HR is a contact sport
The factory looked like a war-zone. Much company property had been destroyed. There were serious injuries. I won’t reveal the nature of the injuries or when this episode took place to prevent the organization where it happened from being identified. Besides, such explosions are frequent enough for us not to probe the specifics of a particular instance. In nine out of ten cases of violence at the workplace, the management is taken totally by surprise and has no time to plan counter-measures, leave aside preempt the conflagration. While many people have analyzed the fundamental causes of industrial violence, my limited purpose here is to understand why early warning systems, which could have prevented the worst excesses, failed and how we can prevent such failures that repeatedly catch us with descended lower-garments.
The single thread that is common to almost all workplace violence is a break in the chain of face-to-face communication between people at the Bottom of the Pyramid and HR/ER people whose reports reach top decision-makers. The greater worry is that the newer models we are adopting for organizing and managing HR make catastrophic failures in feedback channels more rather than less likely.
The height of fashion nowadays is to find a tech solution to every issue. For example, grievance handling, that required all the skills of naturally intelligent and sensitive humans to resolve is now proudly declared to be the domain of artificially intelligent and utterly insensitive bots
The example at the start of this column illustrates the most prevalent reason for HR losing personal touch with its most important constituency – people. While ever greater proportions of value-add have been shoveled into the hands of contract workers, the redirection of HR attention to what has, in many organizations, become the larger part of the workforce, is not just inadequate but negligible. Rare is the ER/IR manager who actually meets with members of the precariat even occasionally, and with a grievance resolution mindset. Small wonder then that embers of discontent smouldering in that part of the working population are overlooked till they burst into uncontrollable flames. Yet, even if Indian industry gets over its addiction to contracted1 or uberized workers (I hope I have sufficient rebirths left to see either happen) or learns to give them the same ER care and support as it extends to its regular workforce, there are other fast-growing fashion trends that are drastically reducing face-to-face communications with employees.
HR interactions obviously don’t need to stop only with listening. The reason conversations with HR can be more practically beneficial are the skills the HR practitioner is expected to demonstrate in counselling employees to get a more realistic perception of their problems
First comes the noble-sounding (but actually lazy) program to push HR tasks (especially the ones that can’t be done in air-conditioned comfort behind the protection of a computer monitor or in the luxury of a posh training centre) to line managers. The first casualty of the offloading drive is the messy but essential need to meet employees at all levels regularly. Don’t get me wrong. It is important for line managers also to be in touch with their teams through non-task interactions. But there is no law that prevents a second channel of communication from being set up via HR. The value of such a parallel path becomes blindingly obvious when the channel through the chain of command becomes blocked or distorted, as it can all too easily in times of churn or staffing by inexperienced supervisors. Even worse is the situation when the problem to be reported lies somewhere within the same reporting hierarchy or when that channel is mis-utilized to message what suits an ambitious manager’s agenda. If HR has given up its own eyes and ears, its people are reduced to being dumb Myrmidons, powerless to confirm or contradict faulty reports emanating through the line conduit, and simply carrying out their demands.
Another surefire recipe to lose touch with one’s own people is to outsource those activities of HR that yield a large volume of interactions across levels. What is sneeringly called HR operations and considered untouchable by the upper caste business partner elites is actually a treasure trove of information about what is truly happening and of all the corns and callouses affecting employee satisfaction. What is an extremely valuable by-product of providing an employee service in-house, by the HR business partner, evaporates without a trace when it is outsourced and almost to the same extent when it is centralized.
The height of fashion nowadays, of course, is to find a tech solution to every issue. For example, grievance handling, that required all the skills of naturally intelligent and sensitive humans to resolve is now proudly declared to be the domain of artificially intelligent and utterly insensitive bots. While much of the debate in the community today is about whether chatbots can do what a human HR professional does (and of the dangerous snafus they can cause)2, my concern here is the loss of face-to-face contact such a substitution brings. Bot solutions are doubly disadvantageous in this context. In the first place, they leave employees feeling shortchanged that the organization doesn’t deem them worthy of a person listening to their concerns (surely top management doesn’t get bottled up like this). Even if employees’ problems are solved, it is unlikely that they will feel grateful and indebted – those are not sentiments that can easily be felt towards bots or transferred, from them, to organizations. Secondly, it will be very difficult for bots to extract information of the preemptive type we have been discussing out of standard service requests and day-to-day grievances. Information that can be used to forestall IR breakdowns, formulate policies or identify individuals for progression or observation are by nature equivocal. "Equivocality means ambiguity, the existence of multiple and conflicting interpretations about an organizational situation… Equivocality means that asking a yes-no question is not feasible… The key factor in equivocality reduction is the extent to which structural mechanisms facilitate the processing of rich information."3 At the top of the ranking for dealing with rich communication is our humble, age-old accessory: face-to-face communication. Bots don’t even enter the rankings.
