Off message – flash, bang, wallop!

As the global economy slides into the abyss and fat-cat financiers begin to jump ship to protect their personal assets, it seems that City (and HR) jobs are 10 a penny and some money men are not worth the shilling.

According to reports, more than 110,000 jobs could disappear by the end of 2009 as the financial crisis escalates and the money dries up.

The day after Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for bankruptcy, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s new head honcho Jackie Orme took to the podium at the insitute’s conference in Harrogate. But if delegates were expecting a rabble-rousing inaugural speech from the CIPD’s very own glass-ceiling smasher, they will have been sorely disappointed. For Orme firmly failed to put her reputation on the block, grasp the nettle or take up the baton with the innocuous declaration that the profession needed to “remain relevant” if it was to influence change.

She did acknowledge, in passing, that there was an economic downturn and the fact that the profession needs to “ensure we’re leading change and not just following it”. But that was about it. The CIPD, it seems, knows its place, and far from being the champion of HR it is taking the old-money route to obscurity, bys following the lead of big-toothed, banjo-player, Tommy Steele, in his starring role in class-war musical classic Half a Sixpence.

Flash Harrys

Steele’s character, Arthur Kipps, comes into a large amount of cash, and becomes a boorish and smug, self-centred flash Harry who manages to alienate all his true friends while cultivating a new band of fair-weather wasters. Of course, this being a sentimental film, he is fleeced (by a solicitor, naturally) and ends up on Skid Row. Abandoned by his new so-called chums, his original friends rally round and he regains his sense of self worth.

The underlying message of the film appears to be that the poor folk are hard-working and have a laugh and know their place (a mission statement reflected in the so-called ability of characters in Eastenders to ‘know how to ‘ave a good ol’ knees up, dun we?’ – no you don’t you miserable swine). The rich they serve are selfish louts who don’t know how to enjoy themselves, but also know their place – they are the captains of industry. It is they who will make the money it is they who will squander it.

Similarly, up until last week, the City’s miserable, self-centred, latter-day flash Harrys were earning unrealistically inflated bonuses and vast salaries on the back of mediocre performances, while clearly failing to choreograph the merry dance that is the global money market. Then suddenly it all went badly wrong.

No Big Bang

Of course, there was no big bang, despite Lehman Brothers failing just five days after scientists in Switzerland turned on the Large Hadron Collider in an outlandish bid to recreate the start of the universe.

That experiment has so far only generated a small blip on a computer screen. It could be argued that, while the world of finance does appear to have gone a tad pear-shaped, this period of uncertainty for the UK and the rest of the developed world, is, as such periods always are, just a blip.

And it’s a blip that HR can exploit for its own ends; a period during which all smart HR professionals can expand their horizons and increase their own worth and their value to their employer.

You might think a wise HR person would have seen all this coming. But then nobody did. Not the Centre of Economic and Business Research which uncannily predicted bad times ahead only the day after Lehman Brothers collapsed (such vision) and certainly not the ‘City analysts’ and ‘commentators’ (especially those on TV and radio). Twenty-one years after the great storm of 1987, just days ago, all these Michael Fish-alikes were all happily predicting a future of continued, if slow, growth, with the occasional ‘there’s always a chance of a downturn’ thrown in for credibility’s sake – a bit like predicting that one of the ‘big four’ will win the Premiership, or suggesting Roger Federer might make it to a grand slam final.

The City watchers were all wrong, naturally, and none moreso than Business Week, which, as Personnel Today’s very own Guru pointed out, still had Lehman Brothers at number 23 in its list of the best run companies in March this year, despite the fact that the company had announced 1,500 job cuts that very month in a bid to ‘fend off recession’.

Yet despite all the doom and gloom, HR has good reason to be more optimistic than most. And while the profession should not exactly be cheering, personnel professionals should at least be steadying themselves for one of their career-defining epochs an era when people management and organisational development skills can be honed to perfection.

There will, no doubt, be those in HR whose own jobs are on the line, who are then expected to deal with the fallout hitting all other workers before packing themselves off into the jobless wilderness. Yet even in dispatching themselves, a good HR professional will still be picking up invaluable people skills and precious industrial relations competence.

Nether walloped

Yet HR could have stopped all this, if only it did actually have a more strategic role and understood the business. Because there is one reason for the state we’re in: people. People, our so-called greatest asset. Yet, as I’ve said before, while people are capable of doing great things, they are also capable of vast incompetence, which becomes a major issue when it becomes collective incompetence as displayed by the finance sector in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, the people who will be kicked in the nether regions as a result of the financial pickle will not be the real high earners, but the ordinary employees, both in banking and in other sectors as the crisis has a knock-on effect. And the fact that none of the great and the good of the HR profession have offered any meaningful comment on the current situation illustrates just how far HR has not come.

And, unfortunately, just like Arthur Kipps, the CIPD seems content to know its place, does not want to rock the boat and, far from being in a position to influence change, is happy for HR to stay under its rock and only crawl out to do the dirty work when things go horribly wrong.

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