A bitter pill to swallow

No one likes criticism, but feedback from clients is the only way HR departments can find out where improvements are needed

You probably winced while reading through those real-life accounts, but the search for feedback has to be done, says Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey Park Management Institute.

"The important thing is to be positive and proactive about looking for feedback, rather than defensively going for feedback on the things you think are going well," she says.

Holbeche picks up on the dilemma highlighted by all the interviewees. "HR needs to understand how it is seen by internal "clients". The only downside is that you are likely to find that line managers want it all – they still want conventional service delivery and support even if they recognise the need for more strategic HR."

And this emphasises the real tension that HR has been facing for the past decade. Holbeche adds: "Unless HR finds ways to really add value beyond being a glorified administrative function, its days must be numbered as there are many new ways to provide service delivery-shared service centres, such as e-HR, outsourcing and so on."

At the Institute for Employment Studies, principal research fellow Penny Tamkin says the HR profession can become "schizophrenic".

"One of the problems of HR is that it deals with mutual constituencies, from employees, through to line managers and senior managers."

An accepted solution to the demand for a split personality is to turn to outsourcing, but Tamkin warns that this creates dangers of "high status and low status" topics. Better, then, to work in partnership with the line manager. "The cleverest departments have maintained their value in their organisations by partnering the line and engaging them, so that the HR department becomes advisers rather than doers," she says.

At consultancy Personnel Works, senior partner Paul Kearns muses whether the re-introduction of service-level agreements (a formal undertaking by both parties on "products" and "timescales") would solve the tensions.

"I haven’t seen them for a few years," he says, "but they are an answer if the precursor is that everybody needs to be clear what their purpose is."

For any organisation wanting to measure what they do there are three basic routes: benchmarking (which gives a comparative with other organisations); a survey of retention and turnover rates; and internal questioning (from interviews to more formal surveys). "By asking for feedback you raise expectations that it will be acted on," warns Holbeche.

She adds, "It’s important to be clear why you are asking for feedback – for example, to consult on how HR might best be structured, or to improve current processes. If you want to use the feedback in your own HR planning it is important to let people know how you’ve used the information."

Holbeche suggests that the best place to start is with senior managers on an individual basis and other key clients, preferably in a semi-structured conversation so that you can delve into issues more deeply.

"If you’re really brave, and are willing to spread the net more widely, you could do a survey of managers and employees on a sample basis. You could then use the information to support any changes you plan to make or proposals you put forward for approval."

The key point is that if HR keeps a handle on how it is seen and used, it is equipped to change. "If you are planning to move to a different method of service delivery, you have a ready base for assessing the readiness of line managers for what you are suggesting and for further consultation/gaining buy-in," Holbeche says.

"Perhaps it may be better to solicit views on specific initiatives or plans you have in mind rather than a general ‘How is HR seen?’, which may just produce a load of criticism."

 


Questions to ask your internal clients


  • What do you expect from HR?

  • What are you getting? (what’s working well, what could be improved?)

  • Where do think HR could add most value to the business/organisation in the future?

  • What are we not doing that would add value?

  • What are the key issues that you think HR should focus on?

  • What do you consider your own responsibilities on human resource issues?

  • What help, if any, do you need with these?

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