Help, HR: Now Is The Time of Need & Opportunity • MJVacanti - Inspire
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Help, HR: Now Is The Time of Need & Opportunity

Help, HR: Now Is The Time of Need & Opportunity

“Be as passionate about adopting new ideas and behaviors as you are defending old ones!”

Over the past decade I have had the honor of leading businesses totaling hundreds of millions in revenues with thousands of team members. After 5 M&A/transformation gigs, I learned that success is predominantly based in people over process, yet HR was never a relevant factor to success or failure, often more of a burden than an enhancement. Innovative thinking and flexibility are required through reorg and M&A. This reality was met with rigidity and resistance.

With a diligent nod to the boundaries of compliance, I broke all the other conforming “rules.” To succeed, it had to be done. These situations required the exceptional, not the normal.

Over the past 2 years, I have been focused on helping people/teams/companies and especially leaders shift their mindset to the wellness, support and growth of the people they engage with at work.

Today, we are operating in a new world of simultaneous disruptive forces:

  • Four generation workforce stretching the life & career stage norms
  • Explosive technology transformation
  • Innovative business model shifts
  • Demands of creating a more engaged and human experience for every employee


There is a widening gap between Business and HR as the game is rapidly changing.

Now is the time of need and the greatest opportunity for HR to step into the most critical role

for corporate success, wellness and sustainable growth.

To get there, HR leaders and teams must stop doing many of the low-value, standard practices and embrace the extraordinary. To deliver on the great need and realize the potential of this opportunity, HR must let go of “normal.” Can they? Will they?

To highlight the difficulty to “let-go” of the fixed HR mindset, I reflect on a recent conversation with a professed ‘disruptive’ HR executive at a large corporation. We talked through some of the challenges described above. Near the end of the energized conversation she said, “one more question; how would you address dress code challenges.” My brain buzzed, my body froze as if I’d been hit by a stun gun. Dazed but quickly recovering I replied, “Personally I am in favor of clothing.” The conversation soon ended. The gap is too wide.

Until HR is willing to let go of the nonsense, they will not achieve what is necessary.

The stakes are high.

“Workplace is killing us and nobody cares”? Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, has made a deep dive into workplace health issues for his book ‘Dying for a paycheck’. Jeffrey proclaims that the business community has ignored this issue and their responsibility. He keeps bringing this topic to people’s attention, to get the word out and to make clear that this is a serious and substantial issue. 

The call to action from expert sources is plentiful, still the propensity to adopt change is steeped in historical justification and denial. A peek at an excerpt from Bersin by Deloitte:

[Driven by the ongoing digital revolution and demographic, political, and social forces, almost 90 percent of HR and business leaders rate building the organization of the future as their highest priority. In its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte issues a call-to-action for companies to completely reconsider their organizational structure, talent and HR strategies to keep pace with digital disruption.

“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate and these innovations have completely transformed the way we live, work and communicate,” said Josh Bersin. “Ultimately, the digital world of work has changed the rules of business. Organizations should shift their entire mind-set and behaviors to ensure they can lead, organize, motivate, manage and engage the 21st century workforce, or risk being left behind.”

With more than 10,000 HR and business leaders in 140 countries weighing in, this is Deloitte’s largest and most extensive Global Human Capital Trends survey to date…Deloitte finds that HR is struggling to keep up.]

Credible, insightful and passionate. The challenge with Bersin/Deloitte is their business is model is 100% dependent on you (your company) having a problem. They don’t want you to fix the problem.

What is HR, really? I plugged in a little history as an appendix at the bottom of this article. Here is a snapshot:

  • Acquisition and Personnel Activities
    During the 2nd world war the focus was on recruitment and selectionand later on training; improving morale and motivation; discipline; health and safety; joint consultation and wage policies. This meant that a personnel department had to be established with trained staff.
  • Once an employee is in the door, HR practices are designed to maximize the performance and satisfaction levels of employees by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to perform their jobs and by creating conditions that will energize, direct, and facilitate employees’ efforts toward meeting the organization’s objectives.


Business side pressures have continually piled on additional burden and blame for HR as the battle for talent, demands of wellness, diversity and structural models shift. Called to do more, challenges compound on top of the absolute requirements of employment law, workers’ compensation, health benefits, rewards, training & development, payroll, talent acquisition, and systems. The only way to gain agility and keep pace is to prioritize and eliminate.

