05 Sep 2018

The ecstasy and agony of working as an HR professional in organisations today

The HR Manager’s work life is like that bitter-sweet symphony – we grow as professionals and move from one solution to the next, maturing as we go, and learning from our mistakes. And yet, on this roller coaster, there are times when we want to throw up our hands in despair and wish for a miracle to wash away the ‘battle scars’.

There is no growth without discomfort and as any work experience teaches us, ecstasy and agony -two sides of the same coin – exist in almost all walks of professional life. Much like light and darkness, we wouldn’t appreciate ecstasy, if we didn’t walk through the compelling and challenging alleys of agony.

Human Resources today represents this dichotomy, and the old adage ‘just when I had reached the solution, the problem changed’ has never rung truer. Most rules that applied to HR a while ago have changed or need to be adapted. First on my list is the ‘role of HR’ in organizations – employees perceive HR to be a do-gooder, an empathetic ear, and (in reference to the article’s topic- and, I cannot resist the pun!) – an agony aunt. HR sees itself as a business -enabling line function, involved in everything from the recruitment life cycle and employee well-being to being a custodian of all policies. Between this ‘image management’ and ‘image perception’ lies the tough terrain. Much like the parenting role, where the brickbats come first and the bouquets show up after the child realizes the reasoning behind perceived unfair decisions, the HR department is often the one who can’t please everyone and is at all points in time perceived by some employees as one-sided and partisan.

Should HR take the ‘alternative schooling’ approach in this fast-changing world (let’s face it- the target audience has changed, and expects more freedom and autonomy and a right to an opinion) or should it hang on to the old ‘mainstream’ systems of process and accountability and believe that those are non-negotiable? Like most decisions in life – the middle path beckons. But the challenge has two parts to it- firstly, to decide on what is in absolute black and white and secondly, to understand what can be grey.

As youngsters leave their comfortable college environs and join workplaces, we find that they have the confidence that was probably lacking in the same group a few decades ago. Companies are so impressed with the ‘young blood’ that they forget that educational institutions do not equip their students to manage the work environment and here lies the mega tussle between the millennials and the ‘perennials’. Issues of discipline and work ethic occupy central space and HR’s role has to be to manage the new hire’s transition along with the Managers and equip the new hires to learn what ‘animal’ the workplace is. Where does personal end and professional begin? The objective of this exercise should be for employees to thrive and not merely survive.

Culture – that abstract noun is the ‘misunderstood’ protagonist in the corporate play. How does HR decide what is the culture and how does it disseminate the same today? Every organisation wants an identity. Social media pervades all walks of life and it is increasingly important for employees to attach themselves to the culture of a company.

HR has to be able to answer existential questions like “What does my company stand for?” and “How do I fit in?”. On the other hand, whenever there is an unpopular decision, “But this is our culture” – gets thrown at HR, who is left wondering where the communication gap took place. Culture can make or mar a workplace and HR’s ongoing challenge is to prevent culture from well, eating strategy, as the cliché goes. It is a topic that forces HR professionals to think about where corporate values and personal values converge and move towards achieving the organization’s goals by empowering line managers, who are the ones playing the most active role.

The bright side of the ever evolving nature of HR processes is where technology is a willing and able companion. HR is a huge canvas and offers opportunities for “real time solution” centric thinking, which was not imaginable even two decades ago. Thanks to technology, which enables scalability, accessibility and convenience, HR professionals of today have a rich, wonderful and hands-on experience for the taking. From large corporates to SMEs and start-ups, HR has diversified in personality, nuances and solutions, all of which can be tailor made for each of these organization types.

HR can be that change-agent, that catalyst that organizations need. HR ‘hats’ need to be worn by all those who manage teams, and training and readying the managers can be a rewarding exercise. HR can see its efforts rewarded real-time.

In popular culture, the book ‘The Agony and Ecstasy’ by Irving Stone has the phrase ‘Truth is closer to a sculpture than a painting’. My reading is that the truth of an HR professional’s work is what actually gets implemented, and not just what was imagined and planned or even left to the ‘viewers’ perception. The truth of our work lies in what the employees experience in reality and not what is merely on a corporate slide deck. In this path dotted with agony and ecstasy – today’s HR professional has a wonderful opportunity to create that sculpture that needs no explanation.

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Anjali Varma

Head – Human Resources

The Fuller Life

Anjali manages Human Resources at The Fuller Life, an employee engagement company in Bangalore, where she is responsible for building an HR framework in a millennial environment. Anjali has previously worked in business roles at The Fuller Life and has also managed recruitment for Infosys. She is an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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