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Vox pop: HR’s role during a recession


Industry opinionThe downturn has meant that HR departments have had to alter their focus to adapt to the shifting environment. Lucie Mitchell speaks to some industry experts about what HR’s role is during a recession, and how it has changed as a result of the economic conditions.

Anton Franckeiss, practice director, ASK:
"In good times, what has happened globally is that HR has been centralised, so most HR functions in most major organisations has an HR director at its head and they will be based in a corporate space. The key in recessionary times, to deal with the downturn, is for HR to get as close to the people within the organisation as possible. So they need to leave behind the centralised model, even if it’s only temporarily, and get out there and get as close as they can to the line managers. That makes things like downsizing that much easier to cope with, because you get closer to the organisation and understand where the pain is most being felt and, as an HR professional, you can support in real and pragmatic ways. So get as close to people as you can, be as honest as you can, and then you will ride out the storm together."

Steve Short, senior consultant, Novations UK Ltd:
"I think that HR’s role in a recession is to work much more as a business partner rather than a department. When the difficulties occur that come with losing staff through redundancies, HR really needs to focus much more on how you develop the people you have got left and how you maximise their contribution to the organisation."

Pam Loch, Loch Associates:
"There is no doubt that HR professionals have to be adaptable and the current recession illustrates that more than ever before. Unlike other recessions, most businesses now recognise the value of HR. Consequently, HR is unlikely to be a target for ‘rightsizing’. It’s more likely HR will play a central role in reducing headcounts or restructuring. HR will usually be responsible for taking advice, making sure processes are in place and that managers carry them out properly and effectively to ensure liability and exposure to claims are minimised."

Simon Wilde, managing director, Capita Resourcing People Development:
"After the chancellor’s recent budget there is no doubt that the UK is in the grip of what is likely to be a long and painful recession. Where there is recession there is also redundancy. This is a time, therefore, when HR professionals have to put themselves at the front line, creating a strong communication channel between employees and management, because unless the process of redundancy is managed well, organisations can be left not only with a reduced workforce, but one that also lacks motivation and direction."

Zoe Mitchell, HR manager, Graduate Prospects:
"I don’t believe the role of HR really changes in the event of a recession. There is just a higher profile on the negative side of the job – redundancies and dealing with the aftermath. You have to be more creative with your retention strategy when pay is frozen, training budgets are cut and there are fears for job security. It’s about being sensitive when dealing with these negatives and balancing the needs of the employee with those of the business. It’s about encouraging everyone to pull together so that we survive, and more importantly, that we are prepared for the upturn when it happens."

Director of ChangeMaker International, Andy Neal:
"The role of an HR professional as a contributing leader to the business is of critical importance in a recession. Strategic people decisions will make or break the business’ future; in the short term, they will contribute to financial security, yet will pave the way for long-term sustainability and future growth. Retention of the appropriate people and motivation of all involved are reliant on a strategic, long-term outlook from HR professionals. As the effect of a recession develops and changes become necessary, it is critical that HR is involved. Then the whole process can be planned, communicated and managed without suffering the commonly experienced pitfalls of change."

Stephen Taylor, senior lecturer in HRM, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School:
"HR’s basic aims remain the same in a recession as in times of growth, but the emphasis in most organisations tends to switch from recruiting and retaining people towards managing redundancies and performance. Because budgets come under pressure and fewer people are starting employment with the organisation, there is less training to deliver, but employee relations tensions can rise so there is more emphasis on change management and effective communication with the workforce."

Carol Evans, HR director at leadership consultancy CHPD:
"HR has a responsibility to ask questions about how it contributes to the bottom line. CEOs, CFOs and investors understand business cycles and prepare for them. HR needs to ensure it prepares as well for the downturns as it does for the upturns. It needs to provide direction during a downturn and be aware of the likelihood of the company making short-term decisions. In a recession, an organisation must work hard to keep the talent it has. Smart companies view a downturn in the economy as an opportunity. The most important role for HR at this time is to ensure that the organisation protects and develops its best talent, and be ready to be first out of the blocks when the upturn comes."

John Purcell, strategic academic adviser, Acas:
"One the worst things is to shy away from bad news or give the impression that a problem will go away when you know it will not. People are reassured by honesty and a sharing of information that everything that can be done is being done, not by broken promises. Being trustworthy also means trusting others, getting staff to do things and not checking every minute. One of the best motivators linked to job satisfaction is being given autonomy."

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