HR being spread too thin

They're overworked and just can't say no.

Human resources is finally getting the recognition it deserves and is now making its way to the coveted corporate table.

But, while they’ve been slowly moving towards that transition there hasn’t been a shedding of other traditional roles. And with fewer resources and more demands on them, HR feels like it’s being overloaded.

“HR is a victim of its own success,” said Rob Hood, vice-president of Drake Beam Morin Canada. “It certainly is one of the high points in the profession.”

Organizations are finding themselves in a time of rapid economic flux, and in the last few years have been relying heavily on HR to help them stay afloat and move forward, especially with recruitment and retention strategies. It’s brought HR to the forefront. It’s given them an opportunity to show the senior team just how much they are worth.

They are being proactive, gauging the pulse of business, probing for answers themselves and not taking a back seat while others make the business decisions. Business isn’t standing by idle and HR is now expected to keep up the pace. And, it’s a lot of work.

“(Becoming a strategic partner) is a healthy trend but once you are in there you have to perform. It’s a tremendous opportunity to participate in that growth,” said Hood.

More than ever, the profession is prepared to fill their new big shoes. It is better educated and more organized than it’s ever been. Universities offer HR degrees, there’s more opportunity for professional development, and HR has better technology available to them. But, the profession itself is divided in to two camps: those that embrace the change and those who still hold to the old-style HR mandate.

“There have been casualties in all professions, including HR, who can’t handle the magnitude of change that is being required of them,” said Hood.

Part of the problem is that, while more and more HR professionals have experience in being a strategic player, most still lack the experience that most organizations are now looking for in their HR practitioners.

“I wouldn’t say there is a shortage of labour. The problem is that (HR professionals) don’t always meet the needs of most organizations. Business is changing dramatically and organizations want HR to have a different perspective than what they’ve traditionally had and most are still more comfortable in the old administrative role,” said Ezra Rosen, consultant and program co-ordinator for the Toronto-chapter of the Canadian Human Resources Planners.

One solution is to increase the size of departments. But, cost control is a perennial issue for organizations, regardless of economic boom or gloom. So, it is unlikely that extra money will land on HR’s doorstep anytime soon. The large HR departments of the late ’80s and early ’90s are probably a thing for the history books.

Instead, HR departments are doing what they’ve always done best, making due with what they have.

“They are working much harder and aren’t ready to sacrifice their standards and that’s what’s killing some people, that they don’t want to relinquish those standards. It’s a good problem to have,” said Rosen.

Being the protective mother has come at a cost. While HR departments have been making sure employees are happy, helping them strike a work-life balance, they themselves have been having the same difficulty.

Based on anecdotal evidence, Rosen says more and more HR professionals are stressed, becoming ill and are away from work more often because it.

“I would attribute it to a much more stressed working environment. HR is much more aware of these things now,” said Rosen.

This may be why there is an upwards trend towards outsourcing. The tedious, administrative work that HR has traditionally owned is now being done by outside consultants and specialists, freeing up strapped HR resources for other more proactive work.

Changing the HR profile may also signal the near end of the specialist. While there will always be a need for certain specialists, organizations are now looking for HR professionals who can bring more broad, generalist experience to their organization.

“No one can be compartmentalized any longer; that this is my job and that’s all I do. They need to be much more multiskilled, flexible, adaptable,” said Hood, adding that larger firms will always have a need for certain specialists. Companies like Nortel, for example, which outsourced a big chunk of its HR function, still employs internal HR specialists is just one example.

Having a plan in place can help ease the burden on front-line HR staff, said Joanne Stalinksi, vice-president of HR for the Calgary Regional Health Authority.

“We have raised the bar in our organization and expectations of our own staff and we recognize our own responsibility to support that staff if we are going to expect more from them.”

With 17,000 employees to manage, and a fairly large HR department (90 employees and about 40 occupational health and safety specialists, with another 40 education and training specialists now being phased into the department), Stalinksi said having a plan makes it manageable to take care of the administrative side while adding value to the organization.

“One of the biggest challenges is that (HR) has the gift of being under the microscope now. It’s a gift but it is also a supreme challenge. We are expected to present solutions, offer good, focused interventions. (Having a strategic plan) makes sure we aren’t running in all directions. We are trying to be ahead before the front-line workers have to become reactive,” said Stalinksi.

Technology has been an indispensable aid to HR. The Calgary Regional Health Authority is looking to bring in an HRIS, which will save them huge amounts of time. It will definitely cut some time out of posting job notices. Last year, Stalinksi said her staff put up 2,800 postings for nurses alone, all manually.

“(An HRIS) will make a difference in the amount of administrative work. We’ve actually done very well considering,” said Stalinski.

If economic forecasts are correct and the economy does slow, HR may be able to stop and catch its collective breath.

“It might provide us a little reprieve,” said Rosen.

But, at the end of the day, it comes down to HR’s inability to simply say no.

“They don’t know how to say no so they end up doing more,” said Rosen.

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