For all the growth and development HR has seen through the years, it’s still the basics that preoccupy the profession, as seen in a recent survey by Canadian HR Reporter. The top challenges HR professionals face in their role are recruitment and retention, found the survey of 157 respondents.
It’s obviously a supply and demand issue, with challenges around education, according to Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR in Calgary.
“The expertise and the human capital assets that businesses are looking for today don’t exist how we need them to, especially in Canada. I think we lost a lot of brain trust right now to the U.S. Also, post-secondary education has been a little bit slow in terms of offering what we need for where businesses are going. All the STEM careers, for example, it’s much more challenging to get really experienced people, or even well-educated people, especially on the technology piece.”
And because Canada is so large geographically, the picture is very different from province to province, said Carreau, citing as an example Alberta and B.C.
“In a one-hour plane ride, you’re dealing with almost exact opposite challenges,” she said. “So for HR departments and organizations, the challenges are very different by market too.”
Recruitment and retention are always going to be a challenge, according to Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver.
“It’s always going to be an issue with the shortage of skilled workers, baby boomers retiring and not as many people to fill the roles that they vacate… at least for the foreseeable future,” she said.
“(It’s about) how do you set yourself apart from other companies. I think the whole issue of branding, employer branding and the employee value proposition becomes really important as the way that employers will set themselves apart.”
It’s really about a needs-based economy in terms of specialty skills, and that’s not always easy to find, said Anthony Ariganello, president and CEO of the Human Resources Management Association (HRMA) in Vancouver.
“That’s why we really harp on training and education to really be key, because employers, that’s what they seek going forward. It’s a very different economy, it’s a learning-based economy going forward… and the population going forward needs to start thinking about that, adapting to the needs of future employers.”
Retention will continue to exasperate because of the new economy and millennials, said Ariganello.
“Their expectations are very different than the old economy. In other words, these individuals want to be rewarded sooner, faster, they want to move (up) quickly, they want to be promoted, they want to see rewards,” he said.
“That means individuals are not going to be committed to an organization for 30 or 40 years, as our parents might have. So the retention piece, if employers aren’t on top of that, they risk losing individuals and then having to, of course, hire, so that is really key.”
Management needs to anticipate that individuals, especially millennials, are looking to move and to be rewarded for their performance, he said.
“Someone’s not going to stay in the same job for seven, eight years, necessarily. So I think we need to be thinking about that and HR needs to lead that, and make sure functional managers are aware that they need to be thinking of that as well because, otherwise, they’ll lose their workforce, they’ll lose their key people.”
Employee retention is really a sign of the transient workforce today, said Carreau, with people having an average of 10 jobs by the time they’re 30.
“The reality is people don’t intend to stay with an employer for a lifetime, so sometimes as HR specialists, we try so hard to retain employees instead of building an HR system that helps us onboard and offboard employees more effectively to use them for the amount of time that’s the right amount of time for them to work for your organization.
“So you can have a great employee for two, three years — it doesn’t have to be 20 years if you train them properly, you onboard them quickly and you have smooth exits. So we need to figure that out better, as HR practitioners… embrace the shorter life cycle.”
Professional development, compliance
Rounding out the top challenges are professional development and growth, and compliance with laws and regulations, found the Canadian HR Reporter survey.
The issue of career pathing and management talent development is an issue for many employers, according to Pau.
“(It’s about) succession planning, career development, career pathing, management development, how to identify opportunities, where are those opportunities, how to train somebody to be effective, to meet whatever future opportunities there may be. That’s a gap for a lot of companies right now.”
There’s a lot of change in the workplace, with technology playing a big part of that, she said.
“It just changes the landscape of how you operate,” she said. “You’re not just in your own little silos and I think technology’s played a big part of that, the speed of change, and there’s so many more apps and software and software-as-a-service-type products that people don’t know about it. And that’s changed the landscape of how we need to train people and how we need to develop them.”
The work is also more complex, with things moving a lot quicker, said Pau.
