Why personnel departments need to return to basics

Overwhelmed human resources teams should remember what employees really value at work

Pity HR. From hybrid work to quiet quitting, there are few current management preoccupations that do not end up becoming the human resources team’s problem.

“Human capital” is this decade’s business buzzword; a rebranding of the “our people are our greatest asset” cliche for an age when financial capital has been easier to come by than skilled labour.

If tight employment markets have made HR’s basic tasks of recruitment and retention more difficult , its job has been complicated further by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, which forced organisations to confront how little they had really valued some of their supposed assets.

Throw in a pandemic, a revival in labour unions and the arrival of a generation with more demanding expectations of management, and it is easy to understand why one recent survey of US and British HR professionals found that 98 per cent of them felt burned out. (Employee burnout, incidentally, is another of the problems that HR is supposed to be solving.)


Now a turn in the economic tide means that many HR departments are dealing with wage pressures from employees struggling with high inflation while simultaneously having to manage lay-offs.

At Amazon and other big tech businesses that have led the way in shedding staff, the HR teams were among the first to be cut. By definition, a company does not need as many people to do “onboarding” when it is trying to employ fewer people.

Workplace consultancy MindGym found that two in three managers wished they did not have to manage people

One analysis suggests that HR functions account for only 10 per cent of this year’s tech industry lay-offs but, because HR departments are relatively small, this means that half of the HR jobs in those companies may have been cut.

Remember that these include groups such as Meta, whose corporate culture and generous benefits were once the envy of other workplaces. The owner of Facebook is now feeling less munificent, reportedly cutting back coveted perks such as free dry cleaning.

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If HR is overwhelmed, perhaps it is time for it to do less. The core functions of recruiting, engaging and developing the best employees are not about to become less important. That said, there have been too many instances of mission creep among these corporals in the war for talent.

As less exciting companies pursued the elusive goal of staff engagement by trying to make every office park a pastiche of the Google headquarters or Facebook campus, there has been a boom in the more superficial end of the corporate wellness industry.

It is something to be celebrated that two out of three US employers see their workers’ wellbeing as one of their top health priorities over the coming years, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey.

But too many leaders have been tempted to think that a book club, a meditation app or a weekly yoga session will be enough to make their restive troops more loyal. And for all the investment in such supposed morale boosters, Gallup reports that the percentage of employees who think that their organisation cares about their wellbeing has actually slumped below pre-pandemic levels.

Just 21 per cent of the world’s employees describe themselves as being engaged at work.

The toll of this disaffection is real. Gallup estimates that the lost productivity, absenteeism and workflow disruptions attributable to disengaged workers adds up to $7.8 trillion (€7.4 trillion), or 11 per cent of global gross domestic product.

The pollsters’ recommendation is that leaders’ response should be to “add wellbeing measurements to their executive dashboards [and] prioritise employee wellbeing as part of their employer brand promise.” Really? There may be a more back-to-basics alternative.

If HR gets those basics right, it might have to spend less time and energy on the hollow perks. The concierge services were nice while they lasted but most of us can do our own laundry

Most workers care first and foremost about whether they feel fairly rewarded for their efforts, whether their ideas and complaints will be heard, whether they are advancing in their careers, whether they are trusted to work flexibly and whether they will get the support they need in a crisis.

Most would like better paid leave, childcare and pensions. Staff suffering from burnout might find mindfulness sessions or advice on healthy eating helpful, but hiring an extra colleague to share the work with would probably help them more.

We hear consistently that employees feel poorly supported by their managers, which is unsurprising when you consider that workplace consultancy MindGym found that two in three managers wished they did not have to manage people.

Training managers to be more effective leaders could push many of the tasks overwhelming HR departments down through the organisation, to people with a better sense of what is right for their teams than a centralised HR team could ever have.

If HR gets those basics right, it might have to spend less time and energy on the hollow perks. The concierge services were nice while they lasted but most of us can do our own laundry. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022