7 Dec 2017

Earlier this year, Taylor Vinters’ CEO Matt Meyer wrote an article exploring some common trends he saw amongst the most innovative General Counsel. This led me to start thinking about some of the successful behaviours I see in my own area of practice, advising businesses on complex employment law issues and disputes, both in the UK and internationally.

I am fortunate to work every day with experienced HR Directors who are genuinely enthused by what they do and, as a result, make a real difference to their organisations. Some have a Board level role with an open line of communication to the Chief Executive and senior leadership group. Others provide UK-focused or regional support to multi-national corporations, reporting into a global HR function overseas.

These two types of role can vary significantly. However, regardless of the scope of responsibilities or geographical remit, the most impressive HR Directors I speak to appear to have certain qualities in common. Here are some of my personal observations on what makes them stand out:

1. They recognise that their value rests in providing positive strategic direction for the business, not troubleshooting. In order to have the time and space to focus on this, they set strong foundations. This means getting the house in order and instilling a culture that is aligned with the strategy and values of the business. It is difficult to make meaningful progress if you spend a disproportionate amount of time managing employee relations issues. Grievances, poor performance and disciplinary processes are energy-sapping and can slow the impetus for progressing an organisation’s long-term goals. In the HR context, firefighters rarely have the opportunity to be innovators.

2. They have a deep knowledge of the business plan, the priorities of the management team and how the business generates profit. As such, they work closely and collaboratively with senior colleagues across all business functions, to develop a successful long-term people strategy. This degree of commercial awareness also brings with it an understanding that HR is increasingly viewed as a gatekeeper in managing wider commercial and reputational risk. Most work environments are now significantly reliant on technology, which has created new challenges in recent years. For example, tackling cybercrime is not seen as the sole responsibility of the IT department. By increasing awareness and providing training, all employees within the business can play a role as an important first line of defence. Similarly, social media brings great opportunities for businesses seeking new audiences and markets, but reputational risks if it is used inappropriately by employees (whether inside or outside the workplace).   As always, there is a delicate balance to be struck, depending on the culture of the business and its wider objectives.

3. As part of their overarching strategy, they will demand that managers at all levels have (or acquire) the necessary skills to take responsibility for their own teams. HR Directors should not be making disciplinary decisions or stepping in to have difficult conversations that managers would rather shy away from. They encourage and support good managerial practice, but make it clear that the HR department is not there to hide behind. At an operational level, many businesses invest in training for line managers on how to deal with minor behavioural issues, give constructive (and regular) feedback and set clear boundaries that distinguish between acceptable “workplace banter” and bullying. In my experience, this pays for itself many times over. Formal processes become a rarity. Managers gain confidence and authority from showing leadership and nipping problems in the bud. Employees respect an environment where the same standards are applied consistently across the board. This fosters job satisfaction, low attrition and high motivation.

4. They are genuine champions of diversity. All businesses will say that they have a friendly, inclusive culture but that must go beyond simply publishing an equal opportunities statement. It means avoiding a mismatch between reality and rhetoric or viewing diversity as a statistical exercise. The best HR Directors actively promote a level playing field for those seeking career advancement, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or disability. This might include highlighting the business benefits of flexible working arrangements as an important retention tool (and not just for female employees with childcare responsibilities). But it also involves looking beyond characteristics traditionally protected by discrimination law. They will engage in initiatives aimed at rooting out hidden talent amongst those from under-privileged backgrounds, whose determination to overcome social barriers is often a good indicator of future success. They recognise that diverse businesses encourage a richness of ideas that, in the long term, enable them to outperform more homogenous organisations.

5. They are constantly thinking about the long-term future of the business. This goes beyond the usual succession planning and now involves serious engagement with the future world of work. Rapid advances in technology and increased automation will revolutionise the workplace of tomorrow. It is likely that the next 10 years will bring far greater transformational change than the previous 20 years (just think back to where we were in 1997). Certain roles may disappear altogether and new types of work may emerge – for example, managing “big data” and the output of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. This brings with it lots of opportunity, but also resourcing challenges.

Some restructuring might be necessary. The best talent may be able to adapt, but will need retaining and re-training. In the longer-term, older employees may wish to delay retirement, reflecting ever-improving standards of health and longevity and ever-decreasing returns on pensions. At the other end of the career cycle, recruitment processes will need streamlining (perhaps with the aid of HR tech) to cope with increased numbers of highly-qualified candidates emerging from our education system.

They are also open-minded about different models of engagement with individuals. Future generations may be attracted to a portfolio career, rather than devoting themselves to the exclusive service of one employer.   The increased use of remote working has its attractions, perhaps reducing real estate costs for the business and commuting costs for employees – but may have unintended adverse impacts on culture and quality of service. The value of social interaction in the workplace and the “water cooler discussion” is often underestimated.

Balancing all of these competing requirements is not an easy task. The pace of change makes long-term personnel planning an imprecise science. The most innovative HR Directors will not have all of the answers (but will not try to). However, they will keep the discussion high on the agenda amongst senior decision-makers. Perhaps most importantly, they tell me there has rarely been a more exciting and interesting time to be developing a people strategy.

Dominic Holmes is an employment law partner at international law firm, Taylor Vinters. His practice focuses on advising employers and senior executives on complex HR issues and sensitive workplace disputes. He has spoken and written widely on the Future World of Work.

Twitter: @domholmes147

A shorter version of this article was first published on HR Magazine.

View Matt Meyer’s article: What do the most innovative General Counsel have in common?