Saturday, September 4, 2010

HR: Merchants of depression or messiahs of motivation!

There was simply too much at stake and somebody had to bell the cat. This startup company, now eight years old that went recently public, was no longer a fledgling privately held enterprise. It boasted of multinational clients being served by over 3000 employees drawn from the fields as wide ranging as engineering, off shore banking and market research. While people indeed mattered most, people management was however a different story altogether. Sad but true; in the eight intervening years, nine heads of Human Resources had entered and exited, with significant periods for which the position remained vacant in between.

Narottam Bhai, a prominent industrialist o the board, did precisely what had to be done and no one else was willing to do. ‘If people are our most invaluable assets, why do we have to hire a new HR head every once in a while?’ thundered he. The room and the CEO fell silent. At his instance, a reputed consulting house was invited to contact the erstwhile incumbents for a candid interview.

The findings, tabled subsequently for the board members to take notice of, brought out the predicament faced by the HR heads in their line of duty that had never ever featured before.

    1. HR personnel had to balance their administrative workload with a substantial amount of developmental effort. the fast paced business and demanding customers required them to change tack and transform the policies and practices at a faster pace than the organization was willing to embrace. HR enjoyed little sympathy from the rest of organization for the ‘breathing space’ they needed to tide over the challenges.
    2. Everyone knew that people feature on both sides of the balance sheet; they become liabilities if not developed into assets. Still the best and deserving ones were never released to pursue developmental work. Consequently, while the best ones left, the budgets for training were spent on those who never made use of the investments made in them. Meanwhile, HR personnel were themselves kept so busy developing others that they hardly found the time to invest in their own development!
    3. By design HR is meant to be an integrative function. They made efforts to bring the might of the management to bear on a single goal; by default however, businesses remained unchallenged in their efforts to retain their fiefdoms; assert their own personality and uniqueness.
    4. CEO’s and the board were always seen to be either vulnerable or sympathetic to the business managers in the short term and HR managers in the long term. HR had an obligation to caution the CEO and they claimed to have done so, but failed.
    5. “HR is felt the least, when people practices is claimed as a Corporate virtue”, they said. Business managers liked to keep the privileges of HR to themselves but passed on the ‘people issues’ to HR. Consequently, the business mangers gained a reputation for being ‘friendly and affable’, while HR acquired the ignominy of being ‘tough minded and task oriented’. There was a soft bigotry between mediocrity and permissiveness that went unchecked.
    6. Meanwhile the organization could never achieve the right balance between automation, that demanded standardization and personality considerations that required making due allowance for exceptional discretion. Rigidity of the automated responses ran directly in the face of the flexibility needed to sustain a rapid learning and change oriented work culture.
    7. Finally the system of MIS automated the wrong dials: while Financial indices are a lagged measure and happen much after the event, HR needed early warning metrics. Using financial measures to evaluate the performance of HR is like driving through a fog using the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, much of the HR metrics were ‘soft’ that the number driven czars of management had little patience for.

Narottam Bhai broke the silence. “The problem we have here is more serious than what I had imagined. Are we such an unsafe place to speak up? Why else would our HR mangers who know exactly what it is that is ailing us be so tongue tied as to suffer and sulk in silence rather than speak up and get heard? What do we as senior management need to do for the HR community to feel truly listened to? HR can become messiahs of motivation or merchants of depression depending upon how they are treated.”

Before we hire the next HR head, let us decide how we may want to treat them in the future?


Retrospective commentary: Narottam Bhai invited a speaker to address the board on the subject of ‘Primal leadership’. Most managers, like the Lion that roars in the forest for no apparent reason, is often unaware that they are scaring the other animals away and compel them to take cover. Likewise the senior managers need to be aware that their moods and conduct, however unintended and disguised they may be, send signals, often of the wrong kind, down the organization. They should become aware and take responsibility for the waves they create, howsoever unintentended!

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