Downturn highlights HR role, shows few firms get it right

Downturn highlights HR role, shows few firms get it right
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First Published: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 10 06 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 10 06 PM IST
What is the role of human resource departments as the world goes through turmoil, and what is their future as so many industries face extreme change?
--Effendi Ibnoe, Bali, Indonesia
Your question arrived in our inbox on the same day that we received a note from an acquaintance who had just been let go from his job in publishing—certainly one of the industries facing, as you put it, “extreme change”. He described his layoff as practically an Orwellian experience: He was ushered into a conference room to meet an outplacement consultant who, after dispensing with logistics, informed him that she would call him at home that evening to make sure that “everything was all right”.
“I assured her I had friends and loved ones and a dog,” he wrote, “and since my relationship with her could be measured in terms of seconds, they could take care of that end of things.”
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“Memo to HR professionals: Instead of putting your dismissed employees (in a room) with solicitous outplacement reps,” he noted wryly, “put them in a room with some crockery for a few therapeutic minutes of smashing things against a wall.”
We’d suggest another, more serious memo to HR. “Layoffs are your moment of truth,” it would say. “Your company must treat departing employees with the same attentiveness and dignity that it did when they were hired. HR proves its mettle and its worth during layoffs, demonstrating whether a company really cares about its people or just spouts lip service to that effect.”
Look, we’ve written before about HR and the game-changing role we believe it can—and should—play as the engine of an organization’s hiring, appraisal and development processes. We’ve asserted that too many companies relegate HR to the mundane busy-work of newsletters, picnics and benefits, and we’ve made the case that every CEO should elevate his head of HR to the same level as the CFO.
But if there was ever a time that underscored the importance of HR, it has arrived with the world “going through turmoil”, to quote you again. And, sadly, if there was ever a time for seeing how few companies get HR right, it has arrived, too, as our acquaintance’s experience shows.
So, on to your question regarding what HR’s correct role is now, especially in terms of layoffs. We’d suggest three roles.
First, HR’s role is to make sure that people are laid off by their managers, not by strangers. Being fired is dehumanizing in any event, but getting the news from a hired gun only makes matters worse. That’s why HR must make sure managers accept their duty, which is not to delegate the one conversation at work that must be personal. The bad news should be delivered face-to-face.
Second, HR’s role is to serve as the company’s arbiter of equity. Nothing raises hackles more during a layoff than the sense that some people—read: the loudmouths and litigious—are getting better deals than others.
HR can mitigate that dynamic by making sure that severance arrangements, if they exist, are appropriate and evenhanded across units and divisions. You simply don’t want people to leave your organization feeling as though they were dealt with unjustly. They need to feel: “HR kept the process clean. I’m not happy, but at least I know I was treated fairly.”
Finally, HR’s role is to absorb pain. In the hours and days after being let go, people need to vent, and it is HR’s job to be completely available to console them. At some point, an outplacement consultant can come into the mix to assist with the transition, but HR can never let “the departed” feel as though they’ve been sent to a leper colony. Someone connected to each let-go employee—either a colleague or HR staffer—should check in with them regularly. And not just to ask “Is everything OK?” and be done with it, but to listen to the answer with an open heart, and, when appropriate, offer to serve as a reference to prospective employers.
Three years ago we wrote a column called “So many CEOs get this wrong”, and while we received many letters in support of our stance that too many companies undervalue HR, a significant minority wrote in to pooh-pooh HR as being irrelevant to the “real work” of business.
Given the current circumstances, we wonder how those HR minimalists are feeling now. If their companies are in crisis—or their own careers—perhaps they’ve at last seen the light.
©2009/BY NYT SYNDICATE
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller,Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 10 06 PM IST
More Topics: Jack Welch | Suzy Welch | Video story | HR | Downturn |