Business Times, Putting the human touch back in HR, 10 February 2018

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Putting the human touch back in HR

Spinning red tape, playing by the book and lacking empathy are some common grouses about these units
Vivien Shiao – BUSINESS TIMES, Feb 10 2018

I'M pretty certain no one starts off disliking the HR department. Like many things, this sort of sentiment usually builds up slowly before it hits you all at once.
Perhaps it's not their fault they have a hand in almost all things in the workplace, beginning with those that we care most about - like hiring, firing, promotions and bonuses - to all kinds of other trivial issues, such as putting up signs in the toilets telling people to flush.
HR is of course an easy scapegoat when it all goes wrong, as they are often the bearer of bad news and the doer of all kinds of thankless tasks.
But as the face of the company, and a crucial touchpoint between staff and management, HR cannot afford to have a bad rep. As the battle for talent rages on, the stakes get even higher.
Sitting, waiting, wishing
Let's begin with recruitment - which is when potential employees get their first interaction with the company. This is an opportunity that often gets squandered.
A Robert Half survey this week found that hiring managers - usually HR - are alienating potential candidates: slow feedback, poor communication and decision making were named as the three biggest frustrations for jobseekers during the interview process.
Ever had the experience of the HR manager suddenly becoming uncontactable after a few rounds of interviews? Or going through rounds of interviews only to be told that there's a hiring freeze and the position is no longer available? Or perhaps the most common of all - silence.
Not only do employers risk losing out on top talent due to needlessly long, drawn-out interview processes, but it also leaves a sour taste for candidates who are often left wondering.
"Job applicants who have had a negative experience with a company could potentially even give negative feedback of the organisation, significantly damaging the company's reputation as an employer of choice and potentially causing the company to miss out on business opportunities," says Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard, managing director, Robert Half Singapore.
But the problem is that organisations tend to have set recruitment processes that are rarely reviewed and have not been adapted to changing market conditions, he says.
Complete transparency on why candidates were rejected may not be possible, but at least an email to notify them of the outcome within a week would be appreciated. These are people who could be anxious about getting a job to put food on the table - the kind thing to do would be to let them know as soon as possible so that they can move on.
If possible, some feedback would be a very nice touch. It is tedious work admittedly, but it makes candidates feel like their time is valued. These are people taking time out to prepare for and attend interviews - the very least HR can do is to give them the same measure of courtesy.
Showing impatience at candidates who call to check on the status, ignoring their requests, or just taking months to reply are just signs of how much HR regards people.
Paul Heng, managing director of Next Career Consulting Group says: "HR needs to better appreciate the impact of their perceived underperformance on jobseekers and the public at large. Perceptions once allowed to form, are difficult to undo."
Granted, some things are beyond the realm of HR, such as line managers taking too long to decide or changes in management decisions. But HR has to be more than just a passive administrator. If HR just acquiesces to the whims and fancies of other more vocal departments, it does itself a disservice.
Other side of the world
Perhaps the biggest beef employees have with HR is the fact that they seem to function in an ivory tower with little clue of what the rest of the company thinks - an irony considering that HR is all about people.
Staff often believe that HR are in cahoots with management, instead of being objective about certain workplace issues that staff may be unhappy about.
It's this disconnect with the rest of the company that employees take issue with. For example, when times are bad and a pay freeze is to be implemented, the worst thing HR can do is to send out an email announcing the bad news with language that might as well be written by a robot.
Where's the empathy in that?
It's not the message that is the problem - it's the way the message was communicated. In other words: this is the management's decision; suck it up.
In another example, a friend who applied for bereavement leave because a close relative passed on got a shock when HR replied to say no, because the person who died was not considered immediate family. There was no human touch, no desire to make any exceptions or any show of sympathy at all.
And that, is another reason people love to hate HR.
Mr Heng suggests: "Where there are grey issues, HR should try to veer towards an 'employee win', so long as this win does not weigh too heavily on the business, both financially as well as in setting precedent that might be difficult to uphold in the future."
Instead, employees experience endless back-and-forth with HR and quibbles about minor rules that suck the life out of them.
"If I were to just pick on one of the most common challenges, it is that HR leaders are not 'strong' enough to handle their role," says Mr Heng.
"As a good HR practitioner, they must be prepared to stand up for issues they feel that they have to stand up for to defend employees' rights and expectations."
But it takes two hands to clap. Management plays a key role as they must embrace and appreciate that HR is a function that is crucial. HR, on the other hand, needs to fight hard to earn their seat on the board and have the right skills to play an influential role in the business, quips Mr Heng.
"If they allow themselves to be perceived as service providers, they only have themselves to blame… They must also learn to exercise moral courage, to discern what is morally right, and not just consider management's stand or go by the book," says Mr Heng.
There are certainly many things that are beyond HR's control. But there are certainly as many things that HR can do something about. For HR to hold its head high among the other departments, I would suggest that it does not lose sight of what matters most - its people.

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