Rebuilding HR

It's time to renovate and innovate. Here's how HR can restructure its own professional development to meet the needs of a fast-changing  business world.

By Rita Zeidner May 1, 2015
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Shara Gamble, SHRM-CP, knows a thing or two about rebuilding. The company where she works as HR director, TAMKO Building Products Inc., weathered back-to-back tornadoes during the spring of 2011—first in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the company lost a warehouse and a portion of its payroll facility, and then a month later in its home base of Joplin, Mo., where many company employees lost their homes and were forced to start again from scratch.

In the aftermath of the twisters, Gamble and the payroll team worked with the management at Tuscaloosa to ensure that the company’s workers got paid and supported a team of volunteers dedicated to rebuilding. TAMKO, which has 1,200 employees nationwide, manufactures construction materials, cranking out roofing supplies at a dozen plants across the U.S. It’s a helpful line of work to be in when you live in a town that has been devastated by a natural disaster.  

These days, Gamble is involved in a different kind of rebuilding—that of HR itself. She is one of a growing number of HR professionals who are reshaping the business community’s expectations of how HR functions within organizations and of the value that the profession can bring to a rapidly changing, complex workplace. Gamble, like many others in the field, is looking to develop her team’s core skills and competencies. After years of focusing on other departments’ professional development, it’s time for HR professionals to focus on their own.

HR’s Image Problem

To be sure, the profession is teeming with high achievers like Gamble, who is the certification director for the Missouri State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and vice president of the Tri-State Human Resources Association, a SHRM affiliate. Unfortunately, the accomplishments of these high achievers often get obscured by criticism about HR from the popular press, among organizational experts and even within the profession itself. There’s no denying that HR has an image problem—and perhaps it’s not wholly undeserved.

The magazine Fast Company laid out common complaints against the field a decade ago in a snarky cover story titled “Why We Hate HR.” A lack of business savvy topped its lengthy list of practitioner shortcomings. More recently, in the July 2014 Harvard Business Review, business consultant Ram Charan made the case that, even at the highest levels, most HR professionals “are process-oriented generalists who have expertise in personnel benefits, compensation and labor relations.”

While Charan acknowledged that HR departments also focus on engagement, empowerment and managing cultural issues, he held that “what they can’t do very well is relate HR to real-world business needs. They don’t know how key decisions are made, and they have great difficulty analyzing why people—or whole parts of the organization—aren’t meeting the business’s performance goals.”

Getting Beyond the Haters

Gamble is among many HR leaders bent on proving the HR critics wrong or, at least, making their most damning observations about the profession obsolete. Aligning the HR function to business needs is exactly what she is focusing on first with her team’s professional development. 

She became concerned when she noticed that her relatively young and inexperienced employees were spending too much time on transactional duties such as payroll and benefits administration. She wanted them to focus on supplying managers with competent, well-trained workers and meaningful analytics. 

So she retooled their training so that it was aligned to the company’s business model, making sure her team understood the industry and the diverse mix of skills needed to ensure the company’s continued success. “To have a conversation with our business leaders, HR has to be able to speak their language,” she says.

Gamble also initiated cross-functional training and urged her staff not to be shy about offering solutions that may solve managers’ workplace problems. Her 10-member team rose to the challenge immediately, proposing and implementing a new system for tracking time and attendance, a new virtual orientation and onboarding process, and a leadership development forum.

The Competency Model

Gamble’s and others’ mission to meet the modern demands of HR has been supported by SHRM in a number of ways. In 2012, the Society developed a competency model that spells out  nine basic skill sets that HR professionals need to have to be at the top of their game, no matter where they are in their careers. The model forms the foundation for the new certifications that SHRM rolled out last year—the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and the SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Both respond to the business community’s desire for more outcome-focused practices from HR professionals, according to Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, SHRM’s president and chief executive officer.

The nine competencies are:

• Business acumen—an understanding of and the ability to apply information to contribute to the organization’s strategic plan.

• Communication—the ability to effectively exchange information with stakeholders.

• Consultation—the ability to provide guidance to organizational stakeholders.

• Critical evaluation—the skills to interpret information to make business decisions and recommendations.

• Ethical practice—the ability to integrate core values, integrity and accountability throughout all organizational and business practices.

• Global and cultural effectiveness—understanding and valuing the perspectives and backgrounds of all parties.

