Does HR 101 still apply in todays business environment

April 3, 2011
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As business evolves and technology pushes us along, we can easily think we are becoming pretty sophisticated in how we do things. However, people don’t change as quickly as technology or the development of the new management strategy is created. Recognizing that one of the key elements of business, or any organization, is its people or “labor,” we need to do a better job of managing that component if we are truly going to be successful.

As school superintendents, CEOs and even heads of government address budget requirements and demand for change, the strategy too often is: “I’m in control, I have a goal to accomplish, and this is how it will be done. That is leadership.”

This may be right when you are talking about buying and selling pieces of capital — things that can’t talk back or act out. When you try to manage the “labor” component in the same way, the results don’t always follow the path that is mapped.

Some leaders seem to overlook the fact that they have people for whom they are accountable and that these are the very people who make the difference in how things turn out. At the turn of the last century, conditions in factories became so bad, they spawned unions. People eventually react to heavy-handed leadership styles.

Financial regulatory reform demonstrations in the state capitals and the current unrest in the Middle East is just more of the same: leadership wanting to operate one way and the people not buying into it, with strong opposition. Trust in the leaders to do the right/decent thing is lost when change is a “my-way or the highway” strategy.

What does this have to do with human resources? More than you might suspect.

While recently putting together a presentation to educate organizations just starting to hire employees, some dusty knowledge gems began to shine again. We wanted program participants to have a strong foundation on which to build their organizations. Some of the key principals in this foundation easily apply to all of the difficult conflicts between leadership and people. If leadership understands and works with its people, it can be a win-win result. Many people today seem to view compromise as not winning.

What are these key principles?

1. First of all, in general terms, remember: People are not just another commodity. Getting them inside the tent works a whole lot better than when they are outside peering in. They have lives and lifestyles that will be affected by your decisions. If you want their support, they have to be able to accommodate the necessary change. It will often take time to make that change. Figure out how long and work out a timetable acceptable to both points of view.

2. Now that you are talking, the next thing is gaining trust. The fastest way to gain trust is to be consistent: Say what you mean and mean what you say. In simple HR terms, establish your policy, write it down, communicate it and stick to it. When you need to change or add a policy, explain why, provide adequate lead time for change and a reasonable transition process. (See principle No. 1.)

3. Culture and fit are critical and often intangible concepts, but highly desirable. We define this as how we will act and operate, how we expect our people to act and operate and who we hire. If these practices come together, people know what to expect and are supportive, because they accept and integrate into the culture easily. This integrated team also will know what to expect, within reason, for previously undefined situations. This means each deviation from the past is seen as a baby step or policy evolution.

4. The final knowledge gem is that the people who are part of the organization are an investment, and an investment that must be tended if it is to grow. The examples of where the investment is not tended are almost too numerous to mention. In a metaphorical sense, this is when you have moved the people outside the tent. Some will hang around; others will disappear altogether. Those hanging around may set the stage for a union; the others have no interest in what you do and have found a new focus. In either case, you’ve lost control of your investment and it will now cost you extra to align people with your objectives.

We learned in putting together our HR 101 course that the basic principles stay the same. It is only how we implement the concepts that change with size and technology.

Finally, working with the people, instead of in spite of the people, is what brings the best results and the fewest distractions. Those who are given HR responsibility, whether as specialists or line managers, must continually remind the top leaders that people are a unique asset and treated accordingly.

Ardon L. Schambers is a principal in the firm of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC in Grand Rapids.

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