Power of unions has crumbled with rise of HR
“The influence of HR and its centrality to business decision-making had grown significantly as a result of the recession,” says Prof Bill Roche of UCD graduate school of business, who published a paper on the topic last year with Prof Paul Teague of Queen’s University Belfast, after surveying hundreds of managers and union officials. Prof Roche stressed, however, this “newfound power” is often overstated.
“During the boom, whenever HR people let their hair down at conferences, they liked to talk in very poetic terms about how they were business partners and were central to the transformation of work. But the truth is they were largely suppliers of recruitment and retention services.
“In the recession, that picture has changed and they have become – to a very significant degree – influencers in major sections but what they are doing is helping firms to handle the acute pressures of the recession.
“They know a lot, or should do, about how to roll out a redundancy programme, how to run short-term work programmes and how to keep the company out of trouble legally when they have to retrench, and that is where they are business partners. But if you ask are they really influencing things like company thinking on how to reposition human capital for recovery, the answer is ‘No’. They have been so busy working the pumps that that sort of stuff hasn’t arisen.”
Personnel as career ladder
He noted some union officials “would speak elegiacally” about former HR managers who had come from the ranks of long-serving staff. Now, “your average HR person is a young person with a master’s degree, and the job is simply a rung on the career ladder”.
Or indeed, the HR department may be outsourced, a trend which began prior to the recession and is set to continue, according to Brendan McGinty of Ibec. “There are a lot of more basic functions, like payroll, training and development, and even initial interviews in the recruitment process, that can be outsourced to release time to the HR professional.”
McGinty says there has been an “evolution rather than revolution” in the role of HR as it moved from a “transaction-focused” personnel department to an integral part of business aimed at “unlocking the potential” of human capital.
Dr Dundon, who is chief editor of the Human Resource Management Journal, agrees there has been “a significant shift” in the role of HR but not an entirely positive one.