People issues should naturally sit high on the executive agenda – without the workforce a company is nothing. Despite its self-evident importance, only rarely do ‘people specialists’ sit on the board. The HR profession needs a makeover to increase its credibility and status.
Workforce strategy is often managed by the CEO, with people experts operating one tier below. Some other organisations don’t have anyone at board level holding specific ‘people’ responsibilities. However, the people agenda is too important not to be properly represented at board level.
While the Operations function might take responsibility for some day-to-day policies such as working hours, there might be no one at board level who owns strategically important questions such as maintaining the right culture or engaging the workforce. If you ask company boards what are the most important issues they are facing, you will almost always get an answer which includes multiple significant people issues.
HR is an incredibly broad discipline, perhaps too broad. I would suggest companies split the function between the operational and strategic aspects. This would create a new function with a different identity – a HR plus – to look after these more strategic issues.
This restructuring could help overcome negative perceptions around human resources. Too often it is perceived as a blocker to positive change in a business, rather than an enabler. I can recall several instances where HR professionals have not had the trust or respect of senior leaders in their own organisations. This could as a result of the focus on processes slowing things down, rather than asking how things can be done better. It is an area – much like IT – where nobody acknowledges a good job done, but everybody notices if they get it wrong.
HR needs to refresh its image in order to boost its credibility. Just as boiler mechanics became “engineers” and data professionals became “information officers” (with a CIO on the board) perhaps HR could follow suits. The could become the “Workforce Optimisation Department” peopled by “Workforce Directors” with a “Chief Workforce Director” or “Head of People” sitting on the board. The titles might be different, but the principle is clear: it’s not the skillsets that need to change, but the status. That might help elevate people issues up the board’s priority list.
Giving the profession, a clear route to the very top of the company could also help attract the best talent to HR. If it’s seen as a second tier profession – as many professionals do unfortunately perceive it – HR will find it hard to retain the best strategists.
I am not suggesting that board members are completely disinterested in staff issues. When executives are asked about their biggest corporate challenges, several of them will always cite people-related issues. However, in subsequent discussions human resources directors are frequently excluded – they are not seen as strategic problem solvers. If it takes a new title to help get them into the discussion then that seems like a step worth taking.