The results of Personnel Today’s 360-Degree Appraisal of HR survey will have ruffled lots of feathers among the thousands of industry professionals who demonstrate their worth to the rest of the business every day.
They will disagree with the conclusion from their stakeholders that HR departments are ineffective, shutting themselves away in ivory towers, succeeding only in spending too much time and money producing unnecessary red tape.
This may seem an unfair analysis, but the fact is that HR is failing in one of its most vital areas: communication. Yes, HR needs to understand business drivers and align itself with the strategic direction of the business, but most importantly, it needs to shout about it.
So how can HR ensure that the rest of the organisation can see its contribution? Alan Warner, corporate director (people and property) at Hertfordshire County Council, says the first step is for HR to be clear about why it exists.
“HR is there to support the business and to help employees. HR is not there to stop them from doing what they want to do. HR needs to keep this in mind if it is to empathise with line managers,” he says.
To do this, HR needs to offer pragmatic advice to staff and stakeholders. But this can only be achieved if HR understands everyone’s needs. “For example, during an office move, everyone needs to know exactly how the relocation will work. Staff do not want to hear puff about how fantastic it will be they want to know practical details, such as travelling times,” advises Warner.
Effective communication has to go both ways, so HR also needs to listen to staff. One way to achieve this is by hosting employee surveys or focus groups.
Warner says: “We recently came up with a recruitment campaign for day-centre staff, which we thought was brilliant. But when we asked employees already in these roles, they said they didn’t like it. So we scrapped it and came up with a new campaign – one that they felt proud to be part of.”
Just like any marketing campaign, the key to success is getting a real understanding of your customers.
Alison Gill, managing director of talent management consultancy Getfeedback, says HR must speak to staff at all levels about the challenges the business faces.
“Only armed with this information can an HR department plan proactively. So when you join a new team, go out with the sales team and find out what customers want, so you can, in turn, understand the needs of the business,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to air your views, says Gill, and more importantly, be able to support them. “Be prepared to put your opinion on the table, describe what could be done to change things, and always articulate the benefits to the business and employees of doing so. Using statistics to support your argument is critical,” she says.
Transparency is key to building trust, so it is vital for HR to openly communicate its policies and guidelines. Sophia Panayiotou, senior vice-president of HR business support for airline the Emirates Group, says HR teams need an internal communications strategy to achieve this.
“Communication has to be delivered consistently across the company. HR should provide functional information enabling employees to do their jobs effectively, and also convey policy decisions, so that staff are informed about the company’s vision, long-term objectives and change,” she says.
Technology can play a big role in delivering internal communications and creating a brand for the HR department. For example, posting all HR policies, guidelines, terms and conditions on the intranet can help staff feel empowered, while e-mailing updates about key areas such as recruitment can help them feel in the loop. Based on the size of the organisation, a company magazine is another way to communicate news and highlight HR targets and achievements.
It is important to let the organisation know when the HR team has done well, but critically, about the right things. Warner says: “HR should be boasting about how it contributes to the business, not about how it has won awards. No-one is interested in achievements that do not affect them.”
Panayiotou says positive news about staff can be the best way for HR to bang its drum. “People news, such as new appointments, promotions, training and achievements should be proudly communicated by HR,” she says. “Also, highlight any incentive schemes that staff and their dependants could benefit from.”
HR’s visibility in all of these initiatives is crucial. Giving staff the opportunity to knock on HR’s door when it suits them is infinitely more valuable than issuing employee diktats via e-mail. HR is no longer viewed as a ‘behind the desk’ job, so HR people should mingle with staff, feeling the pulse of the business and the workers.
Panayiotou says HR should be located within the business so that employees can consult with them regularly. “Being involved in management meetings and staff briefings on a regular basis will also ensure visibility. If the location of HR is different to the workplace, then conduct regular HR clinics to help employees in remote locations,” she suggests.
David Leech, head of HR at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, says his team uses HR business partners, responsible for different areas of the business, to build close relationships with staff. “HR then spends its time with the same groups of people, so they understand their needs and have a high level of visibility.
“Sitting in an office hidden away from the rest of business is not useful. If staff have instant access to HR, then HR gets a greater understanding of the business and can tailor interventions to meet their needs,” he says.
Leech also has an open-door policy for the central HR office, with seats outside to encourage people to wait if someone is not immediately available.
Ultimately though, the rest of the business will judge HR on what it can prove it has done for them.
“Operational effectiveness makes you popular,” says Leech. “Recruiting the right people and providing good quality inductions and terminations are how most people judge HR. Committing to positive changes is not helpful – people want to see what HR has done to benefit them. It is not about aspiration, but achievement.”
“HR’s credibility depends on leadership. For too long, HR has not had the strength of personality to position itself, so companies that are keen to see a change may need to change their HR people.
“The HR fraternity needs to ensure that it is intrinsically involved in drawing up and driving competitive strategy. Making more than a purely technical contribution, HR professionals need to be business people with a keen eye on the financials and the ability to identify value-generating opportunities.
“By taking ownership of its credibility and seeking out new talent, HR can ensure it is capable of joining the company’s commercial dialogue.”
Chris Thomas, HR director, FirstAssist
“To stay at the top you must demonstrate leadership through active engagement. Live and breathe the policies you are championing actively support staff internally at junior and senior levels so that you have a strong profile throughout the organisation and develop industry links so that you gain profile externally as well as internally.
“If you become a regular contributor to industry articles or speak at seminars, your organisation will recognise your standing in the HR discipline and your employer will enjoy a degree of kudos from your profile – and this will, by association, give your organisation great PR.”
Lynne Hardman, managing director, Hays Human Resources
Top tips on how to market HR
Ray Jones, head of communications at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, gives his top marketing tips for HR professionals:
- People buy benefits not features. Do not focus on what your department offers, but how it can benefit the organisation.
- Don’t neglect your ‘brand’. People will only accept that HR is great if every interaction they have with it – from presentations by the HR director to the tidiness of the desks – reinforces that impression.
- The customer is king. Don’t make assumptions about what your internal customers want – do your research to ensure that what you do delights.
- Demonstrate effectiveness. Measure your impact on business performance and communicate that success.
- Think about your ‘product lifecycle’. No marketer can promote a has-been – make sure that what your department offers is this year’s must-have, and ditch the out-moded.
- Understand your ‘market’. Remember that you have many ‘clients’, from potential new recruits through to the head of department with a staffing issue. Tailor your messages to each segment of your audience.