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The Year HR Became Cool

August 4, 2000
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Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
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Some people surf and suntan for fun. Others play Gin Rummy on cold winter days, drinking hot chocolate while snow melts on the driveway. Still others hurl themselves from bungee cords, jump from planes or hike through the rain forest in search of toucans.

At Workforce, fun means finding the HR angle.

We look for it in every sportscast, in every obituary, in every comic strip, on every home page, on the front page, the back page, the business page, in advertisements. For so long, the HR angle was there, implicit, needing only a curious mind to hunt it down.

Slow book sales don't kill profits, people do.

What's different now is that the non-HR media have made it explicit, often covering the workforce management angle of the story more than any other. In recent months:

In Finance: CNBC reports that Amazon.com's stock plunges an initial 14% on July 25 after company COO Joseph Galli announces his resignation for work/life balance reasons. Apparently, big investors and stock analysts figured that without its most creative employees, Amazon ain't much of a jungle. Wait a sec: Both Wall Street and CNBC have realized that slow book sales don't kill profits, people do? Dorothy, are we dreaming?

In Sports: The New York Mets try to sign longtime Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin in mid-July. According to sports reports, Larkin was the target of an aggressive recruiting effort for his skills and leadership, and was referred by two Mets players, John Franco and Lenny Harris. ESPN is talking about a baseball franchise's employee referral program? What's next, Bob Costas extolling the virtues of PeopleSoft8?

Meanwhile, at the Olympics, the media are reporting how drug-testing technology has changed the face of competition, possibly ruling out such people as world-record-holding leaper Javier Sotomayor of Cuba. When the modern Olympics first began in Athens in 1896, could anyone have envisioned an HR issue deciding the high jump?

On TV: At one time, the entertainment talking heads spent the spring and summer talking about the plotlines of the characters on television, from Archie Bunker to Jerry Seinfeld. Now, they're talking about the HR behind the employees. The salary negotiations involving the "Friends" characters, supposedly hidden under a confidentiality agreement, were about as private as an Elvis sighting at the MGM Grand.

Los Angeles magazine reports that Lisa Kudrow and gang were getting a little bored with the same old stuff, and that variety, more money and the comfort of a two-year contract would make them feel better. Next thing you know, each of the six "Friends" walks outta there with paychecks of $750,000--per episode. Hmmm…More money. Interesting work. Job security. Sound familiar? The Hollywood media have discovered HR.

In Medicine: The legislative, executive and regulatory branches--the government--can sometimes fall behind the rest of humanity when it comes to addressing the workforce-management aftershocks of health and medicine. Heck, we figured it would take months until the media picked up on the tremendous ripple effect the sequencing of the human genome could have on the workplace. After all, when Workforce first covered genetic testing in the summer of 1997, some folks thought we were science fictionalists inebriated from Saurian brandy.

As it turned out, President Clinton started regulating the use of geneticism in the federal workplace in February--nearly five months before the sequencing of the human genome was even announced. Thus began months of media coverage of the HR angle of the story.

In Politics: Star Wars is actually in beta mode, peace is a real possibility in the Middle East, but Congress is debating workforce management. They've clarified the stock option rules, fought OSHA on ergonomics, changed the work rules for senior citizens receiving Social Security, and may soon address employer monitoring of e-mail.

Meanwhile, state legislatures can't figure out what to do with their budget surpluses, but Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and a dozen other states have passed or considered minimum-wage increases this year. Bush and Gore are arguing over which one loves the ADA more. HR, everywhere.

The online media have found HR in the sky.

In Business: Coverage of the proposed Time Warner/AOL merger has moved from "how will this change TV and the Internet?" to "can these cultures be integrated?" Rumors of friction between AOL and Time Warner execs may be unfounded, but the business media have been covering them. For the workforce management world, analyzing the prospects for success of a merger in terms of employee relations is a given. For some of the media, this is a new concept.

Our friends in the online media have joined the party, too. One publication, Salon, recently wrote a story describing why the customer service at United Airlines is so, uh, challenged. Salon explained that the service troubles represent the casualties of a war between United management and United employees.

Another online publication, The Street, recently wrote about the perils of the possible merger between Delta and American, which include incompatible pilots' unions and radically different workforce management philosophies. The online media have found HR in the sky.

If you want to know why the media are reporting on so much HR, perhaps it's because they're learning first-hand how important it is to them. After all, CNN recently had to deal with the departure of one its top employees, "Moneyline" anchor Lou Dobbs, who left to run an Internet company. Now Dobbs himself, who has a reputation for being a bit rough to work for, is coping with the departure of at least two of his top employees.

Whatever the impetus, the media have discovered workforce management--the science of taking a complicated world, making sense out of it for your own organization, and getting results. TV reporters, newspaper writers, the online media and others outside of Workforce are finally finding the workforce angle. Welcome to the fun.

Other columns by Todd Raphael:

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