HR Survival Guide for 2009: Challenges and opportunities for HR

Helen Giles, HR director, Broadway Homelessness and Support

Many of the certainties of the past decade will be turned on their head by the recession. The now somewhat arid, stale and circular debates in HR about business partnering and the strategic contribution of HR will change, as these are the product of businesses and HR having been stuck in a comfort zone.

The goalposts for things such as talent management will shift as organisations and sub-sectors that still have a future seek to attract the displaced people from those that don’t. A lot of the stuff that has been seen as too traditional and old hat to warrant attention – such as managing redeployment and redundancies or industrial relations – will now regain importance, but HR thinkers and practitioners will dress them up in new jargon.

However, I think the main challenge will not arise from the recession, but from the built-up legacy of discrimination legislation and emerging case law. The age discrimination legislation means there are no employees who cannot claim if they are minded to do so – which increasing numbers of people clearly are, as shown by the massive increase in employment tribunal claims.

Private sector employers will find their under-performing employees less inclined to disappear for a moderate payout, having read of the high-profile settlements made to the likes of a newscaster (£250,000 to settle an age claim) and a banker (£2.8m awarded for race discrimination). Employers might also find the staff service centres they outsourced are too remote, under-resourced or under-skilled to support them with the due process needed to avoid such scenarios.

And the introduction of the right to positively discriminate where two candidates can be distinguished only by gender or race is going to add more buried explosives to the minefield that businesses are going to have to negotiate.

I predict that 2009 will be a bonanza year for the disaffected (for valid reasons or not) and their legal representatives.

Alan Warner, corporate director of people and property, Hertfordshire County Council

Every organisation wants to see maximum value added by HR. As we plough into an economic snowdrift, there is a great opportunity to demonstrate the contribution HR can make.

This is not about sending out high-quality redundancy notices. HR should be working to equip organisations to come out of the other side of the recession fighting fit and able to be successful.

The gauntlet is therefore well and truly down: it’s time to produce workable and compelling business cases to support training and organisational development and to introduce creativity and innovation. If we cannot do it now, when can we?

A challenge specific to local authorities is how we recruit and retain child-protection social workers.

They carry out a very tough job and require skills, talents and huge personal resilience to deal with some of the sad and tragic situations they encounter as part of their normal working life. No-one can defend recent events reported in the media, but an unfortunate consequence is that people will think twice before joining the profession, and maybe only once about staying.

Normal recruitment and retention initiatives will struggle in a climate where numerous successes are never reported. HR must play its part.

Fraser Longden, head of talent and engagement, Kingfisher

An economic downturn forces companies to increase productivity, prioritise smaller budgets, help teams deal with and deliver change, and maintain engagement levels. I think a few other things will also be essential. It is time to brush up on facilitation skills. Helping teams and individuals work through challenges they may not have faced before and developing solutions will be a skill valued by all. There is no doubt that 2009 will be frenetic, so helping the business to learn from its experiences, quickly, will increase the likelihood of repeating success.

Honest, timely and accurate communication – even when it is bad news – is the only way to help everyone navigate through the conflicting messages they will read in the paper, hear on the news or pick up from other businesses. Flexibility is crucial. If we are honest, very few of us know exactly what this year will bring – having too rigid a plan could slow us down when it comes to reacting to business needs.

Liane Hornsey, EMEA people operations director, Google

People in the UK and Europe will be concerned about their financial stability. Our employees will be under pressure from outside work, so our key challenge is to maintain normality in the workplace and avoid adding to their concerns.

The way to do this is to implement open communications, with as much transparency as possible. Some companies will provide additional help to employees with money worries. This is a sound financial investment.

External hiring will slow down, providing greater opportunities for internal moves. This will in turn create opportunities for HR to demonstrate it can be more than a harbinger of doom. In times like these, it’s particularly important that HR shows itself to be about more than firing.

Cost cutting will be a priority, but one of the most effective ways of doing this is by involving staff, which also helps with motivation – our global HR staff generated 400 cost-cutting ideas last month. Being part of solving problems helps us keep them motivated. Communication, involvement and innovation will be the key issues for HR in 2009.

Vance Kearney, HR director, Europe, Oracle

HR’s key challenge in 2009 must be to save the economy and our jobs. We can make a difference.

We must work hard and focus our organisations upon the main objective – serving customers and winning market share. We must seize the opportunities. Let’s make sure everybody knows the facts, and not patronise people by pretending all is well if it isn’t.

If cuts have to be made, HR must act quickly and get it over with – living with fear is a slow poison. We must be brave and explain to senior management that thrift starts at the top. Job reductions start with the highest paid and lowest value, and we know where to look.

Highlight the alternatives to job cuts: get employees to take unpaid leave, reduce work time and ensure holidays are taken. Cut discretionary spend, but don’t cut training or graduate hiring – invest in the future and be ready for recovery. It is more than ever a time to engage talent. Creative employees bring ideas and value in good times and bad. Organisations can come out of the recession in great shape – and HR can make the difference.

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