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Jul 15, 2020

Like many of you, I recently received a letter from Johnny C. Taylor, the president and CEO of SHRM. He announced that the organization will take “a definitive and significant course of action: to convene the best minds to drive actions and solutions around equity in the workplace for the Black community.”

The action is a blue-ribbon commission to create “Together Forward @Work,” focused on mitigating racism among Black Americans and other communities of color.

Surely, HR professionals know this is a lame response to a big problem.  

Perhaps the petition asking SHRM to support Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community had an impact. (It has garnered more than 5,100 signatures.) Perhaps the voices of SHRM members were heard. Perhaps this tipping point we are in as a nation is making a difference.  

But it shouldn’t take all that for SHRM to take action on something that should be fundamentally part of their DNA — equality in the workplace. Nor should that action be the formation of a committee. 

Besides the fact that this commission is focused on simply one element of equity in the workplace (it left out any reference to the LGBTQ community, and how about working toward gender equality too?), committees of the “best minds” do not work. They come up with grand plans that often don’t address real challenges that real professionals face. 

I question whether the “best minds” on this commission will really know what is going on in the workforce? Will they know what employees contend with? Will they know what leaders are faced with? Will they know what HR professionals are actually spending their time doing?

As pointless as the commission seems with regard to addressing human issues around equality, it speaks to SHRM’s larger problem: The institution is failing to make HR relevant.

[Editor’s note: SHRM declined to comment on main claims made in this article.]

Real Change, Not Band-Aids 

It’s important to take a step back and ask: After decades of equal-rights legislation (most recently expanding rights to the LGBTQ community), why are we still grappling with the same issues? We’ve legislated the heck out of them, as well as created bureaucracy and administrivia to count, track, and mandate behavior.

The answer is because you can’t mandate behavior and expect change. Nor can you create real change with yet more bureaucracy, which is exactly what this commission is. It’s clear to me that SHRM doesn’t really understand how to manage change — which is, or should be, at the very heart of HR.

This brings me to a well-known maxim: “Let’s not waste a good crisis.” The point being that pain and discomfort create an openness to change. We are in pain right now as a country and as a profession.

SHRM would be well-served to confront that pain openly and grab the opportunity to provide the right vision for HR and be a change leader to help its members (as opposed to posting yet another online toolkit). That means understanding HR’s fundamental role in changing an organization’s culture.

But I don’t think SHRM understands that. A key reason why HR is not relevant at many organizations is because it’s stuck in administration and operation. Many HR processes focus on compliance rather than commitment, and in many cases, that generates eye rolls on the part of managers. Managers don’t “get” the spirit and intent, and HR becomes an obstacle. 

Make HR Relevant

Here are three recommendations for SHRM to lead HR better:

Recommendation 1: Put the brakes on compliance as a main focus.

How? Start by lobbying to change employment laws that may be out of sync with today’s workforce, beginning with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was important to prevent exploitation of the workforce in a heavily industrialized age. Today, however, parts of it are problematic.

Take this example of how HR is in a no-win situation right now due to FLSA. On one hand, HR is partly responsible for engaging the workforce, but when a manager wants to give a non-exempt employee a chance for development, HR says “no” because the employee must be paid and therefore cannot learn while off-duty. The manager doesn’t have the funds to expense the training, so the employee is frustrated and HR becomes the obstacle.  

That type of focus on detailed calculation of hours worked well in the industrial age, but not so much for knowledge work today. We certainly don’t want to return to exploitation, but I suspect some attention to the relevance of FLSA could yield positive results. SHRM can similarly examine whether complying with other laws and practices are also hindering HR from concentrating more on strategic aims.

Recommendation 2: Position HR as a change leader.

Create a vision for HR to add significant value to organizations. Business leaders are craving real solutions to their people problems. Bureaucratic programs that don’t yield results – whether because they’re compliance-driven or poorly designed — only make HR even more irrelevant.  

SHRM should position the profession around change leadership, with a focus on building a strong case for HR pros to be change agents. It must create a vision for HR based on partnership and leadership, rather than administration and operations.

This requires a new lens at the top to show how every HR program or practice must be a framework for change. It should be about helping leaders throughout a company see what they should demand from their HR department, as well as providing real learning programs for HR practitioners to enable them to put concepts into practice.

Yes, there are hundreds of excellent books, articles, and webinars, all aimed to help HR be a valued partner. But for those resources to be effective, there has to be a vision, an aspiration of how value can best be added. SHRM should provide that. 

Put otherwise, toolkits are great reminders, but they are not real learning opportunities. To use a toolkit effectively, an HR practitioner first needs to understand the fundamentals of organizational dynamics and change.

Recommendation 3: Coordinate and sync all HR sub-disciplines.

SHRM should bring together all HR sub-disciplines so that the function can provide clear and helpful value to operational leaders. Compensation, benefits, recruiting, employee relations, learning and development, and technology each offer frameworks that shape behavior — via job descriptions, competencies, performance management, talent assessments and acquisition, employee development, etc. But to be truly impactful, each framework needs to complement the others, so that the same message of behavioral expectations is succinct and consistent.

If operational managers receive different messages coming from different areas of HR, the department’s credibility is shot. SHRM must concentrate on bringing together HR silos and helping HR leaders develop cohesive people strategies.

Is SHRM doing all the above? Not to the extent it should be.

When I think of what HR could be, I get very excited. But there are obstacles today that are in the way. SHRM could make a huge impact and make HR relevant by helping to remove those obstacles.

Instead, they’re forming a committee.

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