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Human Resources: A Balancing Act

The workplace is not what it used to be. Most would agree many things have evolved in the world of business dealings and employment relations. It’s interesting to reflect on where we were years ago, how we do things now, and what the future holds for all of us who thrive and survive in the business world. What will it take for businesses to succeed?

As new technology continues to emerge and constant innovation becomes necessary to compete, companies are forced to rethink business norms to stay marketable, productive, and competitive. While the focus on building the technical and operational side of business still remains vital to success, the human side of business and maintaining a workplace where employees feel valued cannot be overstated. When managed the right way, human resource management (or the “taking care of people” side of business) can be the most valuable strategic move any business can make.

To better understand what the future holds for human resources and business in general, let’s take a look at the past. Some retired businessmen and women often talk about the “good old days” when running a business was about just that – running a business. They say it was “cut and dry” and “black and white”. There were no mysterious laws or confusing loopholes to contend with. The boss didn’t worry too much about keeping employees motivated and providing opportunities for professional growth. Hours upon hours were not spent creating dynamic websites and mission statements. During this time, employers enjoyed much control and discretion. The boss may have rewarded their employees (depending on profit that year) with either a well deserving raise or a friendly “way to go!” Company policies (most likely unilaterally decided upon by the employer) were told orally to employees and they were expected to know what to do and probably not given a chance to ask too many questions. If you complained, you risked getting fired.

I’ve been told in the good old days, managers were not tied to strict procedures. One employee may have received a day off, while another employee’s request for time off was denied for no obvious reasons; one employee was terminated, while another employee who violated the same infraction was spared; one employee was given special treatment, while another was asked to take on more responsibility at the whim of his supervisor … favoritism? Could have been, but no one blinked an eye and management wasn’t losing sleep over their decisions. Employers basically trusted their employees to work hard and, in return, they were usually compensated accordingly. Cut and dry, black and white, right? Depending on whom you ask, you may get varying responses like “my boss was a reasonable and honest man” or “I was never treated fairly or paid enough”.

If employees did something untrustworthy or inappropriate in the eyes of their employer, they were scolded by their superiors (if they were lucky) and given the boot out the door (if they were unlucky). Business decisions were not necessarily made “in alignment with the core values of the corporate vision taking into consideration any and all legal implications.” In fact, I would surmise that most employment-related decision-making leaned more towards arbitrary and capricious, maybe even blatantly unfair and borderline illegal. There were no “impermissible interview questions”, “employment discrimination investigations”, or “employee termination checklists” to worry about. Aaahh, life was good in the good old days. Okay, maybe not necessarily good, but certainly simpler.

Consequently, these folks went to work, focused on the bottom line, didn’t fret much about being inconsistent at times, and did what they needed to do to make the buck and keep their businesses afloat. It wasn’t too long ago a business owner would bring on a new employee by asking a few questions and then consummate the employment relationship with a firm handshake and a solid pat on the back. This was a time when employers were reluctant to write anything down or sign contracts believing it could be “used against them” and had no intentions of formalizing processes as the flexibility to run the day-to-day operations took precedence and maintaining management discretion was critical to survival.

Boy, have things changed. Some would argue the pendulum has fiercely swung and now businesses are forced to document, document, and document! One can argue the need to excessively document every employee issue has had a negative effect on morale and has caused anxiety among those forced to document. Today, employers often complain they are completely oversaturated with employment policies and rules and utterly overrun by workplace templates and forms. Most business owners would say they are swamped with paperwork and can barely keep up with all the employment regulations. Some purport they spend more time documenting, formulating, and organizing (the peripheral things that should not feel all-consuming) than operating, selling, and marketing their business (the essence of what drives productivity and success).

