HR Roundtable: Does HR Want to be Strategic?

The May HR Roundtable(in Cincinnati) jumped into a conversation that was honestly overdue. For years HR has yearned to be seen as strategic and they continue to use the phrase “seat at the table.” This is now 20+ years old and little has changed. When everyone convened for this session it was time to tackle the whole reality of HR being strategic in what they do.

Here were the teaser questions to get things going:Roundtable

  1. Why does HR continue to refuse to be strategic?
  2. What can companies do to use HR more strategically?
  3. How can HR close the gap?

The small groups jumped right in and started discussing. After some time, they came back to the larger group to share their thoughts. Take a look:

1. Why does HR continue to refuse to be strategic?

Because no one is truly strategic

This was a pretty bold statement to kick off the feedback from the small groups, but there may be a point here. Companies are tactical and functional at heart. This makes them successful. There may, or may not, be some strategies that lead these efforts. Chances are there are strong strategies in place. The problem may be is that HR isn’t positioned to either see them or be involved.

HR intrinsically is used to doing tasks

This is the worn out “this is how we’ve done things” argument. All jobs have tasks that need to be completed. The difference is whether being task driven defines who you are and what you do in HR. It will inevitably be part of your job, but it does not have to be how you are branded.

Too busy “doing” to be strategic

This ties into the prior point with one difference – we like being “busy.” It’s the number one answer people give when you ask how they are doing. If you spend the majority of your time in the weeds, you have no hope to lift your head up to see things could be strategic or not. You just miss what’s going on around you.

HR doesn’t get included or want to be strategic

This may be a fact because of how a company views the HR function as well as it may be that HR doesn’t want to be included. What ??!! How dare I type this? People need to come to terms that there are people who don’t want to be strategic. That may be limiting, but we can’t keep generalizing that EVERYONE wants to be strategic. There are limitations when you take that approach, but you can.

It’s safer not to be strategic

This is a misconception. It’s taking the position of  “If I just ignore it, it will go away.” Again, a limited and narrow approach to HR. There are many HR folks where this is a comfortable reality. Unfortunately, the more risk averse we are, the less likely we are to step out of our comfort zone.

Inordinate amount of time on governance and compliance

This is another fact of HR. It can actually be a key strength. The challenge is when we just end up building a fortress where this is all we do. When governance and compliance consume us, it’s another way to get stuck in the weeds.

2. What can companies do to use HR more strategically?

Define what HR should be – and what it shouldn’t be

Companies can make a shift on “who” HR is by defining what HR should and shouldn’t focus on. This goes past the must haves like compliance, reducing liability, tactical items like forms and processes, etc. This calls for having a vision, strategy and calling for what HR can be. It isn’t as utopian as you think.

Expect HR to work across departments

HR is the one function that can span departments and connect the silos. It’s very difficult to break the silos, but you can bring them together. Having HR as an outwardly focused function may not be what companies are used to, but it’s a way to position them to become strategic because they work across a broader landscape.

Be the business

Just like the phrase “seat at the table” is stale, so is “learn the business.” HR has to be an integral business function and not something that exists on the fringes. This is a position taken by senior management already, but HR needs to catch up and quickly. If HR continues to insist on acting separately, it will cease to be relevant and that should not occur.

Tell HR to drop the script

What script? The one that insists on citing chapter and verse of policies, manuals and handbooks. When HR feels they add value by being rule makers and rule enforcers, they are wrong. If HR’s only role is to keep people in line, then companies aren’t utilizing them effectively. HR has the ability to truly humanize the workplace, but it can’t be limited to being enforcers.

Include them in strategic planning

This shouldn’t even be an option. Since planning affects people, HR has to be included. The human component is rarely included in these sessions, but it can be. Companies need to understand that all planning affects their people. It’s time to see this differently.

3. How can HR close the gap?

Build relationships internally

This goes beyond working with other departments when there’s a situation. That is necessary, but doesn’t establish a relationship. HR needs to get out of the mode of working with people “as needed” and go see them, spend time with them, and start developing a true relationship. The more this happens, the more HR will be included.

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Burn your desk

You’re in HUMAN Resources, so be with your humans. This isn’t putting the “H” back in HR because that implies that it’s gone. If it is, that’s a bigger problem than being strategic. Directly learn what works, or fails, in regards to communicating with others. It’s a safe way to hone your skills outside your daily environment and role.

Relate to your employees

HR has a key advantage versus other departments. When you truly relate to employees, you hear what they’re saying, how they’re feeling, and where they stand on things. They can tell you if the strategies that are being proposed or implemented make sense or if they’re working. You can take the temperature of the company because being strategic isn’t about a one-day, off-site meeting. Being strategic is an on-going reality of organizations that occurs every, single day.

Don’t surrender to ambivalence

HR can become stagnant and go through the motions. It happens with many employees. However, it’s time for HR to push against this tide of ambivalence, and be intentional in how it practices. There’s no value in settling and sitting on the sidelines. Be different than what others think HR “should” be. Be brave and resilient.

Educate senior management

The time to wait on senior management to bless HR is over. It is now our time to step out and go to them. It may be uncomfortable to start, but it’s what senior management expects. HR can show how it IS strategic by interacting and being visible to upper management on purpose.

The whole session was phenomenal and could have gone on for hours. It’s evident that the tide is turning. Now we need to see how that can be sustainable for each person in HR and as an industry.

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.