Walking the line

by 27 Jun 2007

By Melissa Yen

“It’s show business, not show friends.” Or so the saying goes. But where does that leave HR?

As Australia faces the impact of globalisation, a private equity boom, low levels of unemployment and an economy that demands transformation within its workforce, business focus remains on processes, productivity and ultimately, cost-effectiveness.

Such demands have placed human resources functions under significant pressure to evolve. No longer is HR viewed as a cost centre, but must perform like any other area of a business, and add value.

But where should HR draw the line between the demands of business leaders and the needs and welfare of its other clients: employees?

It has to be a two-way deal: employees must meet management’s expectations, but in turn management must be realistic about those expectations.

The recent ABC Four Corners documentary on Telstra’s “high performance culture” is a case in point.

The story covered workplace issues at the telecoms giant from the perspective of a number of employees. It focused particularly on two employees – Sally Sandic, one of its top performing call centre salespeople, and Leon Dousset, a Telstra field technician for more than 30 years. Tragically, they took their own lives amid concerns over Telstra’s allegedly unacceptable targets.

One conclusion from that investigation might be that aggressive targets and constant sales were seen as more important than employee welfare. Another conclusion might be that the company is perfectly within its rights to expect high performance from its employees.

Two of the most striking comments in the story were from senior Telstra executives. Greg Winn, the firm’s chief operating officer said: “We’re not running a democracy. We don’t manage by consensus. We’re criticised for it but the fact of the matter is we run an absolute dictatorship and that’s what’s going to drive this transformation and deliver results.”

Sol Trujillo, Telstra’s CEO had this to say in the program: “All of us to have to get in the game, all of us have to make things happen, and we can’t let policies or individuals stand in the way.”

Where do attitudes like that leave the ‘human’ in human resources?

As business becomes increasingly competitive, it’s a question for all HR practitioners to ponder.