No business, large or small, successful or struggling, can expect to see organisational change on a large scale without creating – and embedding – a culture. Without a set of core values instilled into the workforce, the company is fractured and its employees are at odds. It’s up to HR to make sure that doesn’t happen.
We’ve seen the consequences of failing to instil a healthy and positive company culture. Earlier this year, Travis Kalanick, the founder and now-former CEO of Uber, left the company after a raft of newspaper-worthy scandals and allegations of having created a toxic workplace environment that threatened to damage the company’s reputation. It’s easy to lay the blame solely at Kalanick’s feet, and it’s true that the buck does stop with the CEO, but we also need to consider where HR was in all this. HR must be the custodian and defender of the culture. It must hold the CEO to account if the measures put in place by that CEO risk the reputation of the company. Clearly, that didn’t happen.
The failure to implement effective HR practices could be seen at other tech companies in Silicon Valley – those that were accused of failing to promote diversity and gender parity. The fight over these issues has now grown into an all-out culture war that continues to dominate the headlines. At the BBC, an institution respected the world over, there were gross salary disparities that only came to light when the organisation was forced to publish them. At Google, a lengthy internal memo revealed a deep disagreement in the workforce about company policy. HR had a vital role to play in all these cases, but if those HR officers did try to address these problems, their advice fell on deaf ears.
Maybe that’s due to the way in which businesses have traditionally perceived HR. HR has often been thought to be “just a function” of a business with no major role to play in its direction or long-term success. In other cases, it’s been seen as overly moralistic or obstructionist – something that gets in the way of the far more “important” organisational processes. How ironic it is that HR, freed from the corner office and allowed to fulfil its potential as a business-critical, values-driven machine that can change negative company practices, could have resolved many of the messes in which some of the world’s most powerful companies –Uber among them – now find themselves.
HR’s true role – one that I’ve been promoting throughout my career – should be to act as an adviser to the CEO and a soundboard for ideas, and to look at the organisation in a holistic way, and make recommendations. HR directors should be on the board to implement those changes. All other core departments have a representative, but why not the part of the business that has the best understanding of what needs to be changed and how? And those senior HR executives should have the ear of the CEO; the advice that HR offers is unlike any other across the business. By embracing this role, the change so many organisations need can start to happen.
But it’s up to HR professionals themselves to drive this change. They need to start with themselves and their departments, by making them values-driven and proactive. They need to become – and to be seen as – well-oiled machines that are connected to all areas of their businesses. If HR officers do this, all the time staying vigilant to toxic behaviour or negative business practices, and show willingness to hold the CEO to account and optimise employee activity, then change will happen and CEOs and other business leaders will quickly see the difference.
I’m confident that the change in the role of HR will take place sooner or later. Businesses simply cannot afford to leave HR on the side lines when the HR department plays such a crucial role in business success and in driving the large-scale organisational change that so many organisations desperately need and don’t know how to implement. In the meantime however, HR officers can be proactive, step up and start to redefine their roles themselves.