“Managers are probably overworked and busy, as we all are, and how do you integrate ‘Oh, by the way, we need to think about your career and you developing your employees’ careers’ into that mix?' There’s not enough hours in the day — we hear that all the time.”
AT&T is an example of an organization that does professional development really well, said Carreau. It has an internal system where it identifies the key skills people have and then looks at the different levels and careers, identifying skills gaps and internally training to those gaps, she said.
“They’re very strategic about getting the match of the skills to the employee. I think, in general, as employers, we don’t do that, we don’t have very clear development plans as it relates to what skills people have to have as their career progresses, especially if it’s not linear. I mean today… there’s many different choices and many different ways employees can go but no one is necessarily helping them choose the right skills that are going to meet the business needs.”
As for challenges around compliance and legislation, the biggest impact is technology, said Carreau.
“(With) the exponential growth of technology, legislation can’t keep up with it, and so I find a lot of HR practitioners are spending a lot of time trying to find out ‘What is the legislation around this? How do I develop a policy around it?’ and by the time they’ve figured it out, the technology has leapfrogged ahead and there’s new issues before they’ve even solved the previous one.”
The other issue is around income equality and general discontent of a large portion of the population, she said.
“We’re really seeing a pivot in human rights and where legislation is going for accommodating different human rights issues. We find instead of employees working with the employer, there’s a sense of distrust and going to government and all these different avenues, so whether it’s lawyers, whether it’s human rights tribunals or employment standards, they’re looking at a source other than their employer for conflict management, conflict resolution and I think, as a result of that, all those areas are getting busier, they’re adding more areas of legislation.”
Challenges around compliance and legislation are going to grow, according to Ariganello.
“Things that weren’t there in the past — harassment, bullying — might have existed but there were no laws, no rules, no procedures. Today, they’re front and centre and governments are getting involved. That’ll only get worse, in my view — there’ll be much more elements around that, and our members need to be equipped to handle that.”
But many employers don’t have the time to stay on top of the changes, said Pau.
“It’s a time factor, they don’t have the time to go researching all the things that impact them — and how do they get that information? How do they become aware that privacy legislation has changed or employment standards are changing?”
Succession planning, administrative work, inefficient tools
And when it comes to the HR department itself, many of the top challenges cited in the survey are ones that can be found in other areas of an organization, such as succession planning, the amount of time spent on administrative work and inefficient tools.
Succession planning is an issue across the spectrum, said Ariganello.
“Few organizations have a proper succession plan, it’s more reactive, especially if it happens at the senior level, there’s no backup,” he said.
“There’s got to be some thinking around it, there’s got to be some proper planning around individuals and ‘What will we do to get those individuals ready?’ That’s the exercise and sometimes it’s left for last, it’s not a key priority.”
It used to be so simple as people would start as a front-line worker and then go through the next five career steps, said Carreau.
“It doesn’t work that way anymore and there’s so many different unknowns.”
As for what’s behind the issue of administrative work, one reason could be the legal burden, with so much emphasis on compliance, she said. Plus, there are technology challenges.
“A lot of people are trying to go paperless and what they’ve found is when you can’t go completely paperless and you’re stuck in that no-man’s land, you’re duplicating everything, you’re trying to automate everything and you’ve still got your paper copy, so essentially what you’ve done is you’ve doubled the workload.”
And many tools aren’t integrated, such as attendance management systems, payroll and HRIS, said Carreau.
“The reality is the integrated ones are not perfect; in fact, they’re not even good today and... people don’t want to go to multiple different platforms, so they fall back to old habits like paper.”
It could also be people don’t understand how all those tools integrate, so it might be a training issue, along with the challenge of finding a tool that fits everything they need, said Pau.
“(Some employers are) using a payroll system yet they’ve got a spreadsheet that’s tracking time off and vacations, and they’ve got this pseudo online HRIS system that doesn’t integrate with their payroll because someone along the way said, ‘Oh, this’ll work for you.’”
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