” Dave pushed his big chair back, put his old dirty safety shoes up on the corner of his cluttered desk, and said, “Nine out of 10 people who are interested in HR will tell you it’s because they like people. Don’t hire them. One will tell you, ‘People are no damn good and somebody has to watch them, that’s why I’m interested in HR.’ Hire that one.”

I was shocked. Could I really go back to campus and look for an angry cynic? I thanked Dave and walked out of his office dazed and confused.

Like so many other life lessons, the true meaning of Dave’s words did not reveal themselves all at once or right away. But as my career moved forward, I had many occasions to revisit the advice given to me by that early mentor. I eventually came to understand that what Dave meant was that people who want to be successful in HR have to have a backbone, and a strong one, to uphold their responsibility as the steward of the employee experience.

While not all people are “no damn good,” there is evil in this world, and eventually, given a long enough career, you will run into it in HR. Langland was at the very front end of the movement from administrative “personnel” and tough “labor relations” to the more enlightened era of “human resources,” so he was concerned that the pendulum was being pushed too far, swinging in the direction of company picnics and “feel good” HR. I was too young and too inexperienced to fully grasp his concern, but over time I came to accept his wisdom.

And now, after looking back, and reflecting on Bill Conaty’s contemporary question, I am struck by the duality. Being successful in HR requires the ability to be tough and decisive and to move quickly to support the needs of the business. But it also requires the ability to be affirming and supportive and to nurture strong relationships based in trust through which feedback can flow freely. Working fluidly along this continuum and staying true to some bedrock personal value system builds the most significant differentiator among great HR people: They have credibility across all populations, from the factory floor to the boardroom.

In situations like the recession, or in an environment of incremental evil such as that revealed inside Enron, competent, committed HR people need to be tough as nails, and sometimes must even be willing to “turn in their badge” rather than silently go along.

But at the same time, they need to remember that employees need a voice and a perception of fairness in bad times just as much as good. The challenge for the chief HR officer is to always have a sense of where on that continuum—from cop to advocate—the collective view of the HR function currently lies. Thanks to Bill Conaty, a few more chief HR officers are probably assessing that right now.

In my writing, I have sometimes questioned our role in HR as “business partner.” I hope that in our zest to be business partners we have not allowed the pendulum to move too far away from the employee advocacy role. History has clearly shown us that if employees do not feel that they have a voice, and that their voice is heard and considered, they will find help in securing that voice—or they will find another job.

Coming out of a recession is not a good time to be fighting off new unions, or losing good employees. Maybe we should all be asking the question that Bill Conaty did on this call: Are we doing what we need to do as stewards of the employee experience? Are we both business partner and employee advocate? What would the workforce say?

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