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How HR Departments Can Assert Their Value

Human resources has an emerging role in building healthy organizations with engaged workforces.

There have been more than a few articles critical of human resources departments’ role in building healthy organizations. They have appeared in prominent business publications like Forbes and on a number of websites. One of the most frequently cited is “Why We Hate HR,” published in the journal Fast Company in August 2005.  For years HR was a frequent theme of Dilbert comic strips. Articles touting the field have been rare.

But that’s changing. In the December issue of the Harvard Business Review, an article summarized a study by prominent consultant and academic David Ulrich and senior headhunter Ellie Filler:

For decades the corporate HR department was seen as a back-office function, a cost center focused on mundane administrative tasks such as managing compensation and benefits plans. But over the past 15 years [there has been] a dramatic change. Today HR chiefs report directly to the CEO, serve as the CEO’s key adviser, and make frequent presentations to the board. This role is gaining importance like never before. It’s  . . . become much more of a game changer and the person who enables the business strategy.

That theme was similar to a statement in a far more critical article in the July issue by another prominent consultant, who argued CEOs “would like to be able to use their chief human resource officers (CHROs) the way they use their CFOs -- as sounding boards and trusted partners.”

Those articles would not have been published two decades ago. But over the past 20 years there has been a revolution in the way work is organized and managed. Companies now understand that an emotionally committed workforce is a source of competitive advantage. That’s why there has been so much attention to employee engagement and to the “great places to work.” In a supportive work environment, employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. They may go home exhausted, but they look forward to returning the next day. In high performing companies, workforce management is a priority. 

That experience has been documented in thousands of books and articles. There is a readily available body of knowledge on the practices that contribute to employee commitment and to high performance. It’s analogous to the knowledge available to physicians as they diagnose and prescribe treatments to maintain the health of the human body.

Here, the focus is the health of the organization, which is loosely defined as a workplace where employees feel they are valued, respect their colleagues, and take pride in what they do.

Government has an even greater potential for improved workforce performance than the private sector. Everything government accomplishes is attributable to the efforts of employees at some level. Investing in the health of agencies can pay off better than installing any IT systems on the horizon. 

Government agencies are best understood as knowledge organizations that rely on employees and the capabilities they bring to the job. Agencies have to address complex problems and are competing for talent with many companies on the “best places to work” lists. A key is that employees need to be managed as assets, not as a cost. The common strategy in leading knowledge companies is creating a work environment where employees collaborate to tackle problems as they arise.

Government, however, has been going in a very different direction. Media reports suggest recent budget cuts and the three-year pay freeze that ended last year took a toll on employees and their families. Layoffs are still happening. The annual responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey show a continuing decline in morale. Early retirements and turnover have cost agencies organizational knowledge. There is also the cost of the damage to the federal brand as an employer and the talented future graduates who ignore federal job opportunities. The health of federal agencies has deteriorated badly.

All of this is complicated by ineffective HR policies, practices and systems.  The civil service albatross is an impediment to change and effective people management. There are certainly agencies with exemplar practices, but there continue to be headlines like, “Agencies Show Little Progress in Improving the Federal Hiring Process.” That’s evidence of poor health.

Media reports about the new Congress suggest the problems could get worse.  Sen. Ron Johnson, the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has promised to hold hearings on pay and benefits. The workforce is an easy target.

Meaningful pay increases are obviously off the table. However, there is a long list of management practices known to contribute to employee engagement.  The natural choice of “physician” to treat low morale is the HR office.  That is a new role that adds far greater value than the traditional and rapidly disappearing role as “chief paper processor.”  This role is very similar to that of a physician who relies on his or her training to diagnose symptoms of illness and prescribe treatments. OPM’s viewpoint survey serves the same purpose as an annual physical. 

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency undertook an extensive diagnostic exercise to develop plans to address organizational issues in the years after the agency was created. The HR office created a committee of employees to guide the planning, conducted surveys and focus groups to understand manager and employee concerns, and initiated an aggressive communications campaign.  They also committed to an annual evaluation and fine-tuning of their practices based on employee feedback.  Their strategy enabled the agency to win awards as an employer.

NGA leaders championed the changes. That’s a key to gaining the commitment of executives and managers. Having leaders as champions has been a common thread in other success stories dating back to China Lake in 1990. 

For agencies to improve organizational health and performance, the work management paradigm needs to change. That encompasses day-to-day supervision as well as HR practices. NGA confirms it’s possible. Agencies should look to their HR physicians to maintain agency health.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Planning Wage and Salary Programs. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

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