• Leadership and navigation—the ability to direct and contribute to initiatives and processes within the organization.

• Relationship management—the skills to manage interactions to provide service and support to the organization.

• HR expertise—knowledge of the principles, practices and functions of effective human resource management.

The model also identifies a dozen or so basic performance expectations at various career stages. To meet the proficiency standard for HR expertise, for instance, an entry-level practitioner is expected—among other things—to be able to identify ways to improve operational efficiency and ensure that stakeholder questions get answered. A midlevel professional should be able to serve as the HR expert to managers and recommend policy changes. A senior HR practitioner’s competencies include providing expertise to support staff development, implementing operational strategy and assessing legal compliance risks. Because HR executives have full oversight and responsibility for HR business out

comes, they should be able to keep HR policies and practices aligned with business needs. 

As another example, the proficiency standard for business acumen requires an entry-level HR professional to have a basic knowledge of the employer’s business. A midlevel manager should be able to assemble reports and metrics. A senior manager must communicate the organizational impact of metrics. And an HR executive uses metrics and other available data to implement solutions.

A New HR

The validated competency model helps dispel the myth—widely held in HR circles—that HR practitioners need only a firm grounding in HR basics, according to Jeff Lindeman, SHRM-SCP, senior director for talent and engagement at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and a member of SHRM’s Certification Commission. Moreover, it will help prove to executives outside HR that the profession has strategic value.

“No matter where you are in your career, you will need skills that go far beyond what is taught in traditional HR training,” Lindeman says. “You will need to understand your employer’s business model and know who are the customers and stakeholders. You will need to have negotiation skills to close a deal to bring a talented worker on board. You will need to have communication skills to market your organization’s brand.”

It’s also crucial for HR to be able to counsel others in the business about how to address the changing needs of the workforce. “The ability to effectively influence is a critical skill that HR professionals must possess,” says Jackie Henderson, SHRM-SCP, an HR leader at Rivermark Community Credit Union in Portland, Ore.  “Many individuals new to the profession may wonder how they can learn to lead or how they can be influential within their organizations. I wondered this same thing as I started progressing through my HR career.” The SHRM Competency Model helps HR professionals learn leadership and other skills critical to the business.

In addition to leading from within, HR must be adept at communicating the company’s value proposition externally, especially in the tightening labor market. As the economy improves and unemployment hits its lowest level since the 2008 recession, competition for talent is intensifying—which means you need a solid strategy for luring the best and brightest talent.

HR professionals must also understand how the composition of the workforce is shifting. For example, at least half of workers in 2020 are expected to be from the Millennial generation, says Paul Belliveau, SHRM-SCP, who heads Avancé Human Capital Management Advisors. “They’re bringing their own preferences to work,” he says. “The workforce we’re seeing develop is taking charge of their own self-development. They have an appetite for short-term assignments, and they want to be their own boss.”

Recruiting and retaining these workers, as well as keeping them productive, will require cultural competency. “HR needs to develop competencies that will allow them to view the workforce through many different lenses,” Belliveau says.

Getting a Leg Up

Today there is no shortage of venues where HR professionals can enhance their skills. The demand for certain competencies is often determined by 

uncontrollable factors such as the rate of economic growth, demographic and labor supply changes, and the rate of technological developments. That’s why SHRM will constantly recalibrate its competency model to keep up with shifting business demands.

But never mind that change is the only constant. Here are some steps you and your colleagues can take to meet HR challenges—now and in the future:

Be a human resource innovator and integrator. Keeping up with HR research and trends will help you make better decisions and spot threats and opportunities. In addition to keeping up with relevant business publications (starting, of course, with HR Magazine), be aware of what’s going on in your industry. “HR [professionals] should be vigilant about tracking the competition and keeping their recruiting strategies updated so that they do not end up losing trained employees,” says Ranjana Jha, SHRM-SCP, a manager of HR at TEOCO Software Private Ltd. in Kolkata, India. “Accumulate as much knowledge as possible,” she says, “and don’t hesitate to join meetings and training within and outside the organization to stay updated.”

Keeping abreast of the changing needs of the workforce will help HR professionals lead the corresponding adjustments needed within their own organizations. “It requires strong leaders to bring about change and innovation,” Jha says, “and this is where establishing relationships with people is important. If HR understands the business process, [it] can contribute by participating and leading the change effort.”