Know your people
Uncovering or predicting disruptions in industrial harmony are certainly not the only, or even the most important, benefits of Human Resources having regular human-to-human contact at all levels in the organization. Let’s look at some more significant and hard-to-replace gains from this contact sport.
Cases abound of major transformation initiatives in highly regarded companies coming to grief simply because they had no process in place for sounding out a cross section of employees before embarking on a major policy change affecting them. Ongoing face-to-face contacts are not just invaluable for anticipating reactions to substantive people policy revisions (and possibly tweaking them in the direction of greater acceptability). They are equally useful for evaluating reactions on the ground once changes are announced and making quick course corrections before reactions and resistances reach the point when they can only be assuaged by the bathwater, the baby and the baby’s father, all being thrown out.
Listening to people and solving individual problems are as much a core part of an HR person’s job as the grandiose visioning, meticulous planning and flawless execution that are more easily assessed and rewarded
Another of the great advantages of face-to-face communication is that it is two way. Apart from using the opportunity to understand what is bothering employees or gauging their reactions to impending policy pronouncements, such contacts provide the perfect setting for credible communication of what is important to the company. There are plans and responses to competition that are difficult to explain believably in writing or through other one-way channels. Moreover, when disaffected employees, hostile unions or unfriendly outsiders are spreading disinformation and it is deemed unwise even to acknowledge it by giving a documentary response, these meetings are among the few ways in which employee opinion can be kept firmly favorable.
Over the decades I have been privileged to observe the performance of hundreds of young men and women in HR/ER. One characteristic that distinguished those who had a natural flair for dealing with people (and, hence, their outstanding success in HR) was their insistence on spending most of their time with the people they were supporting rather than at their tables in their offices. Today, those tables carry colorful computer screens with all the attractions (strictly professional, of course) the cloud has on offer and the offices are airconditioned. But if youngsters find it more difficult to tear themselves away from their work stations now, the need to meet with people in person has also become more acute because transitory tenures demand more frequent meetings if trust has to build before individuals move on. It is not only the development of young HR professionals that is assisted by constant people interactions. It remains one of the few ways by which senior leaders (including CHROs) can keep their feet on the ground and retain a feel for what is happening at the grassroot level.
Help your people
As important as keeping HR aware of the reality on the ground and equipping it to craft successful policies and processes is the way in which regular face-to-face interactions with people can resolve issues troubling individual employees before they fester into disaffection, destruction or departure. On the positive side, there is also no substitute for such individual meetings by HR in the recipe for building commitment and belongingness among employees at large. By just listening to the problems, concerns and aspirations of individuals, HR is signaling its commitment to the welfare and happiness of people. No friend, however patient and available, can reaffirm the individual’s worth to the organization in this manner. It needs the commitment of a HUMAN Resource by HR to substantiate its stated intent of caring for people. Of course, this requires that HR professionals are trained in active listening4 so that the impact is positive even in those instances where they cannot provide useful counsel or more direct help.
HR interactions obviously don’t need to stop only with listening. The reason conversations with HR can be more practically beneficial than talking things over with a friend or even a line supervisor are the skills the HR practitioner is expected to demonstrate in counselling employees to get a more realistic perception of their problems while tapping their internal reservoir of strengths in coping with them. In addition to counselling is also the knowledge-base HR professionals should have about which policy or avenue of appeal is likely to be most efficacious. This should be supplemented by case knowledge of how employees in other parts of the organization have been aided in similar situations.