“What you choose to stop doing is as important as what you choose to do next.” –(MJVacanti)

Human capitalist Josh Bersin, professor Dave Ulrich, professor Peter Cappelli all have been tracking, reporting and advising HR through decades, and we find ourselves standing in a very bad place, arguably creating a case that they are a part of the problem, not the solution. With extensive data, research, theories, trials and lessons, they have led us to place in history when things are worse and worsening, not better and improving. First rule when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Yet HR leaders stand firm holding their shovels.

It is you, the committed and dedicated practitioner that is going to initiate the climb out of this deep and dark hole. You know how disruptive business changes are affecting your world, your people, and your company. You are called to act and make decisions each day that impact people and the success of your company. The pontificators, human capitalists and professors will not stand with you. They will not lift you up. They are comfortably monitoring and assessing. They succeed regardless if you fail or not. Much like the analysts for the upcoming third leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Stakes, their checks are cashed for hanging around talking – they have no horse in the race.

Be a problem solver. Work with problem solvers. Be bold. Change fast and drastically.


Start by understanding the current crisis. What new step today enables the next step tomorrow. Are your efforts focused on solving these challenges?

  • While promoting health and wellbeing is an organizational priority for over two-thirds of employers, just 52 percent believe they have an effective wellbeing strategy
  • Two in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance metrics are within their span of control, and even fewer employees—14 percent—strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive inspire them to improve.
  • 44 percent of employees strongly agree that they can see how their work goals connect to the organization’s overall goals.
  • Only 21 percent of employees strongly agree that their pay and incentives motivate them to achieve their goals.
  • 29 percent of employees strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive are fair, and 26 percent strongly agree they are accurate
  • Only 14 percent of employees strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive inspire them to improve
  • Almost half (48 percent) of employees would be willing to take at least a 10 percent pay cut to work at a job they’re more interested in and passionate about
  • Three in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree they have the materials and equipment they need to do their work right
  • Four in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that their supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about them as a person
  • 44 percent of employees say that a boss has been the primary reason they have left a job. Of those respondents, the top five characteristics of their boss that made them leave:
    • Management style: 37 percent
    • Condescending attitude: 30 percent
    • Mean or had a bad temper: 27 percent
    • Inappropriate behavior: 26 percent
    • Harassed employees: 24 percent
  • 51 percent of U.S. employees say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings

(from Gallagher’s 2018 Benefits Strategy & Benchmarking Survey Executive Summary)

HR Executives and Thought Leaders need a spa day.

A day of exfoliating old ideas and processes to make room for what is next!

Cathy Benko and Erica Volini from Deloitte offer more layers of difficulty:

[“A recent survey of CEOs reveals that HR is overwhelmingly viewed as the least agile function. In our own conversations with CFOs we consistently hear that their attempts to work strategically with HR are the most trying. Business leaders concur, with nearly 50 percent reporting that HR is not ready to lead. Even HR itself agrees. In a March 2014 global survey, HR and talent executives graded themselves a C-minus for overall performance, citing a large capability shortfall, with 77 percent of respondents ranking the need to re-skill the HR function among the top quartile of their priorities.

These days, the scarcity impeding firms’ growth is not of capital — it’s of talent. We live in an era where eight-five percent of value creation stems from brand, intellectual property, and people — all intangible assets. Delivering HR-related operational, compliance, and administrative tasks with distinction is important, but let’s be clear that doing so is table stakes. The CHRO must step up to the implications of the new world of work.”]

Business is fluid. We must achieve during transformation, not wait it out and withdraw until it is complete and assessed. We need a clear understanding of “transformation.”

Transformation is taking something that exists and making something different. You can’t say transformation when referring to your continuous improvement program, that’s called continues improvement, taking something that exists and making it better.

Transformation happens when you make multiple, significant changes. You can’t get to the desired destination by perpetuating the same programs, behaviors and thinking in the operational state today. Break patterns to set new priorities and purge the old and ineffective – even it is believed to be a HR standardized best practice.

How many HR teams have put effort into changing the dialog – make language changes on your website, communications and employee portal? How many meetings, how much time went into making the adjustments to incorporate the new language?

In contrast, how many processes have been assessed, revised or discarded? While we put a lot of effort into modernizing the dialog to be relevant, HR continues to perpetuate the irrelevant with ineffective programs and actions. We are using the right words but missing the opportunity.

Solutions get created by ‘dumpster diving’ into the debris piled up over time and clearing out it. You can’t get to transformation until you dive in the box and rip out the things that aren’t working. You can’t continually add new layers and processes without cleansing the garbage.

