Employee advocate role drives business results too

Excerpt from HR: The Value Proposition

In their soon to be released book, HR: The Value Proposition, renowned HR authors and academics Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank dedicate a chapter to discussing the five major roles of HR professionals: employee advocate, human capital developers, functional experts, strategic partners and leaders. The following excerpt describes the first of these roles.

Some in the field argue that HR should move exclusively to business partnering, to help business leaders define and deliver financial and customer goals. We disagree.

Employee relations are not just window dressing: employees really are the primary asset of any organization. The treatment employees receive shows in the treatment of customers and, ultimately, of investors.

Indirectly, caring for employees builds shareholder value. HR professionals are the natural advocates for employees — and for the very real company interests they embody.

Business, ethical and common sense logic run together here: loyalty comes from relationships, and relationships come from personal care. Employees are people, not chattels to be used and discarded.

At the same time, these days a firm cannot promise lifetime employment, and employees often interpret that to mean lack of company care. You can build a caring yet competitive organization by knowing employees, their personal lives, their needs.

Caring does not mean divesting yourself of fiscal or management responsibility, it means listening and responding to individual employee needs: resolving grievances before they turn ugly, helping find work for spouses, arranging work permits if needed.

Advocacy also involves systematic discussion of employee concerns. When strategy is debated among the management team about closing a plant, expanding a product line, or exploring a new geographic market, your job is to represent employees. What will this strategy do to employees? What employee abilities will help or hinder execution of this strategy? How will employees respond to this strategy?

HR participation in strategy meetings should present the employees’ voice — and employees should know that it does so.

Advocacy also involves managing diversity and ensuring mutual respect and inclusion so that people feel comfortable sharing and discussing various points of view.

Dissent with a shared focus on outcomes generates new ideas, encourages innovation, and delivers results. Diversity can be managed through training and communication programs and statistical monitoring or tracking, but it is created in the culture — in how leaders make decisions, interact with people, address conflict and share information.

Your role is to root out discrimination whenever it appears. Had HR professionals countered off-colour remarks with, “This is just not acceptable,” more than one company would have saved millions in legal fees, settlements and lost reputations.

A corporate reputation for fairness and equity requires policies that treat employees fairly. The HR advocacy role includes proposing fair policies for health and safety, terms and conditions of work, and discipline, as well as implementing these policies corporate-wide.

Advocacy isn’t all sweetness and light. Sharing tough news is also part of this role. When performance is unacceptable, it’s essential to act swiftly and decisively to correct the mistake or, if appropriate, to remove the employee.

Good performers lose confidence in leaders who fail to act when people perform poorly. And sometimes, even competent and hardworking employees must be let go for reasons beyond the firm’s control. The employee advocacy role requires HR to establish a transparent and fair process for reproving and removing employees for whatever reason, and then to help implement the process equitably throughout the organization.

Employee advocacy clearly adds value for employees. At the same time, it allows HR to add value for other stakeholder groups.

Investors: Shareholders worry about both tangible financial results and intangible capabilities. Nurturing employees affects both. Productivity increases output per unit of input. HR professionals should track and report productivity results so employee value-added can become part of shareholder value. Firms with higher productivity scores generally attract investor dollars. Employee advocates become productivity czars.

In addition, employees are central to every intangible. With competence and commitment, they create capabilities that deliver strategies.

Investors confident in your firm’s employees will rate your intangible value high. You might share employee attitude surveys with investors, particularly in tough times, to communicate your commitment to employees, your transparency in sharing good and bad news, and the importance of people in your business-value equation.

Customers: You can’t treat employees badly and expect them to treat customers well. Companies losing talented employees soon lose target customers; companies mistreating employees probably also mistreat customers; companies with positive and caring employee cultures tend to have enduring customer connections.

They find it easy to include customers in problem-solving. For example, when we encouraged one manufacturer to include its largest customer on a problem-solving team, management balked, saying, “That will let them know how badly we currently manufacture this product.” We pointed out that the customer already knew the problems with the product.

After reluctantly opening the problem-solving process, management found that customer input both improved the solution and built customer commitment.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from The HR Value Proposition by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, copyright 2005 Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank. All rights reserved.

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