While not always possible, there are a significant number of opportunities for HR practioners to intervene directly and solve problems. These interventions may take the form of talking things over with the line manager (especially if s/he is the origin of the problem), championing the employee’s case where there is discretion in the hands of a senior HR or line decision-maker or providing some limited coaching in overcoming an internal barrier to the problem resolution. An external shared-service provider is hardly ever in a position or sufficiently motivated to provide such help and an AI-bot is obviously much less so. Even if they were capable, the gratitude and consequential commitment would not flow back to the company or to HR and would, therefore, not be available for future 'drawal' when individual employee support (aggregated over many instances) can make all the difference in managing a crisis or a transformation program.
A competent HR professional with a well-tuned antenna should also be able to provide secondary guidance to an employee. The initial contact may arise from an internal job interview, an employee approaching with a grievance or an employee contact program but, as part of the dialogue, the HR interlocutor may discover an employee’s talents, contact networks or side interests that could be useful in another assignment or as a member of a task team or a voluntary activity – something that may have never come to light otherwise.
Actively reaching all
Listening to people and solving individual problems are as much a core part of an HR person’s job as the grandiose visioning, meticulous planning and flawless execution that are more easily assessed and rewarded. Those seemingly trivial interruptions by individual employees, far from being distractions, are HR’s special moments of truth5 which demonstrate, employee by employee, whether the knowledge, skills and empathy with which we claim to be so well-stocked, can actually be converted to practical problem resolution which, in turn, builds good will towards HR and the organization at large.
Of course, employees feeling the need and having the trust to approach HR with their problems are just one source of opportunities for interaction. There are myriads of others which fall into the laps of HR practitioners without any effort on their part. They can come from processes as varied as Q&A during training programs, counseling for late-coming, absenteeism or indiscipline handling and even from exit interviews. Regardless of the process of origin, each of these opportunities for face-to-face interaction can help employees solve problems and get developmental aid while yielding valuable feedback to and positive affect for the organization.
Rich as the yields may be from the interactions initiated by employees or other people processes, they cannot possibly cover all employees. In my bible, unless each employee is personally 'touched' by an HR person on a regular basis, HR is failing in one of key roles – knowing and solving people problems both individually and systemically. To achieve this goal, organizations need to institute programs for reaching out to every single employee on multiple occasions each year. Every HR person from the CHRO down and including the ones working in back office or routine clerical roles should spend between half to a full day every week on this activity. For those HR people who do not meet cross-sections of employees as part of their job, these meetings would yield the secondary benefit of knowing the reality and reactions of the ultimate customers who their policies or back office work support. To prevent the exercise from being threatening or perfunctory, those unused to employee interactions would need to be given a brief orientation and everyone would utilize a basic checklist for the meeting followed by a brief on-line report.
In my bible, unless each employee is personally 'touched' by an HR person on a regular basis, HR is failing in one of key roles - knowing and solving people problems both individually and systemically
Drop by drop
Can such simple meetings really add up to much? Should they take us away from the killer schemes that win us awards and get our names plastered all over the media? Thought leadership and pioneering projects are immensely fulfilling and periodically essential. However, they cannot substitute the most fundamental and frequently used tool in the HR person’s kit: the face-to-face meeting. At such times it is useful to remember (a slightly tweaked version of) Julia Carney’s poem6 for children,
Little drops of water
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean,
And the pleasant land.
Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of cheer,
Make our people happy,
And drive away their fear.
1. Visty Banaji, Udta Udyog – Industry’s addiction to contract workers, People Matters, 15th September 2016.
2. Sintija Valdez, Are Chatbots Doomed to Failure or Will They Eventually Conquer HR?, Cake HR Blog, 4 February 2018.
3. Richard L Daft and Robert H Lengel, Organizational Information Requirements, Media Richness and Structural Design, Management Science, Vol. 32, No. 5, Organization Design, May 1986.
4. Mpumelelo Longweni and Japie Kroon, Managers’ listening skills, feedback skills and ability to deal with interference: A subordinate perspective, Acta Commercii - Independent Research Journal in the Management Sciences, June 2018.
5. Marc Beaujean, Jonathan Davidson and Stacey Madge, The 'moment of truth' in customer service, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2006.
6. Little Things: A Poem about Small Acts of Kindness