The chance to influence and impact the organization is enormous. Name another profession within the company that has contact with so many others? In any one day, human resources staff may be discussing strategy with the CEO, sitting across the table with a union official negotiating a labor contract, delivering
a speech to college students, interfacing with a minority community organization to help with a philanthropic venture or pursuing vendors and clients.
So, what impression does HR make on the community it interfaces with? What do others think of you? Have you made a difference? We posed these questions to recognized pros in a wide variety of related fields. And what are their perceptions? Some offer praise; some are critical; others are frustrated; still others challenge you to be bolder and more assertive. But all would agree that without the human resources function, companies couldn't thrive in today's changing marketplace.
Professor of Business
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Ulrich edits HR Management Journal, is a professor in Michigan's Executive Programs, a frequent speaker to HR groups and consultant. He also wrote the book "Human Resource Champions."
"I can see the difference HR has made when I walk into a company and immediately [notice how] the HR groups are helping the business create the ability to change and adapt. One of the most amazing success stories within the last 12 months is Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co. It's beating all the competition, and its store-to-store sales have higher increases than anyone. That's hard to believe, and a lot of this is because its HR group is reframing the culture of Sears in order to better serve customers.
"I've seen that at Sears; I've seen it at General Electric and The Coca-Cola Co. -- where the HR group really has an impact on building the business agenda. And that's really exciting because there's dozens of ways it makes things happen.
"On the other hand, the worst HR experience is when you walk into an HR group and begin to talk about business issues -- what does it take for the business to be competitive in the next three to five years, for example-and the answers all come back strictly HR-related. 'We've got to do better training, better staffing.' And my comeback is that I didn't ask what HR needs to do, I asked what the business needs to do."
Schroeder was a former member of the Armed Services Committee and chaired the Federal Civil Service Committee. Prior to her congressional election, she was personnel officer for the State of Colorado; she also served on the National Labor Relations Board. Schroeder served in Congress for 24 years and is currently a professor at Princeton University.
"[Each HR setting] differs so much depending on who's in charge. The individual can set a tone that he or she is going to take [HR] seriously or one can set a tone that he or she is just going to apply the rules strictly, and individuals shouldn't ask for any variance.
"Over the 24 years I've been in office, we've had a phenomenal influx of women into the workplace, and yet, caregiver issues still aren't something that the workplace wants to deal with very much. We finally passed the Family and Medical Leave Act so people have some status to talk about their caretaking roles, but basically, I still think people feel it's much easier to talk about parking problems or the food in the cafeteria. In other words, we don't have a family-friendly mode that has penetrated the work culture yet, and the issues of flexible time and all those related issues still haven't permeated the culture very much."
Executive Producer/Co-creator "The Drew Carey Show"
As one of the writers of the popular TV sitcom, Helford often receives inspiration and feedback from viewers-many of whom are HR professionals. Since the program's debut, he and comedian Drew Carey, who plays a personnel director, have grown to appreciate the pivotal role of human resources professionals. So much, in fact, that the show is gradually using the term human resources instead of using the term personnel.
"I may have perceived -- as many others do, also -- that [HR] is mainly a paper-pushing job, which it's not. There's a lot of one-on-one with employees about their personal problems. There's just so much to the job that we didn't know about until we started talking to people. In Cleveland, we had some interviews with personnel directors in different stores. We found there's a lot of great stuff to be mined. HR has huge responsibilities that I never realized.
"Since everybody has his or her own management style, we hear a little [feedback] about that. Because we're a comedy -- and we're bigger than life-there are things that happen in [Drew's] office that no office would allow. That's the fun of it for people at home to enjoy."
Organization Learning Center
Senge's work is focused on senior executives and local line managers, but HR comes into contact with him through workshops and other activities of the center. He also wrote "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization."
"As a function, HR is a temporary function. I don't expect it to last because I think the responsibility for tapping the intelligence, creativity and spirit of people has to be embedded in all operations in an organization. There's no point at all in specializing in one function. There's no such thing as a capital resource function because earning a good return on capital is everybody's job. It doesn't make sense for it to be a specialized function other than the traditional personnel department functions of compensation policies and stuff like that.
