There’s been a lot of talk recently about how HR people need to become more business savvy and financially aware if they are to win the respect of their management colleagues.

That may well be true, but a debate is also beginning to emerge about whether HR is in danger of going too far down the hard-nosed commercial route and forgetting about the people. There’s been so much pressure on HR to concentrate on the bottom line that it’s almost become unacceptable for practitioners to even admit they joined the profession because they actually like working with people.

In a recent blog post, HR commentator Jon Ingham expresses concern about this direction of travel, describing it as “quite sad, and more than a bit scary”. “We seem to be forgetting the people who make our businesses work. And bizarrely, we’re doing this at just the point at which many of our businesses are starting to get more interested in their people,” he says.

There’s no doubt that HR people (and indeed managers) who like and understand people are much more likely to get better results for their organisation. Recent research from Engage for Success, for example, has shown a strong correlation between engaged employees and a highly productive workforce.

So maybe it’s time organisations allowed HR to step away from the balance sheet occasionally and start ‘feeling the love’ for people again? Here’s five reasons why businesses need HR to put people back at the top of their agenda:

1. They can help speed up the pace of change

We live in an era where organisations are constantly reinventing themselves in response to increased competition or changes in the market. The people who work for them, however, are by and large quite happy how they are and have no particular desire or energy to change. HR practitioners who have high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence can do a huge amount to engage people in change, and win their support for whatever it is the business wants them to do differently. If employees see them as the ‘good guys’ who have their best interests at heart, HR will be able to build trust and get people on side.

2. They can help managers do their jobs more effectively

The best HR people are not shut away in their offices poring over spreadsheets. They are out on the front line, getting a real insight into the daily challenges managers face. Line managers are often wary of getting HR involved when they come up against obstacles, fearing that they will be overly-bureaucratic and will get in the way of new ideas about how work can be organised. The truth, however, is that HR has a whole array of tools and techniques at its fingertips to help managers get the best out of their teams. For example, the latest HR software can do much to streamline processes and reduce the time-consuming admin that comes with managing people. If HR people are able to build close relationships with line managers, they can make a huge contribution to discussions about how jobs are designed, how work is managed, and how managers can maintain a happy and productive ship.

3. They can help managers nip difficult people problems in the bud

An over-emphasis on ‘controlling’ employees through policies and procedures has meant that HR are often seen by both managers and employees as ‘blockers’ rather than ‘enablers’. They get called in as a last resort when a problem arises – often when the situation has reached crisis point and it’s too late to do anything about it. Of course any business has to have rules and ensure it is complying with employment regulations – but if HR is allowed to shift the focus more towards ‘helping’ people (rather than telling them what they can’t do) they will be better able to help line managers deal with niggling problems (such as poor performance or unacceptable absence levels) before they escalate into major issues. If organisations let HR people fulfil their natural desire to be line managers ‘friends’ rather than their foes, many a long and often costly HR disaster could be avoided.

4. They can help drive engagement

HR people have a wealth of tools and techniques at their disposal to help them drive engagement in the business. They can, for example, help the organisation understand how to use rewards and benefits to motivate people and encourage them to go the extra mile. They can work with managers to develop performance management approaches that accentuate the positive and leave people looking forward to – rather than dreading – their annual appraisal. They can play a key role in internal communications, making sure that employees feel involved in the business and support its direction of travel. The key to success is to involve HR in strategic business decisions early on – so they can point out the people implications and help develop strategies that build the engagement needed for high performance.

5. They can help create an open, transparent culture

In many organisations, employees are wary of HR, seeing them as ‘puppets’ of management, rather than people who genuinely want to help them fulfil their potential and have a good experience at work. Most HR people do have a natural desire to want to support people – it’s the organisational culture that gets in the way. HR can do much to help encourage an open, transparent culture where people feel free to express their views or raise their hand if they have a problem. Some of that is about having the time to walk the building, talk to people and find out what’s on their minds. But the social portals that come with the latest generation HR systems are also a great way to share information about what’s happening and encourage open dialogue between senior management and employees. Of course all this has to start from the top – with open and honest conversations between HR and senior leaders about how to build trust and develop an open, inclusive culture.

Has HR lost its love of people – or should a commercial focus be the priority? Let us know your thoughts in the comment box below or tweet us at @CezanneHR

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.

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