Matters Column

Is human resources a sort of social barometer?

January 1, 2016
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Recently, I received a video clip from a friend of a radio program produced by Paul Harvey, a well-known commentator in the ’70s and ’80s. The gist of it was about all the trends back then that seemed to indicate society was going down the “tube.”

Shortly thereafter, I received a shared e-mail from another friend about the direction of the current administration in Washington, with references to same-sex marriages, backing off on harsh jail sentences for drug abusers, or not getting people to work fast enough, among other shortfalls.

Clearly, these are people who have made judgments about what is right and what is wrong — at least from their point of view.

Stating the obvious, these issues as well as other social targets of today have lots of complexity, and there are people who feel strongly on both sides of the matter, with many who are somewhere in between. The frequency with which such matters seem to arise these days indicates society is clearly changing — whether for good or worse may be hard to tell, but it is changing.

Sociologists may be able to pin down the drivers of change and develop some interesting academic papers. 

Who deals with change?

Others of us have to make judgment calls on how best to deal with the changes. The human resource department in most organizations is expected to sort out the issues and work through the complexity and determine which social trends impact the organization’s objectives.

Whether because of legal or regulatory changes, or trying to make an organization responsive to the changes to accomplish its visions and goals, actions are required to stay on top of matters. Making the wrong call can lead to lawsuits, penalties of all sorts or ineffectual staffing and performance issues.

Those in the operations side of the organization adjust products or processes to accommodate potential customer or client tastes, or take advantage of technology to get the job done faster, cheaper, better, or all of the above.

To some extent these functions are one step removed from the day-to-day events that are happening in society. On the other hand, they may drive change or ramp up trends. None of us lives in a vacuum.

How do we deal with change?

Where the government has to be careful about who gets into the country, the HR department has a similar responsibility about who gets into the organization. Of course we can close off the hiring process, or we can only hire the same kind of people we hired 40 years ago (white male managers and production workers and female secretaries).

Unfortunately, the people in that select group might not have the skills needed or might not want the jobs. So maybe we need to open a small hole in the fence.

However, if we let these new people in with their different ideas and backgrounds, we are certainly going to have integration issues — especially if the old employees aren’t prepared for change. We don’t want to have the organization become polarized and end up getting nothing done. Someone has to be sensitive to the thoughts presented by all parties. If we can get some consideration by everyone, we are likely to move ahead and accomplish what we have been organized to do.

Combining thoughts may actually allow a new way to achieve all our goals, both business and personal. We might become stronger, faster and smarter than ever before. 

What are the possibilities?

Think how exciting it would be if we spent our energy forging new results, and less time and energy focused on people who act differently or think differently but who really don’t hurt us.

Yes, they might make us a bit uncomfortable, but remember that crazy band The Beatles who came to America with long hair, and Elvis Presley who swung his hips on national TV? It got a lot of people excited. “Old” people lamented, but young people did new exciting things.

I hate to say my sharing friends are in the “old” people category. Maybe they are representative of any people who believe the only way things should be done is their way.

Being fully convinced that your thought process is the way to go often adds a degree of comfort to your life, but whether we like it or not, other things change all around us and frequently that makes our original process or belief the oddball perspective. 

We cannot hold back change. So having someone whose job it is to keep their ear to the ground, both inside and outside the organization, with sound judgment, access to and credibility within organization leadership can be instrumental in guiding organization change to take advantage of social change.

Forty years ago this responsibility was simpler and mostly about keeping an eye on a few law changes and some reporting to be in compliance for notable events like ERISA every few years.

These days the diversity of society, the variety of options in any field you can name, and the incredible impact of technology is driving the rate of change at such a pace, it is hard to know what to focus on. 

It is no wonder people want to focus on the good old days and stop all these foolish new ideas about unacceptable behaviors or strange religions or relations. However, if you truly took the time to dig into it and had the power to go back in time, it would still be difficult to make decisions that would be most beneficial to society.

Think ahead

People who believe things are always cut and dried forget that someone comes up short in nearly all decisions. The best you can hope for is a sort of win-win for the majority of folks and that those who lose out don’t get hurt too badly, which is likely to create a new social dynamic.

You need to emphasize to those with a responsibility to manage organizational change to look broadly and engage the entire workforce, and recognize this is an ongoing process with continual adjustments just like a barometer.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting & Services. He can be reached at aschambers@p3hrcs.com.

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