"On the other hand, as an interim, it has been important to get people thinking about the importance of the human investment in an organization. But its usefulness is as a transitional state in which you're trying to get people thinking about how to really tap the potential of the people in the organization. It's got to be done from the inside. The inside really is the inside of the business units. It's what management is all about.
"What is management except tapping the creativity, intelligence and spirit of your people? That's what management is for the 21st century. We're moving toward organizations that really are more and more self-managing."
John W. Boudreau
Center for Advanced HR Studies Cornell University
Boudreau coordinates HRNET, one of the largest, global electronic discussion lists for HR. He corresponds with members worldwide and follows the discussions of 3,000 HR professionals daily. As a professor, author and consultant, he frequently works with HR professionals.
"The impact of HR on organizations is immense. Today, we see HR functions moving back into the hands of employees and managers. We see HR professionals becoming more closely aligned with employees, managers, customers and external constituents so that managing the people becomes everyone's concern.
"And with technological and social advances, we may again see the close integration between the HR function and the other critical processes of the organization. Today, employees and managers can sample the state of the art in HR technology every time they log onto the Internet. This phenomenon is producing a groundswell of awareness of how powerful HR can be. I'm constantly amazed at the evolution of the virtual [human resources] community. Personally, what I find most rewarding is the willingness of the HR professionals and academics to engage in enlightening discussions of common issues."
President and General Counsel Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
MALDEF is a national organization that promotes and protects the civil rights of Latinos. Hernandez interfaces with HR through litigation of Title VII cases.
"I believe HR is very important in the private sector in terms of hiring and promoting top employees. But my perception is that HR is not considered an integral part of the business function, which I believe it should be.
"Unfortunately, I believe there has been a lot of lip service given to diversity, but the programs and results in hiring are not there. HR needs to take a pragmatic and realistic approach to achieving diversity. Creating a diverse workforce takes a lot of energy, creativity, time and resources."
Producer and Senior Editor
University of Southern California
As producer of a radio program distributed by Public Radio International, Brancaccio has ensured that many stories on "Marketplace" revolve around human resources issues.
"When human resources professionals get involved, people then really understand what HR is about. HR staff help you, first of all, make the process more objective. They teach people who aren't human resources professionals how to come up with standards for the job. And, more importantly, they guide you.
"Too often, when you're doing the hiring without skilled people to work with you in the hire, you take the easy way out instead of casting the net [widely]. It's made our operation stronger. Knowing you have to report back to the human resources person, knowing you have to explain your reasons why a person isn't hired, it makes you get very specific when you're talking to a candidate or evaluating a candidate.
"I think people in human resources have to guard against being too insular themselves. The most important thing human resources people can do is to spend lots of time with the rest of the
operation so they, too, have a better sense about the positions that need to be filled and what the jobs really are. They can't be remote human resources professionals who are in separate offices and never get to see you until you start to do a hire or something else requiring HR. I very often like to see them a little more hands-on with the operation."
J.W. Marriott Jr.
Chairman of the Board/President
The senior vice president of HR reports to Marriott and serves on the executive committee.
"Human resources is at the core of our businesses. Because of the importance of human resources, the senior vice president of human resources reports to me, is on my executive committee and is a corporate officer.
"The human resources function is about relationships, about how we manage and motivate and build on the differing talents of many individuals. When everyone's efforts are aligned with the business, it's a powerful force for success. Since the beginning of the company, our fundamental belief has been that if we take care of our employees, they will take care of our customers.
"Today, we need to manage our people as individuals, not as groups. But our fundamental belief remains the same to maximize employees' ability to contribute to the organization, we must understand them, use their skills and respect their differences. All our programs must have the flexibility to deal with their unique differences."
American Management Association
New York City
Peak is group editor for American Management Association magazines and editor of Management Review. Peak and her staff are in contact with human resources professionals regularly. Although she doesn't attend each AMA conference, her staff attends and communicates HR's interests and needs so the organization can continue providing relevant service. HR professionals also visit the organization's headquarters to attend the various seminars.
"Why do people go into HR? Not because they like to read government regulations and promote them throughout the organization. At least I've never met anybody who got turned on by that. They go into HR for a lot of reasons. But it's [mainly] because they want to be supportive of people within an organization, or they're OD (organizational development) people who like helping people find their career paths. But some people aren't worth [HR's further help]. And that's difficult.
