By: Stuart White 26-08-2021
Recently McKinsey described five qualities that will be critical for business leaders to find their way to the “next normal” - resolve, resilience, return, re-imagination, and reform. And ‘new’ it is – in the words of WB Yeats in his poem Easter 1916
‘All changed, changed utterly:’
Early in my career as an HR Manager, I recall a new General Manager, emphasis on the military rank - who at our first engagements laid out his expectations of what he wanted from his Head of HR. “Stuart,” he said “you are going to be the eyes and ears of this organisation.” His desire for an HR Department that would act like a subversive intelligence agency felt old-fashioned and out-of-kilter with the time. In South African business in the late 80s the core purpose of HR, at least where I worked, was to act as a catalyst for workplace change, help develop mind-sets and attitudes for the time and build relationships through progressive industrial relations management. Thrown in was managing employees in a time of social unrest and political turmoil and getting a more balanced and representative management cohort. I was clear about what I had to do and snooping around to inform management of what was being said was not on the agenda.
Having a clear picture of your role was as critical then as it is today in what will be called (I guess) post-Covid time. With clarity of purpose fit for the time we are more focussed and effective which will impact team performance, company results etc. Unfortunately, many conventional organisations will fail to invest the time and effort analysing, defining and setting roles and won’t even bother having a conversation about what they should be doing or how to add value now. This will result in role ambiguity, job duplication, politics, frustration, poor results and that all adds up to a mess, really.
I recently read ‘Whistleblower’ a memoire which recounts Susan Fowler’s experience working for Uber in Silicon valley. The book exposes in eyebrow-raising details how hostile, chaotic and toxic Uber's workplace was and her role in tearing down its awful culture. Of specific interest to me was the role that HR played, or didn’t to be more accurate, in resolving the numerous allegations and accusations which she made over a two-year period. The HR department spent more time lying, conniving, and covering up what were blatant transgressions, poor management, sexual harassment, shady promotions and so on.
This was a case of HR getting it all wrong as they acted like a function designed to cover up for management and side heavily in its favour. HR bias is all too common in organisations and you can often hear staff employees berating HR for lacking transparency and dishonesty. The criticism is that they don’t tell the truth about why decisions are made or in reporting events that transpire. There is also breaching confidentiality when employees go to HR in confidence with a problem/complaint or make an application for a post in another division and then before they even have time to get back to their desk their manager has got wind of it. In Whistleblower Fowler said that each time she went to HR they seemed so sympathetic and supportive while she was there, but would later falsify documents and lie about what transpired, all to save management’s face. When the HR focus is skewed towards management and the department cares more about the interests of the company and the managers than employees it is going to be problematic for HR’s likeability and credibility.
There is a perception - and I believe it to be valid - that the majority of the time the HR department sides with management. This is what happened at Uber. Every time Fowler would raise a concern of sexual harassment, unfairness, or whatever, the HR department would try to justify what was happening. There is an innate problem when management expects HR to protect it from industrial action and lawsuits and there is an expectation from staff that they can get a fair hearing at HR. Such obvious conflict of interest is what encourages HR squashing down or covering up real employee issues and concerns.
Also, the issue of red tape doesn’t help HR in the popularity stakes. What chance is there of liking and respecting any function which acts with bureaucracy at its centre? You see it all the time when leaders want to promote someone but they have to jump through all the HR hoops and processes which we have established to make it difficult for something happen, a something which is going to happen anyway, regardless of the song and dance which comes first.
HR is fraught with conflicting priorities as is often the case with all functions within an organisation and why clarifying role and purpose is critical. HR must provide sound administration services while simultaneously operating as a strategic partner to the business. Add to that communicating with employees, advocating on their behalf and championing organisational change and clearly the Uber HR culture should act as an object lesson in what not to do and how to avoid it, rather to strike a fair balance between employees and management without fear or favour. I know I am focusing on HR here but it is only to illustrate the point that it is critical to always take stock of how we are doing including ensuring that we understand our place, for every function.
It is a time of massive change as the pandemic has changed business in everyway and if that doesn’t change your function you have your head in the sand. We must be re-examining how we will go forward because staying still is simply not an option when you are caught up in a global maelstrom.
So to that end, my slogan is ‘Forget 5G and start thinking 5 R’ and the 64 thousand dollar question is ‘R U Ready?’