Are HR professionals lacking employee relations skills?


As the CIPD’s Festival of Work starts in London, complete with speaker and breakout sessions galore on all the new trends for HR, Andy Cook questions why employee relations doesn’t feature in the agenda.

A quick look at the programme of the CIPD’s new Festival of Work reveals plenty of interesting content: the ethics of automation; leading transformation; the science of learning; unlocking creativity through disruption; artificial intelligence – I’m sure I can’t be the only one wondering what’s happened to employee and industrial relations?

Thanks to the mass adoption of the shared services model, new entrants to HR are not getting exposure to the broad set of skills, including ER and IR, they would have a generation ago”

Perhaps, it’s not considered to be as sexy as the other topics mentioned above. Perhaps it’s not considered “strategic” enough too, especially when compared to broader concepts like change management or organisational development.

But – here’s the problem – the upshot of all this is what I’ve increasingly noticed in recent years: the severe shortage it’s causing in the professional skills in employee relations and industrial relations.

This is a problem at both the top and the bottom of organisations. Thanks to the mass adoption of the shared services model, new entrants to HR are not getting exposure to the broad set of skills, including ER and IR, they would have a generation ago. They are choosing to specialise in more exciting areas.

But at the top too there are HRDs that are now so used to a more arms-length delivery of HR services that they themselves don’t have ER/IR specialism either.

As someone who is recruiting for these scarce skills, these trends leave everyone in a difficult place. The shrinking minority of subject matter experts who do have the skills organisations still need are either very difficult or very expensive to persuade to move. Or both.

The result is that organisations are quite literally paying the (high) price to try and solve a situation they’ve arguably created, by paying more money to hire people from outside of their business because they’ve not trained their own HR teams internally.

Until organisations start to proactively develop the skills of their own HR people, which I fear could be some time away, there is only one solution I can see: HRDs must start to think more holistically about the skills they need and where they come from.

If direct ER/IR experience isn’t there in candidates, they need to hire those with the capacity to learn. For if there’s one thing my business has taught me over the years, it’s that the key predictor of good industrial and employee relations is the ability to forge deep and meaningful relationships within the business.

However, I see too many experience-light, but competent-heavy candidates that organisations aren’t willing to take a risk with. So many great people are being overlooked. My retort is that I have countless examples where hiring for potential has proved to be highly successful. Employers that made this leap of faith haven’t looked back. But many still haven’t made this leap at all.

So, when HRDs congregate today and tomorrow, to listen to experts talk about the future direction HR departments need to take, I also hope they think about how they shouldn’t forget about developing their own skills, or having the bravery to hire those with the more agile skills so many HRDs say they need.

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Andy Cook

About Andy Cook

Andy Cook is CEO of Marshall-James, a firm working with employers on all aspects of employee and industrial relations.

One Response to Are HR professionals lacking employee relations skills?

  1. Avatar
    Bill Gregory 14 Jun 2019 at 9:54 am #

    I agree Andy. Employee Relations is a vital area yet one that few HR professionals have competence in, as the profession (as I’ve said elsewhere) seems to be moving toward an engagement / ‘soft skills’ model. This is compounded by the fact that it’s a huge risk to simply let someone loose and ‘learn on the job’ Understanding how employee representation works, how to deal with individual and collective issues is gained by a structured and phased approach.
    I’m increasingly of the view that a body representing those who work in this field could be a very useful step forward.

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