To fix the growing engagement problem and address the mental wellness crisis, we need to re-engineer or eliminate some age-old processes, dial down the automation and focus on human interaction and conversations. 


  • Objective-based performance measures are the only means to creates proper focus. Take the gaming and politicization out of performance and achievement assessments. Stop the social-engineering through subjective assessment of assimilation and popularity.
    • All measures are objective and constant. That’s it. Every employee can look at the scoreboard and clock and know exactly where they stand and the reality of the situation. This will drive the right questions, behavioral shifts and action adjustments to change the outcomes.
  • Eliminate or drastically re-think surveys. Surveys are an irritant to employees, viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to control behavior and influence, not outcomes. Your people hate these things. They are telling you, “We don’t we don’t want to hear that music,” but you keep turning up louder thinking they’ll surrender if the decibels are excruciating enough.
    • In a network survey asking for an example of a measurable business value from surveys, 83 respondents gave varied descriptions of why surveys were important, only 3 could express a measurable value created. It’s a habit, a crutch, not a high-value practice.
  • Stop spending all your time attending tech conferences and buying enterprise tech that simply replaces an old system that does not solve these high’priority problems.
  • L&D training and coaching: Let’s face it, HR has completely failed here. It may be the one area that really does need to transfer to the business. How often do you force employees to consume spoon feeding when they want to select what’s best for themselves? Just give people “learning coupons” and let them select and consume their own plan. It will save you time and a lot of money.
    • Information consumption (learning) has dramatically changed. The individual is ahead of the company in adoption. While companies continue to address this as a “benefit package” and buy some program, it requires custom redesign to fit the need and opportunity. Great push here to change the mindset of approach and spark movement.
    • Companies spent more than $359 billion on employee training and education in 2016, but say they aren’t getting much return on their investment, according to a study in Harvard Business Review.
    • Encourage/enforce or offer what people want.
      • If you hire a recruiter, you can’t assume that they want to retire from the company as recruiter – allow growth and training to get them where they want to go, not hold them where they are today. Support their ambition rather than your plan.
      • What is the path forward, the growth opportunity – not necessarily a step up the later, a title or a new box to sit in, but what are they discovering about themselves, what is their ambition and big picture and are you helping them through the discovery, learning and growth?
    • Continuous feedback software is equal to the bad behaviors of middle-school children, forming cliques, prearranging positive and negative comments based on popularity, it’s quid-pro-quo and invites isolation rather than community. Conversations and regular feedback are the key to engagement – not a printable string of random, opinionated comments. It was created to capture a few data points for the annual review process – both are detrimental.


“Employee engagement is 100% the responsibility of the employee. Creating the environment and opportunity for personal growth and satisfaction is 100% the responsibility of the company.” (MJVacanti)

  • Employee wellness, addressing the education and alignment to the significant challenges posed by Jeffrey Pfeffer in his “Dying for a Paycheck” research.
  • Choose your measures wisely. Rethink what and how you measure. Is it for benefit or control?
  • L&D is essential and needs to be reinvented.
  • Forget retention and focus on growth!
    • I know – you’re invested and made the decision for the right reasons at the time so you resist new thinking, observation through a different lens. This is an example of the rigidity that is sinking HR, and a reason people dismiss HR.
    • Retention is interesting but not important. The simple retention measure is more about holding people hostage without consideration of any value indicators.
      • We interpret time measures as a value without defining the value. Often this measure is about control not value.
      • Did we keep someone in a role for a long time without growth?
      • Are we using time measure to include or exclude?
      • If I have 10 years’ experience in the same role, is that ten with growth or 1 year of the same 10 times?
    • When we value people staying where they are, we are promoting mediocrity. What programs, learnings, opportunities will energize our best people. Retention in itself may simply be capturing the low performers, the unambitious, creating a burden rather than value.
    • How many hi-po (high potential people) left – why? This is important rather than interesting.
    • Measure growth not time
    • Seek and encourage motion, not retention.
    • Measure influence rather than participation
    • Measure and provide opportunity for movement – different role, different department

It is understandable that the predominant thinking is to focus on retention, as it originates from the ‘final four’ financial and management consulting where retention is everything to their MLM business model. Deloitte, Accenture, PWC, Mary Kay, Amway, Herbalife, Arbonne, etc., retention is revenue. (Think this is out of line? Ask them to draw out their financial structure.) Retention as a primary driver of growth is not the case in most businesses. Knowledge and energy (engagement, commitment, belief) are the keys to corporate growth and high-achievement – both need great enhancement. This needs to be the priority. To get there, what you stop doing is as important as what you do next.

