Sustainable HRM, finally!

Human resource managers are increasingly feeling the heat of new generations bringing different habits and values to their jobs, alongside the diffusion of new values and new ways of interacting and socializing through social media. Society has become too complex to be analyzed, almost impossible to be managed. The same processes are being recognized in corporate settings, as well. HR managers feel the heat, since they are expected to ‘do something’!

Best known as a watchdog function, and frequently looked upon as virtually useless by most line managers, the HR function has long struggled between two roles. On one side, HR managers embrace business orientation and strive to provide services to line and top managers, at times losing track of employees and their true needs. On the other side, they continue the tradition of Taylorism, by providing formalization to all aspects of human capital and conveying the false impression that they can “manage” human capital. Both roles are making this function less and less able to provide true value to corporations. Engagement levels in companies are plummeting as revealed by employer branding and engagement surveys across the globe. HR models, like talent management or competency based approaches fail to grasp the true hints of leadership and performance and lead companies to failed investments on people development.

In attempting to take on one or, at times, both roles, HR managers forget about the true meaning of their own existence: the ability to create a bridge between individuals and business goals.

The HR function would be best captured as a boundary spanning function, working between different worlds of meaning: technology, business goals, and society. Most line and top mangers are so imbued with business goals that they fail to realize that their own motivation toward attaining them cannot be considered as given for everybody. People in the ranks may occasionally and for a short timespan exhibit strong commitment and engagement, but most of the time they are driven by completely different reasons and motivators. It’s the HR manager role to raise the red flag and question this implicit assumption by providing realism to business discourse. A failure to grasp the reality of society poses a great danger to business, when new trends are emerging that question the very legitimacy of business and its own rituals (EBIT, EBITDA, and all sorts of esoteric formulas!).

Hold on a moment, let me state it clearly: I am not re-emphasizing what Dave Ulrich defines as the employee representative role, but advocating a true shift in the function identity and mission at the danger of disappearance of it all!

HR is about long term orientation. HR decisions are affected by the past (long gone investment that influence today human capital) and by the future (consequences of today decisions for the future success of our business). When asked to act fast in the present, the HR function incurs in the danger of reacting without considering the effect of time. In doing so, it forgets that it needs to assign less relevance to tools and techniques, and more relevance to analyzing how its human capital is formed and evolves through time. Brought it down to its main components, the three axes of HRM are tools and practices, time span, and segmentation of human capital. Employees are heterogeneous under so many different perspectives. They differ in work-relevant aspects, like expertise, competencies, roles, etc. but they do differ in terms of their true being, i.e. life projects, desires, ambitions, etc. HR tools and practices seldom acknowledge difference as a guiding principle. HR people tend to think that it is not their role to understand how difference relates to existing procedures, at times biasing their effect and validity. In a very acclaimed rhetoric, they put the blame on line managers that should do this in daily business with employees!

Building sustainability for business, in the HRM perspective amounts to realizing that the role of HR is to go back and analyze the changing shape and composition of human capital. In a society that is more and more multifaceted, HR should recognize that most of its tools have been built on the basis of homogenous, Western-centric, and behaviorist assumptions that do not survive the challenges of today’s World.



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