What is HR’s greatest downfall?

Sarah O’Carroll speaks with three executives about what HR needs to do in order to step up to the plate for 2009

What is HR’s greatest downfall?

Sam Sheppard, executive general manager, talent and development, Commonwealth Bank

I’d like to start by reinforcing the important role HR plays in any organisation which is to leverage the capability of its people to deliver the commercial goals of the business.

The strongest CEOs recognise this, prioritise the cultural and performance drivers of the organisation and continue to invest carefully in people strategies despite a downturn in the economic environment.

However, HR can, on occasion, become its own enemy. As a function it must always lead by example … it cannot instigate policies, practices or aspirations without bringing those to life for its own team members.

It is not sufficient for HR to provide the advice and service to other parts of the business and not take its own medicine.

I often differentiate the “what” and the “how”of business decisions. HR should provide key inputs to shape the business strategy, however bringing those “the how” to life should more often than not be led by HR.

There are very few changes that do not start with an impact on people … new goals, new targets, new structures, new behaviours, new skills, new culture, new team dynamics, new reward mechanisms, new employee relations instruments etc.

This is when the function should come into its own, and how frequently do we delegate it to our peer functions? Or shy away from influencing the strategy in the first place?

The role of the HR leader is a challenging one – corporate strategist and at the same time employee advocate. Contradictory or complimentary?

Perhaps the greatest downfall of HR is when any one of many important agendas, business or employee, loses sight of the end game. What is the company trying to achieve? Simply put, what does success look like? When does data mania take over and everything that can be measured is tracked, reported and discussed?

At the end of the day, there are few business models that do not rely on the effective selection, development, engagement and retention of people in a way which maximises quality of process and minimises cost.

The specifics obviously vary by industry and prevailing economic cycles … but HR at its best is a flexible, strategic but practical business partner

Robert Orth, director of human resources, IBM Australia and New Zealand

I believe HR is doing a lot right at the moment. The business agenda today is, more than at any other time, a lot more about people. And so, with the advent of the focus on talent management, HR have been doing great work on developing an integrated process. This means looking at resources, the development of people skills, career management developments, looking at candidates’ capabilities etc.

It’s about hiring right and getting the right skills in the right place and this has really seen a marked change inside the last 10 years.

A second example is around efficiency and effectiveness. We have seen an increase and great work in the use of technology. This has been used by HR in a number of ways– such as employee self service websites where employees can get the information they need or apply for the things they need to do through the web.

However, our challenge today is to address what I call the “new world of work”. HR need to know the data about their own population, they need to know the data about their people within the organisation and their demographics.

They also need to know the external environment and what is changing. The reason it’s important is because it’s changing very rapidly and has been for a number of years. We’re really talking about that focus on the need for that flexibility at work, workplace participation, skill shortages and where we will find the skills we need, the realisation of an ageing workforce and the new expectations of generation Y.

That whole area will be an ongoing challenge for HR to ensure that they’ve got programs, practices, policies in place, and new or revised management systems so we can really address that whole area of work life balance and where the workforce is heading.

I think HR is doing a lot right, but if someone asked what could be HR’s greatest downfall, then I would say it could be the tendency to become disconnected from the business. Not having a close partnership with the business, not being knowledgeable about what is going on in the business and what the business challenges are.

Only through knowing this can HR bring their own professional capabilities to those challenges and help to solve any business challenges. So I think the flipside, which is fairly logical and could be a downfall, is osing touch with our people. And that links to my point about the challenge of the new world of work – what people need, how they are motivated, how we retain them and how they perform

Petra Buchanan, vice-president marketing and community, Unisys Asia Pacific

HR has fallen down in quantifying employee health and wellbeing as a board level issue. Health and wellbeing programs are often seen as a “nice to have”, not necessarily an integral part of the business that can deliver ROI.

Employee wellness has been a “soft HR issue” to date, but should be pitched at the board level as offering return on investment and employee productivity. Healthy, motivated employees are a positive reflection on the company and ultimately benefit the bottom line.

In 2008, unhealthy and stressed employees were responsible for $3.6 billion in lost productivity in Australia. However, in 2009, health and wellbeing programs will be particularly important as the economic crisis begins to take an even greater toll on employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

When employees are less stressed, eat well, feel secure in their jobs and exercise regularly they perform better. Ultimately the company benefits from improved performance and productivity. Businesses that find ways to quantify and focus more attention on staff wellness and work-life balance will see improvements in productivity and staff motivation.

The key is to consider health and wellbeing initiatives that incorporate wider business issues and address these through a program that engages, motivates and inspires all employees regardless of job location or role. Our employee health and wellbeing program, Living Well @ Unisys, which engages the organisation’s highly skilled and geographically dispersed employees, has delivered business benefits.

In the first 12 months, the employee wellness program contributed to a 5.7 per cent increase in employee health and saved Unisys in excess of $4.9 million and delivered an ROI of $23.40 for every $1 spent per employee on the health program.

Improved employee health has positively impacted on business performance. We have seen a 6.6 per cent increase in job satisfaction, an 11 per cent reduction in employee stress and the average annual sick leave taken by employees has fallen from three to just 0.9 days.

Not only can health and wellbeing programs improve business efficiencies, it also directly translates to the enthusiasm and quality that employees bring to the job.

While not all organisations’ outputs rely on employees to the extent that services companies such as Unisys does, from my experience having a healthy, engaged and motivated workforce does ultimately benefit performance and the bottom line..

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