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Opinion: Before Getting Down to Business, Maybe HR Should Focus on Human Resources

Nick ShepherdWhile it’s important for human resources executives to understand business, it’s important for the field to fulfill its primary role: to help organizations address the leadership and employee engagement and experience challenges that continue to plague business around the world.
By Nick Shepherd

A Focus on Professional Advisory Services Rather Than Finance
Getting Back to Basics

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Based on what I see in my Linkedin feeds, there is a growing movement to teach human resources people to think like finance and businesspeople. The reasoning is founded on the belief that if human resources executives understand the concepts of finance and return on investment (ROI), they would be better equipped to argue the case for investing in training, development, and other engagement efforts.
As a financial executive, I see the benefits of training human resources professionals in business management and return on investment analysis; however, HR often involves issues unrelated to pure finance. The world of the accountant is based heavily on reason and logic, while core aspects of HR depend upon psychology and emotion. This is evidenced by decades of research in understanding human motivation and the link between financial rewards, leadership, appreciation and recognition, employee experience, and performance.
Of course, HR can emulate the world of finance by understanding the foundational concepts as well as adopting many of the disciplined and structured aspects of effective process management. After all, effective processes help drive organizational effectiveness – so HR systems should be effectively managed, measured, and continuously improved. However, HR often does not deal with financial issues but rather with how and why people behave. If organizations are to create employee engagement and develop a positive workplace culture, it is the behavior and practices of leaders and employees that is at the heart of the needed changes, not financial management.

A Focus on Professional Advisory Services Rather Than Finance

So rather than trying to turn human resources management into businesspeople, enhancing HR requires a refocusing of the profession on the execution of its core mission of developing leadership capable of inspiring, attracting, and retaining today’s workforce and a culture in which people thrive. After all, despite decades of talk about the importance of employee engagement and experience, Gallup surveys continue to indicate that employees around the world are more disengaged than ever. Obviously, something isn’t working, despite large investments in employee development, recognition, and engagement efforts.
What is really required now is a shift in the definition of HR professionalism – one similar to that already experienced by quality managers and accountants. This shift is from a process, task, and activity bias to one more heavily based on the professional advisory role. This involves advising and coaching senior management as well as all those in leadership positions, about how to understand people – their motivations and behaviors and also how to personally behave as a leader. While HR maintains responsibility for areas like equal employment opportunity, application of required employment standards, resource planning, arbitration and problem resolution, the provision of employee health and assistance programs, and disclosures, these issues alone do not address employee engagement challenges.
While promoting a greater understanding of the business case for human resources is of obvious importance, the field should make sure that it is fulfilling its first and primary mission: to create a culture in which leaders and employees at all levels of the organization are fully engaged in the organization's purpose, goals, and objectives.  Given that Gallup surveys continue to indicate historically low levels of employee engagement, it seems that the human resources field has plenty of work to do perfecting its current role in organizations.

Getting Back to Basics

HR today should be about applying what Fredrick Herzberg's two-factor theory of motivation addresses: the idea that employee satisfaction is based on what he called “hygiene” and motivation. Hygiene issues, such as salary and supervision, can enhance workplace satisfaction. Motivators, such as recognition and achievement, he asserted, make workers more productive, committed and creative. Instead of rushing toward the newest bright shiny object, this means going back to the basics of human resources, including:
  • Advising senior executives and managers at all levels on the human aspects of management—the soft skills such as empathy, appreciation, personal development.
  • Turning the organization’s mission statement into a practical guide for creating a culture that rewards and recognizes people for the actions and attitudes that support the purpose, goals, and objectives.
  • Actively listening to employees throughout the organization to identify what is or isn’t working and using those insights to make needed changes.
  • Making sure that employees fully engage in new services, technologies, or systems, which often fail due to lack of employee involvement.
  • Strategically addressing job design to reduce monotony, encourage job sharing and cross-functional alignment.
  • Identifying benefits and development programs that truly address employee needs as well as those of the organization.
In other words, before rushing off to focus on becoming business people, the human resources profession should start by perfecting the core purpose of its role: employee motivation and enrichment. 
About the author. Nick Shepherd is a former finance executive and currently a consultant with over 50 years of business experience, including over 25 years running his own professional development and consulting business.

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