How to Empower Employees

The need for HR to become “enablers” rather than “controllers” was one of the key themes of CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese’s opening address at the 2014 CIPD conference in Manchester, UK.

In his rousing speech, Cheese highlighted the need for the profession to shift its focus in response to changes in the world of work, and to strive to achieve the CIPD’s mantra of “better work” and “better working lives”.

In a swipe at commentators who have criticized HR for its lack of strategic capability and suggested the profession should stick to the tactical stuff, he urged the audience to “stand up as a profession and be confident and proud of what we do”.

There is no doubt that in some organizations, the HR team is perceived to be made up of people who get in the way of things moving forward rather than helping them along. So what does the profession need to do to shrug image as the class hall monitor and jump into the business realities?

Lead the Renewal

Both the workforce and the workplace are changing beyond recognition. We are seeing the emergence of a four-generation workforce in which, at one end, people are working way beyond conventional retirement age, and at the other ‘digital native’ employees are entering the workforce with a whole new set of expectations.

Thanks to advances in technology, the traditional 9-5 is no longer the only way, and more people are beginning to work any time and any place. Yesterday’s competitors are becoming today’s collaborators, and business has become truly global. It’s a perfect opportunity to open a debate with senior managers about what impact these changes are having on the business, and the role HR really needs to play. Take time to understand the views and perspectives of others, then draw up a list of what you see to be the priorities, how you’d go about addressing them and start the debate.

Make Use of Evidence

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about big data, but you don’t need an advanced understanding of HR analytics to use this information to your advantage. Having tangible data that shows how much time is being lost to sickness, the time it takes to fill vacant roles, where the skill gaps are, or which bits of the business are struggling to retain staff, lets you talk in terms that business or finance managers will understand. Thankfully, this can now be supported by HR technology in prices levels to fit all company sizes.

Apply New Scientific Understanding

The past year has seen an explosion of interest in the science of human behavior. Research has given us new insights into what motivates people, how they learn and what makes them behave the way they do. Now is the time to take action and use the wealth of information available (see our review of top TED Talks for HR people) and find ways to feed these new psychological and anthropological insights into its people policies and L&D activities.

Empower the Employees

Organizations can have the most forward-thinking people policies ever, but it’s how those policies are enacted on the front line that really matters. Do managers know how to engage and motivate staff? Are they equipped to have constructive career conversations with their people? HR has a huge role to play in encouraging managers to get the best out of their people. As Peter Cheese pointed out, if we are to achieve peak performance, we need to “teach, support, coach and enable line managers to do it better.”


HR cannot deliver the agile, adaptive workforces organizations need by itself. The professionals needs to work closely with colleagues in finance, IT, and marketing to develop the strategies that will add real value to the business. Both sides have traditionally viewed each other with a certain amount of skepticism – and HR is not always respected by its peers – but it’s time to break down the boundaries and work collaboratively towards a common goal. Identify initiatives that you can work on together: a different approach to management training, improving the use of your HR systems, or even something as simple as agreeing with finance common definitions for reporting headcount.

What else can the profession do to become an facilitator rather than a gatekeeper? Is it “simples” as Peter Cheese suggested, or are there barriers getting in the way of HR making a real difference? Let us have your views.

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