In recent years, employers have become increasingly frustrated with the formalization of policy and some are embracing a new approach with less organizational structure and workplace rules. Reminiscent of a good old day mentality? Perhaps. Recently, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal which claimed employers tired of haggling with formalized policies are flattening their organizational structures, empowering front line managers to deal with day-to-day employee issues, and eliminating employee handbooks and centralized human resource functions all together. Although I do understand what these frustrated-with-so-many-rules-and-paperwork employers are proclaiming and appreciate their desire to simplify all things employment-related, wiping out human resources completely is most certainly not the answer. Let’s face it, we live in a world where we need some level of organizational structure, employee expectations, and legal protections.

When reading the WSJ article, I liked the idea of a flatter organizational structure, empowerment, and accountability. Eliminating HR functions to prove a point, however, is not a particularly smart choice. Organizations benefit from having a tight set of well written policies and procedures in place. Employees actually tend to appreciate proactive and organized employers. Most employees do not want the workplace to be a “free for all” where decisions are made at the whim of a manager. Having said that, I believe “less is more” and not every employee circumstance or workplace issue should be formalized in a workplace policy – only the important ones. While I’m emphatic about every business creating a well written employee handbook where important policies are delineated, these handbooks should be clear, concise, and contain only what is necessary. Balance is the key.

The WSJ article in effect touches on the impulsive reaction to the growing problem of well-meaning companies formulating too many onerous workplace policies. No doubt too many rules hurts employee morale, stifles creativity, and takes away needed flexibility. By slashing human resource personnel, however, these organizations are missing the point. Abolishing HR in the spirit of promoting employee creativity and autonomy will only damage employment relations and undermine legal protections. If HR functions and employee handbooks are developed with a more balanced approach in mind, then you have the best of both worlds – increasing employee satisfaction and minimizing potential employment litigation.

The bottom line is that no company can survive in today’s litigious society without the appropriate processes and procedures in place to promote consistency in the workplace and reduce employee claims based on unfair treatment. No longer can a company hire or fire employees without understanding what it means to “act reasonably, fairly and within the bounds of the law.” Judges and juries are sympathetic to the disgruntled employee and no longer tolerate employers who lack an understanding of their obligations under the law. Even settling a claim out of court is money not well spent if it could have been avoided by having an established policy. Furthermore, companies cannot afford to have an organizational culture that does not recognize and encourage employee contributions. Employees want to feel reassured their commitment is being rewarded and they are receiving competitive compensation and benefits in line with industry standards and market value.

In my opinion, human resource management is the lifeblood of any organization. Once thought of as the “softer side of business” and considered a company’s “take it or leave it” department, today it has become an essential part of what every successful company values – good and productive working relationships and fair and consistent treatment of employees. The face of HR is no longer a sweet little lady processing forms and orienting new employees. Like in the good old days, dealing with employee issues with a handshake, a wink, and a nod are simply over. And on the flip side, the days of crafting pages and pages of rigorous and overbearing policies which virtually paralyze employer decision-making and employee performance are also over. The new face of HR should look like this – dynamic, well-educated individuals who thoughtfully listen and communicate, carefully balance business goals and legal requirements, and motivate, evaluate, and decision make with a sense of workplace harmony and flow.

Developing and implementing HR functions may seem like a daunting and time-consuming task for many businesses today. Rules, regulations, HR best practices, nuances in the law – it’s enough to make any business owner’s head spin. To stay competitive and face future challenges, however, it’s critical to get a handle on employee issues and workplace policy as it ultimately affects performance and bottom line results. Deciding to work with a human resource professional who adheres to this balanced approach will undoubtedly increase your company’s value. Contact ImagineHR today for more information on how we can help you stay on track with your HR functions and develop a customized plan unique to your business goals!

At ImagineHR, we would be thrilled to have the opportunity to assist you with your human resource objectives. We ensure our clients are always nurturing the human side of business, which we believe is integral to a company’s success. Our value proposition is this – invest now in the creation of well-written policies to avoid potential workplace issues later and balance organizational structure and flexibility to establish and maintain a competitive edge.


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