HR leadership is the key ingredient in boosting professionalism

Those with short memories will already have forgotten about the recurrent strike threats at Royal Mail, and probably didn’t even notice the generous three-year pay deal that the unions extracted from weak management. And the recent British Airways (BA) dispute has also served as a sharp reminder of just how pre-historic employee relations can be.

All of this begs many questions about leadership, but my main concern is where does HR professionalism fit in? One person who might be able to offer a well-informed view would be Tony McCarthy (ex-HR chief at Royal Mail and now at BA). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) might look to people of his undeniable seniority and experience as a role model for the next generation of HR professionals. Yet we would have to give his employee relations track record zero out of 10. Admittedly, change is now afoot at BA – but only because chief executive Willie Walsh has finally addressed the issues shirked by all of his weak-willed predecessors.

Meanwhile, the CIPD has been touting its latest attempt at projecting a professional aura – the ‘HR profession map’ – presumably because it is a profession that has lost its way? One look at this model reveals just how big a gulf still exists between the rhetoric and the reality of what ‘professional’ really means on the ground.

Under ‘Professional Areas’, the map states employee engagement should ensure “the emotional connection that employees have with their work and their organisation is positive… and delivers greater discretionary effort”. Leaving aside the obvious flaw in this whole edifice – that you cannot define professional standards using woolly language – this statement could hardly be used to describe the working relationships at Royal Mail or BA.

Of course, historical baggage always imposes a heavy burden during change, and a new HR director cannot change things overnight, but where is the evidence that HR professionalism is exerting any influence on the key decision makers? That is the burning question that should be keeping CIPD chief executive Jackie Orme awake at night, because this is not just an observation of a special case or a particular set of circumstances, and it is not about Royal Mail or BA, but the standing of the profession as a whole. It is a fundamental question about the direction of travel for HR.

We could equally take any other aspect of HR and ask the same question: what does ‘professional’ mean, and how does it bring its influence to bear?

I was asked recently to deliver a workshop for senior-level HR executives “most interested in succession planning, talent retention, recruitment strategies, and employer branding”. If I do decide to cover these topics, it will only be after first asking these executives what their business priorities are, and where such practices might fit in? Why, for example, is there so much talk and energy devoted to talent management and employer branding when so many ‘talented rats’ left the sinking ship that was RBS, when they secured a better deal elsewhere?

Employer branding obviously doesn’t count for much with investment banking mercenaries. Such practices might be regarded as de rigueur, but surely true professionalism is characterised by a diagnostic and analytical appraisal of a specific business context? Yet even if you do undertake such an analysis, that is not where professionalism ends – it is where it begins.

You have to convince organisational leaders how best to achieve strategic objectives, otherwise your professionalism is worthless. It has been an absence of HR strategy, not funding or technology, that has lumbered us all with an inefficient Royal Mail and the prospect of more airline passengers spending much of their holidays stuck at terminals.

The inventors of the CIPD map should realise this and offer clear and determined leadership, otherwise their members will remain lost. Instead of leadership , he map resorts to just stating the blindingly obvious: Organisation design “ensures that the organisation is appropriately designed…” but doesn’t say what ‘appropriately’ means, how to get there, or how you would know when you have arrived.

This ‘map’ would be better described as a shopping list for a recipe where the key ingredient has been left out.

by Paul Kearns, director, PWL

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