Engagement, strategy and a seat at the table

HRPA survey identifies most pressing concerns of senior HR leaders
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/09/2015

When it comes to creating and maintaining employee engagement, it doesn’t matter how senior you are in human resources or how much experience you have. Entry level or CHRO, employee engagement is a challenge for every HR professional.

But senior-level HR professionals have additional challenges on their plates as well — pressing, complex issues such as strategy, business acumen and getting a seat at the senior management table.

Those were among the findings of a survey of 24 senior HR leaders from large, medium and small organizations from a broad range of industries.

“Those HR professionals were defined as 15-plus years’ experience, at a director level and above,” said Anne Bloom, vice-chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) Toronto Chapter’s Senior Leadership Engagement Committee, which conducted the survey in partnership with BizLife Solutions.

“What we were looking for was what are some of the successes, some of the challenges, as it relates to the day-to-day care and feed of your employees — not only the HR employees but also all employees within the organization.”

It was very clear, right across the board, that the majority of HR professionals have the same pain points and the same successes, said Bloom.

“But what became very, very clear was the number one challenge for HR professionals was all around the employee life cycle. And that sort of examines employee engagement, recruitment, employee retention and succession planning, including performance management,” she said.

“That goes back to a lot of the things that we are all feeling in the marketplace today.”

Employee life cycle

The survey used Likert scale questions to rank different issues in order of their importance to senior HR leaders.

Those issues were divided into four categories: employee life cycle, performance management, employee relations/employee wellness and operations management.

Employee engagement stood out as the most important issue, found the survey. And that result was not a surprise to Rita Price, a senior human resources executive who has worked as the vice-president of HR for Flight Network.

“Absolutely, (engagement) is the most important. Engagement triggers everything from productivity to performance to attendance — everything,” she said.

HR has already focused quite a bit on employee disengagement and presenteeism, said Leesa Fernandez, a senior human resources leader who has worked as an HR director at Home Depot Canada and Unilever. But true engagement is about engaging the whole person — making sure employees can bring their whole selves to the workplace, she said.

“When I was at Home Depot, I did a lot on the diversity side and it was really about bringing your whole self to work. And I think that’s part of it — you have to have something that resonates for you in what you’re doing, not only in your current job but with the organization overall. And if you don’t have that passion, then that’s where the engagement seems to be falling off,” she said.

“It’s not surprising, I think, (that) if you look at studies over the last 10 years, more successful employers tend to have employees that are more engaged.”

Training and development

In terms of performance management, the most important issue was that of training and development, found the survey. It’s a critical piece, but one where many organizations still miss the mark, said Fernandez.

“I have yet to work with an organization that does development really well with their employees. So everyone goes through the performance management cycle and they put together a development plan, but they don’t always follow through because the development plan tends to sometimes be above and beyond what their regular jobs are,” she said.

“If they don’t have that need or that want to continually be learning, then it tends to fall off the map.”

As technology continues to advance, there are so many different options for training and development that it doesn’t necessarily have to mean a major commitment of time or money, said Sharon Coleman, director of human resources and administration at Aylmer, Ont.-based IGPC Ethanol.

“There’s so much variety right now with webinars… people can get a flavour of training and then you can decide if you’re going to invest more in that individual development related to that,” she said.

And training and development links back into engagement, said Price.

“Training and development is definitely important but I think it does go back to engagement,” she said.

“It makes (employees) more engaged, which makes them perform — so it’s just a circle.”

Employee relations, wellness

Issues around employee relations and wellness were also discussed in the survey — and managing the different generations, dealing with mental wellness and addressing workplace bullying were among the top four issues.

When it comes to managing an intergenerational workforce, it can be challenging to adjust to the different management styles each cohort wants and expects, said Price.

Millennials in particular are a completely different generation in terms of what keeps them engaged, she said.

“And a huge piece of HR moving forward is keeping that group engaged and aligned because it is different than the traditional management of employees.”

Mental health and bullying are both issues that are becoming increasingly prominent in the workplace, said Fernandez.

“Bullying is an interesting one because I think that it can be so subtle that people don’t even realize that they’re being bullied. I think also companies have not taken the time to really develop their managers as to what is appropriate management and what is not appropriate management,” she said.

Mental health is also quite challenging because there is still a widespread lack of understanding about the issue.

“I still think there needs to be a ton of work around mental health,” she said.

“Anything that happens in your personal life will tend to impact your workplace as well. And there needs to be far more acknowledgement, and far more understanding about it, and maybe training could be a big part of that. But I think that as we go forward, it’s going to be more and more prevalent. And I think people are going to have to have a clearer understanding of what it’s all about — and not just blanket generalizations.”

Challenges, opportunities for HR

The HRPA survey also addressed the most significant challenges and opportunities for senior
human resources leaders.

One area that’s both a challenge and an opportunity is around strategy and getting HR a seat at the table, said Price.

“Everyone talks about the HR business partner and the model and how HR aligns with the business. However, there are very few businesses that actually work that way and, in fairness, there’s very few HR professionals who actually can align to the business and have that skill set.

“And I think that HR professional getting the credibility that they deserve and need to have to sit at the table is one of the biggest challenges — and HR changing their mindset because it’s not that traditional role anymore,” she said.

“The biggest issue for HR is being at the table and reporting to the CEO to be able to implement all those things they can do to help the business. And I think that’s still a big issue where HR doesn’t report directly to the CEO in a lot of organizations.”

Effectively dealing with boards is a related issue, said Coleman.

“As a senior HR person, (you need) to understand the complexities of boards that actually oversee all of our organizations… to understand the responsibilities that boards have, as well as how can I support them in achieving them?” she said.

Still, some HR professionals are hesitant to tackle the high-level strategic pieces of the job, said Fernandez.

“What I have found is that people are really afraid of the strategic component when, in actual fact, when you look at whether it be a 12-month or a 36-month business plan, it’s ‘What are the people resources and activities that we need to really be successful in that plan?’” she said. “It really is about planning.”

The HRPA Toronto Chapter Senior Leadership Engagement Committee will be holding an invitation-only event on Thursday, May 14 in downtown Toronto featuring Michael Hyatt, a CBC dragon and entrepreneur. For more information, contact events@hrpatoronto.ca.

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