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Clear the decks for action


Measure wasteWith serious economic problems threatening, perhaps it is time to ‘slim down’ the HR workload, suggests John Pope, who explains that HR should concentrate on the few, really essential things to give themselves time to deal with the bigger problems.

I claim ownership of the phrase: “About as much use as rearranging the deckchairs on the ‘Titanic’ as it slides beneath the waves”.

I used it with a group of senior managers when talking about improving business performance in difficult times in about 1970. It took a while to get into common use but it is worth remembering as we prepare for the recession.

Now HR is not, or shouldn’t be, a major business cost, however its effects are going to be very important as organisations make ‘readjustments’, and HR is not generally overstaffed. It will have a lot to do, better clear decks for action.

Photo of John Pope“Time spent face-to-face with staff at the workplace is far more valuable to HR than surveys.”

It seems pretty clear that many organisations will be facing difficult times for several years. Costs are up, volumes are generally down. The workforce, at all levels, are looking for pay increases to compensate for inflation. There will be reorganisations and redundancies. Managers will be under a lot of pressure and have a lot to do. What can HR do to lighten their load? Better look at all the HR processes and see if they really justify their existence in their present form and complexity. What are the possible candidates? I have some suggestions.

Those processes and activities

In the ‘good’ times there will have been additions to the workload on HR. Better go through the list of things which you are involved in – and all the HR processes. Ask a few questions of everything:

  • What does it do, what is the purpose, is it still really needed?

  • Is it fit for purpose?

  • What would or could happen if we didn’t do it?

  • Who uses it and is it worth the cost?
  • The annual performance and development review

    I have reviewed them, designed them, installed them, and trained staff to use, or be used by them. I believe they are important, but I seriously doubt how much good many of them do.

    Now, if you are happy that both managers and your staff feel they are getting real value from them, that staff feel they contribute strongly to their personal development, that they look forward eagerly to the annual discussion and the training and development that results; and if your managers see those reviews as having priority over their often pressing tasks, and if you do not have to chase your managers to do those reviews on time, then that’s fine.

    If not, you could put the scheme ‘on hold’ for the duration of the economic crunch, which would be a pity, or you could simplify the scheme and reduce its complexity.

    To simplify things you could take the line that there are three sorts of people:

  • High fliers – excellent performers, really special, they make new things happen. They have potential to go further. You give them plenty of opportunities and help. You take trouble over them. They are usually a small minority

  • Good solid performers – the Bible refers to them as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. Very reliable – they too make things happen reliably and predictably. You would be lost without them, but they do not have the driving ambition to get to the top

  • Under-performers</strong – almost more trouble than they are worth. Every appraisal shows something seriously lacking and a recommendation for training follows. Next year an improvement is received but a different issue emerges and is addressed. The year after that the original problem has returned. You find you and their managers are spending more time, attention and effort on people who will never be more than sub-standard. A poor investment of management effort which should be going into the first two categories.
  • So cut out most of that eight-page form – two sides should be quite enough. Will many people be sorry? Most managers will be glad – they will be able to use that time saved and you will then be able to chase the laggards a lot harder.

    The attitude survey

    Attitude surveys, employee engagement surveys, and so on. Are they going to be really useful once the staff get round to wondering what management may be planning? Don’t tell me that the management will be able to keep things quiet until they have decided. Employees are cleverer than managers and not only because there are more of them. Time spent face-to-face with staff at the workplace is far more valuable to HR than surveys even if you already have a well established annual survey in place.

    How else can you reduce the burden?

    I remember a finance director who would from time-to-time leave out one of the sections of this monthly board report and not reinstate it until somebody noticed. Unusual but effective in reducing the workload, shortening discussions – ‘green’ too!

    “Traditionally when times get difficult and money is tight the training programme is slashed, often to ribbons.”

    There’s quite a lot of reporting to be done by some HR departments. How much of it do the senior management really read and take action on. Would they mind losing some of that detail? I doubt it, especially if it allowed you and them to get round the organisation to see and be seen – probably the most important of all the many jobs that fall onto HR’s shoulders.

    Special projects

    Are there any substantial ‘special projects’ which have been running for some time. Investigation into the grading scheme, or company car policy, the revised staff handbook? Will they still be relevant in the new leaner, fitter, less expensive, more effective world? All must justify their place.


    And what about the precautionary forms which you send out to check, for example, on the comfort of people at their workplace, which only a few people return and about which no notice is taken – possibly why so few of the staff return the forms. Either they are important – in which case they should be enforced, or they are of marginal use and a waste of the time which should be spent on other things.

    And training?

    Better think carefully about this if it is part of your responsibility. Traditionally when times get difficult and money is tight the training programme is slashed, often to ribbons. The arguments for and against cutting training are complex. Do you want managers taken away from their jobs when there is much to be done, and do you want to train someone only to find that they are on the redundancy list soon afterwards. Or will you see the reduced activity level as the opportunity to do training which had been put on hold because people were too busy to be away from their work. And you might need to organise some special training to help managers deal with redundancies and reorganisation. One thing is certain, at a time when economies are necessary, it will be difficult to justify expensive training unless it is critical to business success.

    The more important things

    Among the ‘more important’ things for HR to do are making sure that top management understand the HR implications of redeployment, reorganisation and redundancy. HR must be involved at top level while action is being considered, not just when decisions have been taken in principle and are being turned into plans. And HR must be more than involved at the workplace and in excellent contact with the workforce so that they and top management really know what is happening, and the likely effects of decisions management may make. Look at the organisation as being a ship in a bad sea, those who are already for it are the most likely to survive.

    There will be a storm

    Though the storm will be fiercer in some sections than others, few organisations will not feel it. Better be prepared for it.

    John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He has worked in a wide range of businesses where performance and service were the keys to success. He continues to advise businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change.

    He has seen many management fashions come and go and takes a very down-to-earth approach to the improvement of management at all levels, and transforming business performance. He sees the development of strong and effective managers as one of the most important aspects of business.

    John Pope can be contacted at “>[email protected]

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