What is HR’s role in employee empowerment?
Answer: Empowering workers—making them feel invested in their work and eager to meet customer needs—remains one of the most difficult things HR professionals and other business leaders do. A simple joke illustrates this point: Have you heard the one about the new employee who asked his colleague, “How long have you been working here?”
“Ever since the boss threatened to fire me,” the colleague replied.
A study of more than 5,500 executives from 109 countries that was conducted by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA) and released in September 2010 found that many companies were unprepared to meet critical HR needs after the recession, including empowering their workers. Yet studies have shown that companies that empower and engage their workforce can achieve 26 percent higher revenue per employee, according to a Hewitt Associates report from July 2010, which is exactly what is needed in a struggling economy.
Human resource professionals play a critical part in creating an empowered and engaged workforce. But how is that done? The answers might come as a surprise.
Step 1: Gain the CEO’s Ear
HR professionals have a wealth of knowledge about how to build human and intellectual capital in an organization, yet many of them have been left out of critical business decisions and relegated to lesser roles, such as handling advertising, hiring and training. They are not in the room when the value creation elements of the business function get discussed, so they can’t advocate for actions that will attract and empower workers.
In order to participate in high-level discussions, HR professionals must learn the language spoken by the CEO and become a full-value provider, equal to the CFO or COO. They must speak less of the “soft” side of human capital and focus more on human capital as a primary element of the business function—something that contributes to the bottom line rather than diminishes it.
They must learn to measure intangibles in terms of return on investment (ROI) and key performance indicators (KPI) and must quantify how investment in HR will lead to greater innovation, efficiency and profit.
HR professionals must, quite literally, talk their way into the room so they can become resounding voices for the empowerment and engagement of their company’s workforce.
Step 2: Hire Believers
For years, companies have been trying to build employee engagement and commitment with total rewards under the assumption that higher pay equals loyal workers. This approach tends to lead to commitment to a job rather than a lasting commitment to the organization.
That’s why HR professionals should focus on building human and intellectual capital by hiring workers whose values and ambitions already link to the company’s products, values and culture. Those who already believe in the mission of the organization will work hard and do what it takes to please customers.
To find those workers, HR professionals must create an interview process that explores applicants’ values and interests. Find out if they’ve used the company’s products. Ask them to define the company’s mission and explain how the job in question contributes to the mission. Determine if they understand the customer’s perspective and needs. Those who do not likely will never be engaged fully in the company’s efforts to serve these customers.
Step 3: Fire When Needed
Sometimes organizations must clear the ranks of employees who are not happy, engaged and interested in serving the customer. There’s nothing wrong with letting someone go. In fact, HR professionals should consider it a helpful gesture that will prompt that person to find a job that suits their interests and values better. And it’s absolutely the right thing for the customer.
Of course, there’s always room for further evaluation of an employee, for additional training and for a certain level of external motivation. But such efforts are unlikely to light an employee’s fire. That is up to the employee. Employers can offer the employee the opportunity to engage in the mission.
Step 4: Remain Flexible
Flexibility is difficult but essential. HR professionals cannot lock into incentive structures for empowering and engaging their workforce and expect that what worked four years ago will work in the future.
The BCG and WFPMA survey found that in the first two years of the global economic downturn, employee engagement was highest among companies that used flexibility measures to weather the economy rather than layoffs or other cutbacks. Increasing job mobility and flexible work arrangements, as well as creating programs to strengthen the middle managers who supervise most employees, helped improve engagement.
HR professionals need to be flexible with regard to customer needs as well. As the market and customer demands change, the HR team needs to realign its strategies. This might mean that they resume hiring and firing, or implement new training or redesign workflow systems to meet the needs of the organization—all of which can rub against human nature’s thirst for stability.
Luckily, this is the time when HR professionals can shine. They can redesign incentive structures, reassign workers to roles that get them excited and create opportunities for staff members to grow and learn. And they might find themselves becoming re-empowered and re-engaged in the process.
Rod Hewlett, D.A., is dean of the College of Business at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.