An HR leader once said to me, “if we let people think for themselves, we will have chaos.” I would much rather steer the energy of chaos than try to create energy out of apathy. Reality exists between these extremes.



Quick Facts: Human Resources Managers
2017 Median Pay $110K,120K per year
$52.94 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation 5 years or more
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 136,100
Job Outlook, 2016-26 9% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 12,300

How Much Budget, Burden and Impact Does HR Have

On the whole, HR departments have gained a larger overall share of their organizations’ financial resources over the last decade. Human resources funding for 2015 constitutes a median of 1.4 percent of the surveyed employers’ budgeted operating expenses for the year.

HR Department Staffing After reaching all-time highs in 2013 and 2014, tumbled a bit in 2015, when median ratio of human resources staff to total employee headcount is 1.1 full-time equivalent staff members for every 100 employees served by the department.

While HR has secured a seat at the corporate table at many organizations, its strategic role still tends to be collaborative or supportive. Employers are largely disinclined to give the HR department exclusive control over organization development (25 percent) or succession planning (11 percent), and very few companies with merger and acquisition functions have assigned those duties to human resources alone. (Complied from Bloomberg BNA; HR Department Benchmark and Analysis 2015-16)

While I am numbing your brain with some background info, here is a reminder of how it all started:

Personnel administration, (early HR) which emerged as a clearly defined field by the 1920s (at least in the US), was largely concerned the technical aspects of hiring, evaluating, training, and compensating employees and was very much of “staff” function in most organizations. It didn’t focus on the relationship of disparate employment practices on overall organizational performance or on the systematic relationships among such practices. It also lacked a unifying paradigm.

HRM developed in response to the substantial increase in competitive pressures American business organizations began experiencing by the late 1970s as a result of such factors as globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change.

Human resource management, also called personnel management, consists of all the activities undertaken by an enterprise to ensure the effective utilization of employees toward the attainment of individual, group, and organizational goals.

It’s believed that the first personnel management department began at the National Cash Register Co. in the early 1900s, according to an HR Magazine article. After several strikes and employee lockouts, NCR leader John H. Patterson organized a personnel department to handle grievances, discharges, and safety, as well as training for supervisors on new laws and practices.

Once an employee is in the door, HR practices are designed to maximize the performance and satisfaction levels of employees by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to perform their jobs and by creating conditions that will energize, direct, and facilitate employees’ efforts toward meeting the organization’s objectives.

Industrial Welfare 
Industrial welfare was the first form of human resource management (HRM). In 1833 the factories act stated that there should be male factory inspectors. In 1878 legislation was passed to regulate the hours of work for children and women by having a 60 hour week. During this time trade unions started to be formed. In 1868 the 1st trade union conference was held. This was the start of collective bargaining. In 1913 the number of industrial welfare workers had grown so a conference organized by Seebohm Rowntree was held. The welfare workers association was formed later changed to Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Recruitment and Selection 
It all started when Mary Wood was asked to start engaging girls during the 1st world war. In the 1st world war personnel development increased due to government initiatives to encourage the best use of people. In 1916 it became compulsory to have a welfare worker in explosive factories and was encouraged in munitions factories. A lot of work was done in this field by the army forces. The armed forces focused on how to test abilities and IQ along with other research in human factors at work. In 1921 the national institute of psychologists established and published results of studies on selection tests, interviewing techniques and training methods.

Acquisition of other Personnel Activities 
During the 2nd world war the focus was on recruitment and selection and later on training; improving morale and motivation; discipline; health and safety; joint consultation and wage policies. This meant that a personnel department had to be established with trained staff.

Industrial Relations: Consultation between management and the workforce spread during the war. The need for specialists to deal with industrial relations was recognized so that the personnel manager became as spokesman for the organization when discussions where held with trade unions/shop stewards. In the 1970’s industrial relations was very important.

Legislation: In the 1970’s employment legislation increased and the personnel function took the role of the specialist advisor ensuring that managers do not violate the law and that cases did not end up in industrial tribunals.

Flexibility and Diversity: In the 1990’s a major trend emerged where employers were seeking increasing flexible arrangements in the hours worked by employees due to an increase in number of part-time and temporary contracts and the invention of distance working. In the year 2000, growth in the use of internet meant a move to a 24/7 society. Organizations need to think strategically about the issues these developments raise. HRM managers role will change as changes occur. 

(Compiled from

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