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Deborah Wilkes

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How HR can leverage its reputation to co-create the new world of work

How HR can leverage its reputation to co-create the new world of work.

What a rollercoaster the past year has been for everyone. HR has been on the front line of this, but what has that done for its reputation? We’ve certainly been regarded as operational heroes, but has it helped HR teams to rise up and grasp more firmly its vital role as a partner in business leadership?  

When HR is strengthened by a clear strategic purpose as well as business acumen… stakeholders will sit up and notice.

The world of work is changing dramatically, in ways that cannot yet be predicted. HR’s influence and credibility have never been more important. It’s becoming clear that new ways of working will develop iteratively as we absorb the changes in technology, flexible working and attitudes that have been accelerated by the pandemic. Every organisation will need to explore options and try them out, while leading and re-engaging employees in new ways.  There will be implications on every aspect of HR – reward, L&D, talent and more.

HR is uniquely placed to co-create solutions that are both imaginative and workable by building even stronger and more productive partnerships with stakeholders at all levels.  

Reputation is crucial to winning a seat at that table and using it to create value for all its stakeholders. This is why we surveyed over 400 HR people to better understand their views on the impact of the pandemic on HR’s reputation.  

Survey results reveal a mixed picture – and point to practical solutions

Overall, our respondents do feel that the reputation of HR has improved as a result of the pandemic – great news. Since we included open questions in our survey, we were able to dig deeper into the reasons behind their responses.  

Those who are more positive feel that senior leaders have a clearer understanding of the contribution they can make, that HR has had a higher profile, and that they’ve been seen to deliver and prove their value. For others, it’s reinforced the reverse – the reactive cycle that comes with high workloads and low respect for HR, and being seen as the rules police and even the hit squad.

So, there’s still work to do, and our survey revealed insights from those who have succeeded as well from those who find themselves in a less favourable situation.    

Demonstrating the value of HR

From the virtual workshops that we’ve run with HR people to share and debate the data, we’ve learned just how much impact the organisation’s context has. Clearly the sector is a major factor – some have been hit far harder than others, are struggling to survive, and HR people feel overwhelmed. There’s also the context of the existing culture and leadership and their lack of support and respect for HR. Some comments reveal just how tough that can be. We’ve also uncovered a dilemma at the heart of HR. A standout learning from the data emerged when we drew comparisons between responses to three different questions:

  • When we asked our HR respondents what they heard business leaders talk about, top of the list were themes such as building future success and surviving – not surprisingly, it’s about the tough commercial realities.
  • When we asked how they want HR as a function to be seen, they are clear that they want to be seen as partners in business success – strategic, change makers, crucial to results.
  • When our HR respondents are asked how they, personally want to be seen, however, being business-focussed drops to third on the list. The two themes mentioned more often are, first, attributes that relate to being values-led – e.g. a team player, supportive – and, second, being professionally competent.

When we drill down to how we, as people, want to be seen, we enter territory that is harder to change, even if we wanted to. So, what did we learn about how we can enable HR people to demonstrate both?

How can HR people be both values led and business credible?

During the tough times we’ve all faced, colleagues at every level have valued the caring and consideration that HR people have demonstrated. There is a business value in that, if only we could quantify it more persuasively to those who only speak in the language of numbers.

On the other hand, how can we help HR people to see the intrinsic value and purpose in the more hard-nosed commercial territory that is less comfortable for them?

Clearly, there are some of our HR respondents who are very good at this, and our report contains more of their insights. They reveal that their business edge has opened doors and enabled them to operate at the top level. It’s clear that credible behaviours as well as intellect are key ingredients in this package.

HR’s reputation deserves to be a priority

Once you recognise that HR’s reputation is a key enabler of what HR can achieve, it becomes clear that it should be in HR’s strategy and also planned into regular activities. Every conversation each stakeholder has with members of the HR team offers an opportunity to build and consolidate HR’s reputation.

The data reveals little evidence of a planned approach to managing HR’s reputation.

To address this, here are some practical suggestions for building your HR team’s reputation:

  • Build clarity and alignment about how you want HR to be seen – build your strategic purpose around the business value you want HR to add as well as culture
  • Consider what work needs to be done to get buy-in and active support to this from senior leaders
  • Work together as a team to build your business acumen – study and explore the numbers; invite yourselves to meetings; partner with your finance team; make explicit links that will demonstrate the ROI of HR
  • Craft your key messages, i.e. what you want your stakeholders to hear from HR
  • Reputation is built conversation by conversation. Once you have clarity about your priority messages and style, identify both the formal and informal opportunities you have to get those across, consistently and convincingly
  • Plan for the opportunities that come up regularly, like weekly management meetings or regular one-to-ones with stakeholders.  There are others that HR can create too
  • Rehearse the message so that it reflects your true intent. For example, if you want to be seen as business-led, talk about the business first and HR’s agenda second

When HR is strengthened by a clear strategic purpose as well as business acumen, and feeds this into conversations with stakeholders with confidence, stakeholders will sit up and notice.

This period of transition offers a golden opportunity for HR to cement its reputation as an influential leadership partner. It’s up to us now, to make use of it.

Reputation is one of the seven enablers Deborah Wilkes explores in her new book Empowering HR: Building the Power and Strength of HR.


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