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HR practitioners increasingly taking leadership roles

Credibility and influence of HR function with management team on rise, survey finds

Human resources practitioners are increasingly making their way into the top management team in Irish businesses, according to the Great Place to Work HR Trends Survey 2017.

The survey, now in its third year and compiled in association with the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU Business School and Trinity Business School, surveys HR professionals across a range of sectors.

Among the key findings in this year’s report are indications that HR professionals are taking a leadership role in their organisations.

“There is strong evidence of HR having rebounded from recession to have a strong influence on the management team, including a physical presence on that team,” says Patrick Flood, professor of organisational behaviour and co-director of the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU Business School.


HR’s strategic function is changing too. In the survey, 82 per cent of HR respondents indicated that the credibility and influence of the HR function with the leadership team had increased. Just over three-quarters (76 per cent) indicated the credibility and influence of the HR function across the organisation had increased, while the importance of HR analytics in building influence into the future had increased too, up to 75 per cent from 64 per cent last year.

The survey found that HR’s strategic membership of the top management team was highest in private firms (89 per cent) and lowest in the semi-State sector (67 per cent).

Employer branding

It also found that HR departments’ responsibility for employer branding, an important tool in the “war for talent”, was increasing.

When asked who was the responsible person or department for employer branding in their organisation, 42 per cent indicated it was the HR department, up 8 per cent from last year. This was followed by the marketing department (30 per cent) and the chief executive officer (23 per cent).

Acquiring talent has been always important for organisations in order to have the best people to do key work, according to Dr Na Fu, associate professor in human resource management at Trinity Business School.

The survey asked HR professionals about the frequency with which organisations reviewed their talent-acquisition process, as well as the tools they were using for attracting talent.

“Frequent review of the talent-acquisition process is necessary for organisations to identify strength and weaknesses. Responses indicate that 52 per cent of organisations review their talent acquisition process often or very often, and 34 per cent sometimes do so [while] 14 per cent of organisations never or rarely review this important process,” said Fu

Another issue highlighted by the survey, consistent with findings in 2016 and 2015, is that line managers are found to lack the ability to implement human resources management policies, even though they are motivated to do so.

“The consistent findings across three years strongly urge HR professionals to reflect on how to improve line managers’ ability to manage the frontline managers, such as providing helpful feedback, having performance conversations, and dealing with underperformers,” said Fu.


Empowering line managers to be effective in HR roles such as mentoring, on-the-job training and providing performance feedback will all reduce the cost of HR, she points out. And, as the survey finds, “line managers are motivated but not able to do it”. Yet effective HR teams need effective line managers: “Investing earlier in people is a cost, but the benefits long term are greater in terms of leading very high performance teams,” said Fu.

More effective line managers managing higher performance teams could also help already stretched HR executives.

The survey found HR professionals felt their job demands were high, with more than 40 per cent saying they often/always felt they had too much work for one person to do and 30 per cent reporting not having enough time to get everything done in their jobs, according to Dr Yseult Freeney, lecturer in organisational psychology at DCU Business School.

Despite this, the survey found the majority of HR professionals surveyed were happy with their career success, with 94 per cent satisfied with the success they had achieved in their career and 88 per cent satisfied with the progress they had made toward meeting their overall career goals.

In relation to diversity, more than 70 per cent of organisations were found to be responsive to gender diversity, with the majority of organisations (57.9 per cent) identifying women’s under-representation in leadership as either a problem or a potential problem. This compares with 68 per cent in the 2016 survey.

The biggest barrier identified was lack of awareness of concern for gender diversity as a critical matter, despite the fact that gender diversity in leadership was perceived to yield numerous benefits for organisations.

Flexible work provision

The survey found that 73 per cent of organisations had started to examine their policies and practices in relation to gender diversity, with 23 per cent of organisations proposing to change or changing existing policies and management practices.

In relation to action taken on this front, the provision for flexible working conditions was the most frequently cited.

The actions least taken were inclusion of gender diversity indicators in performance reviews and gender quotas in hiring, promoting and developing women, similar to findings from the 2016 survey.

The biggest barrier to achieving gender diversity in leadership identified by the respondents was lack of awareness or concern for gender diversity as a critical matter (21 per cent). This was followed by “lack of resources dedicated to gender diversity initiatives” (12.4 per cent) and “limited knowledge about best practices to ensure gender diversity in my organisation” (11.4 per cent).


“Reports by McKinsey and Catalyst demonstrate that women remain underrepresented in leadership across organisations, particularly at senior levels – this fact remains despite evidence that gender diversity in leadership is linked to better financial performance. Specifically, research evidence shows that companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top management level are also those that perform best,” says Dr Janine Bosak, senior lecturer in organisational psychology and director of research of the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU Business School.

The stronger business case for gender balance in leadership and the increased focus on the topic in recent years is likely to have increased awareness of the importance of gender diversity and its benefits for the organisation, she says.

“The most frequent organisational action of providing options for flexible working conditions listed by HR professionals in our survey might not only help women to overcome barriers to leadership, but also boost employee engagement more generally.

“However, as we know from other research, women remain under-represented in boardrooms and top management roles in Ireland. One barrier evident from the present findings is the continuing lack of awareness of gender diversity as a critical matter. It is important that organisations understand that gender imbalance in leadership is not a women’s issue; it is a strategic business issue with implications for individuals, organisations and society.”


The Great Place to Work HR Trends Survey 2017, run in association with DCU Business School and Trinity Business School, is based on the responses of more 105 HR professionals working in 105 organisations.

The majority (86 per cent) of respondents work in private companies, with 10 per cent working in the public sector and 4 per cent in semi-State organisations.

The majority of private firms are multinational companies (78 per cent), with the remainder Irish-owned. The average age for the organisation is 43 years and the average size is 692 employees.

Among the 105 responses, 72 per cent are female and 98 per cent are permanent workers. Some 42 per cent have a primary degree (bachelor or equivalent) and 58 per cent have a master’s degree. Respondents’ average tenure in the HR field is 14 years. The average tenure of respondents in their current organisation is eight years.

Key findings

HR professionals are increasingly taking a leadership role in their organisation.

HR leadership is more prevalent in private firms than public and semi-State organisations.

HR leadership is stronger in multinational companies than Irish domestic firms.

HR departments’ responsibility for employer branding is increasing.

Line managers are lacking in ability to implement HR practices, even though they are highly motivated to do so.

HR professionals need to reflect on how to improve line managers’ ability to manage frontline staff in areas such as providing helpful feedback, holding performance conversations and dealing with underperformers.

The majority of organisations identify women’s under-representation in leadership as a problem or potential problem.

Options for flexible working conditions was the most frequent organisational action to address the issue

Gender diversity in leadership was perceived to yield numerous benefits for organisations.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times