Be a technology champion. Technology is driving many of HR’s key functions—from applicant tracking to strategic communications. HR’s value starts with its ability to solve problems, Belliveau says—and “you can’t [solve them] without technology.” If HR professionals want to form alliances and walk in lockstep with the rest of the organization, they need to understand how the business—and its leaders—measure success. “Technology is the most powerful strategic tool HR has in proving its worth,” Belliveau says. Understanding tech tools and social media is also critical to meeting the needs of the enterprising “me.com” Millennial generation, as Belliveau calls it. 

Develop your business acumen. Even if you work for a nonprofit, it’s important to grasp how people-related decisions affect your organization’s bottom line. Make an effort to learn more about your employer’s line of business and get busy helping your company increase its productivity. A class in accounting or labor economics could be a good place to start. “A wonderful way to develop your business acumen is to get on your CFO’s calendar,” Henderson says. “I knew nothing of how to read or interpret the financials until I spent time with my CFO, and he was more than happy to be asked,” she says. “As a result of having strong business acumen, I can actively contribute in senior-level meetings.”

Crunch the numbers. To be a critical evaluator—one of SHRM’s nine key competencies for HR success—you must be able to collect data and, depending on your career stage, analyze it to make business decisions. HR departments now have access to an enormous amount of information through the systems they use for recruiting, payroll, performance management and others. But do you know how to use it? “HR needs to get really good at telling data stories,” Belliveau says. “You don’t need to be a mathematician or a statistician, but you need to know the importance behind the numbers.”

“The HR information systems environment is changing on an almost daily basis,” says Sylvia Francis, SHRM-SCP, total rewards manager at the Regional Transportation District in Denver. To familiarize yourself with basic analytic tools, she advises taking an advanced Excel course. “Or, to further your education even more, consider classes in predictive analytics, statistics or business economics at your local university or community college,” she says.

Ultimately, HR professionals deal with the most complex component of the business—people. That’s why they need skills that are multidimensional. SHRM’s areas of competency are addressing this need. There’s a lot to learn, but HR professionals have always been oriented toward professional development. As they turn their focus to themselves, the competency model will provide a strong foundation on which to build a whole new HR.  

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer who focuses on HR and workplace issues and a former senior writer for HR Magazine. She is based in Alexandria, Va.


SHRM Certification: The New Benchmark for Assessing HR

Employers want proof that, in addition to knowing about HR, you can apply that knowledge to further organizational goals. But what if you already have an HR degree or certification? Why bother with yet another credential?

HR Magazine put these questions to Shara Gamble, SHRM-CP, HR director for TAMKO Building Products Inc., and one of the first HR professionals to earn the new SHRM certification. 

What convinced you to pursue another credential?

If I don’t stay current in my professional field, I will be left behind. The SHRM certification is not just another credential. SHRM is the most recognized organization within HR, and the certification is SHRM’s endorsement of my ability to show action within a particular body of knowledge. To me, it was a must-do.

Moreover, since I already have my PHR, all I had to do was take the tutorial, not the full test. I would tell anyone with their PHR or SPHR certification to sit for the tutorial. There is no financial investment and little time commitment, and you are able to add another credential to your professional portfolio. Deciding to pursue the credential is a no-brainer.

You’re an early adopter of the SHRM Competency Model. Once your employees get up to speed, will you urge them to sit for the certification exam?

Yes. The SHRM certification demonstrates that employees can not only memorize a series of laws and facts but can also exercise judgment around the knowledge set. If I am in a situation to add staff in the future, I will be looking for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP to ensure that the candidate is on par with my expectations.

Do you foresee a time when you will base hiring decisions on whether someone has the SHRM-CP?

Yes. Of course, someone has to qualify to take the exam—and that requires some experience or schooling—but having the credential highlights that a person can exercise judgment around key knowledge areas within HR. This is a great evaluation and screening tool for hiring decisions. It shows me that the candidate has the ability to act independently in their area of management and gives me confidence in their decision-making ability.

Any suggestions for selling the benefits of the SHRM credentials to top managers? 

Focus on the key behaviors within each area. This will show executives the outcome of certification rather than concerning them with the details. Business managers are mainly concerned with whether a person will add value to an organization or not. The certification provides endorsement that the holder can successfully perform these key behaviors, thus adding value.

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