"Sometimes HR sees itself as here to protect everyone in the company from whatever they need protecting from. If there's a round peg in a square hole, [HR managers often] think they can transfer the person, coach the person or send the person to training-all of which are good things. But the bottom line is that this person isn't worth it. So let's just find a simple way to ease this person out of the organization. Maybe that's what we ought to do. Don't misunderstand me. Of course, [try] to train the person or give the person the tools he or she needs. But if it's clear the person was a mistake, then let's call it a mistake."
American Compensation Association
With 21,000 members in the ACA, Nichols deals daily with the issues of compensation and benefits. The association receives 12,000 to 15,000 telephone inquiries a year.
"HR is probably the most powerful field and discipline that American business can use today to gain a competitive edge. Depending on the kind of influence HR has and what kind of people are attracted to the function, one can tell whether or not the company is committed to being a worldwide competitor.
"The smart companies realize anybody can buy machines and anybody can buy technology and raw materials. Many economic measures will tell you whether you're a world-class company in financial measures. Another measure of world-class is if you're respected in the business community and respected by your employees."
Center for Working Life
The center is engaged in developing support networks for workers going through changes in the workplace and for dislocated workers in transition. Schore comes into contact with HR during joint labor-management committees-either overseeing downsizing policies or assisting in developing joint workplace education and programs. She also works with HR to design and implement workplace change process in the organization.
"The HR field has generally reflected the changes going on organizationally throughout most industries, and it now plays a different and more substantial role. Today, HR is a critical element in the transition of the workplace. It reflects more of an organizational development approach than the old truant-officer approach.
"My advice to HR would be to take itself very seriously as the key element in making the change process within the organization as human as possible. It's critical HR professionals understand the change process, where resistance comes from and how it can be overcome. Part of that understanding is to realize that change involves both opportunity and loss and is always difficult."
Asian Pacific American
As one of the leading advocates for Asian Pacific American issues, Kwoh comes into contact with HR through his agency's community and corporate partnerships. He's also a member of AT&T's National Consumer Advisory Panel.
"When I think of HR, I think about people working on all the issues that surround people at work -- people functioning together. HR often sees the human dimension of the workforce more clearly than others. [But] HR professionals have to take some risks to make their knowledge known, to get their issues accepted. Sometimes, if they feel they have to implement what's given to them -- and don't give their own perspective on what will work -- the company will run into difficulties later on."
Principal and Member
Kwasha Lipton LLC
Fort Lee, N.J.
As a work/life management consultant, most of Rose's clients are HR professionals. She also makes presentations throughout the country at HR conferences.
"HR professionals today are not unlike the employees in organizations. They are, in fact, employees in organizations, but they are at the mercy of the constant combustion that's going on. It takes a really special person to be able to get out in front of it and try to be a leader.
"I think the name of the game is change, and you have to embrace that and find a place at which you can be comfortable with the kind of dissonance change creates. There's so much that I think is going to be different about the things we've taken for granted-like the way benefits are designed and delivered, the way people work, where, when, how -- that I think there are some real opportunities truly to be shaping organizations for the future. That role is really HR's role. Who else is going to do it?
"I've worked with companies in which the human resources group may think it has great ideas, but the operations people are very leary and ambivalent about accepting HR as a partner. While I think there are lots of opportunities, there is a level of distrust, and we have to mend some bridges. We have to open communication and share information. It's like the basics; involve the customers in solving some of the problems."
After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, politicians, business professionals and residents called for stronger corporate-
community partnerships. Ridley-Thomas has been one of the more outspoken local politicians advocating such alliances.
"Since the civil disturbance in 1992, there are many examples of volunteerism and corporate citizenship to create a partnership and improve the quality of life in our communities. For instance, one company built a store right on the corner of Normandie and Florence avenues, which was the epicenter of the disturbance. It has hired people from the community. Another company has partnered with the Urban League to provide employment training in the automotive industry. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.
"My advice to HR is to continue promoting volunteerism in the community and equal opportunity as a norm, rather than [maintaining] the Good Ol' Boys Network."
Workforce, January 1997, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 136-142