HR as the Town Crier, or Why People Management Needs a Lot More Focus

Is HR the new town crier, sounding the warning about what is coming in the future?

In the 18th Century, a town crier was used to make public pronouncements wearing a red and gold robe, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat. They would carry a hand-bell to attract attract people’s attention, as they shout the words “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”  This translates to “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” before making their announcements. This was a call for silence and attention.

I have been giving a lot of thought to this role over the past few months and it really crystallized last week when I read the recent article in Human Resources Executive titled What’s Keeping You Up?  This article was based on a survey of 802 HRE readers that found that “nearly 80 percent of HR leaders report their level of stress has gone up during the past 18 months,”  with one-third of those surveyed reporting that their level of stress had increased “dramatically.”

There was a common theme in these findings, and it’s this: that given the impact of the downturn, HR leaders are having a difficult time these days.

“Significant challenges” to HR today

How hard? According to the survey, when asked to name “significant challenges” to human resources today, the HR leaders said:

  • Only 30 percent of HR leaders felt that employee engagement and morale are strong within their companies;
  • More than 50 percent  said they were worried about losing talent;
  • 45 percent cited the need to keep employees engaged and productive;
  • 34 percent cited the need to retain key talent as the recovery takes hold;
  • 33 percent feel there is a strong need to develop new HR leaders;
  • More than 50 percent say downsizing has hindered their organizations ability to achieve its goals and objectives;
  • 11 percent said that that downsizing has “significantly” hindered their organizations;
  • More than 33 percent said their HR departments were cut during the recession;
  • Some 50 percent said that they did not have enough staff to handle the current workload.

The survey also asked what methods HR leaders are using to keep employees happy, engaged, and committed:

  • 63 percent plan to increase employee communication to boost retention;
  • 55 percent say will increase training and development;
  • 45 plan to do more to assist employees in career development;
  • 30 percent are going to help improve work/life balance;
  • Only 21 percent plan to increase compensation; and,
  • Just 16 percent say they will enhance employee benefits.

I have read so many of these type articles over the past year or so. They all seem to point to the same dilemma. Just take a look at some of my favorites:

I even wrote an article a while back titled, “The Tsuanmi is coming and it is headed to HR.”

Preparing for the coming tsunami

Now, back to the town crier: I do not profess to be the one who has gone to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. That mountaintop is a crowded perch now because every report you read basically tells the same story. HR’s impending dilemma has been sliced about every way that you can possibly think.

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The big storm is coming and it will hit sooner than later. One thing is for sure: the tsunami is heading towards land. We do not need any more white papers to tell us this.

HR is in the cross hairs and this is not an errant weather forecast; it is just a matter of time and it will hit land at various companies depending upon the recovery, industry, culture, and other factors. That most commonly used phrase in the past — “People are our greatest asset” — will now take center stage.

The common denominators in all these studies are the importance of engagement and reconnecting with the workforce. In other words, the “people thing” has to be redone.

Or as the town crier would say, “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!”

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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