In HR Dive’s Mailbag series, we answer HR professionals’ questions about all things work. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]
Q: CEOs and other executives may fail to prioritize people despite HR’s attempts to influence them to do so. What can be done when HR and executives don’t see eye to eye on talent issues?
A: This question has long frustrated HR, said Anita Williams Woolley, professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, especially when dealing with organizations and senior leaders that try to silo the function or outsource it entirely. But it’s those same organizations, Woolley added, that run into issues when competition for talent intensifies.
Recent headlines have featured no shortage of executives imposing their preferences with seemingly little regard of how their decisions will impact talent. The most high-profile example is Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who issued an ultimatum last month asking staff to embrace an “extremely hardcore” mindset complete with “long hours at high intensity” — or leave.
Hundreds chose the latter option. That may not be a surprising outcome, either, given how Musk’s message alienated any number of Twitter employees who would not be able to sign on to his demands and signaled that employees were not valued, sources previously told HR Dive.
While Twitter’s scenario might be an outlier, it is still fairly common for HR professionals to butt heads with leaders who won’t compromise on their vision of how an organization should operate, said Jason Walker, co-founder of Thrive HR Consulting. To address that conflict, he said both sides need to start by embracing a partnership mentality.
“The HR executive or CHRO has to have a good partnership with the executive and engage them,” Walker said. “Your job is to really connect yourself with the person in the leadership role that you’re supporting and forge a great relationship. You’re there to help them make those great business decisions.”
Among other things, a successful partnership could take the form of HR leaders sharing data and information with executives and making a business case for potential solutions, said Rey Ramirez, also co-founder of Thrive HR Consulting.
Organizations that separate operations from people management “are the ones that have the most trouble,” Woolley said, reiterating the importance of executives treating HR as a strategic partner rather than a side of business that has to speak up in opposition.
“It’s definitely an issue if you see that there are HR folks who recognize that there are issues but realize they can’t do anything,” Woolley added. “But the problem goes deeper. Why are they even treated as this entity that is opposed to the organization in some way?”
HR leaders still need to assert themselves in any case, according to Walker.
“There are not enough leaders in HR who will put their badge on the table when something is not in the best interest of the company and employees,” he said. “HR people have to be courageous, stand up and lead the way. That is the only way some of these things are going to happen.”
But Walker also acknowledged that HR professionals are people at the end of the day. They have bills to pay and loved ones to take care of just like everyone else, and they may not feel as though they have the ability to push back without being penalized.
One solution to that issue may be to incentivize HR in a different way, Walker said. For example, employment contracts for HR staff could include contractual language making clear that they are allowed to speak up in the best interests of the organization. Alternatively, the organization may set up internal mechanisms to ensure HR teams may do so, he said.
Ultimately, the best thing that an HR leader can do to better address such situations is to develop a network that they can go to for advice, according to Ramirez.
“We get calls daily from HR professionals about certain situations they’re dealing with — ‘Have you seen this before? How did you solve this?’” he said. “Having that network of people you can go to can help.”