In the early history of the Roman Empire (B.C. ó Before Russell Crowe) there was an outspoken member of the Roman Senate named Cato the Elder. While his peers discussed and debated public works projects, sports arenas, highways and the other infrastructure improvements, Cato had but one overriding concern, about a threat so severe he was convinced it placed the entire future of Rome at risk, amphitheaters and all. That threat was Carthage. Carthage was a rival empire, located on the southern shores of the Mediterranean with colonies extending up into modern day Spain and Sicily. As the two empires expanded and grew, their competition for trade and land became more intense. Like two bullies living on the same block, it was obvious to everyone that one day they would have to duke it out. Cato felt the sooner the better ó otherwise all the efforts of Rome to improve itself might well be ultimately destroyed by its conquerors. Thus, no matter what the debate or issue before the senate, you could count on Cato the Elder to end his speech with, “Ergo Cartenga delenda est!” (therefore, Carthage must be destroyed!). When the war finally came, it lasted for ten years. Hannibal, a Carthaginian general, crossed the Alps with war elephants (this time it was Victor Mature, not Russell Crowe) and it was a near thing for Rome. But they ultimately prevailed and the danger of annihilation was removed. That is, until Sparticus came along (i.e., Kirk Douglas). When I first read of this noble Roman and his unlimited energy and single-mindedness in pursuing a course of action that, although unpopular, was the right thing to do, I found myself hoping that if ever equally challenged I too would be able to arise to the occasion. So here is my personal ergo Cartenga delenda est: Human resources/staffing must learn to make itself a respected peer in the business community in which it coexists ó or it will cease to exist. The current economic downturn (alright, recession) has once again caused corporate America to reflect on which components are critical to its survival, and which are the business equivalent of tonsils (something you don’t mind having around, but at the first sign of trouble, out they go). It’s easy to point out the shortsightedness of the “boardroom” or “chicken little” executives who cut costs at the slightest reversal of fortune. The most common argument we bring to the table is, “When the good times come back, you’ll be sorry we are gone.” But you have to ask: Is it their failure to see the value we add, or is it our failure to make them aware of that value in terms they will understand? The time has come for human resources/staffing professionals to stop meekly asking for their place at the table and start insisting on it. But we first have to prove we should be seated there ó and prove that we have something of value to contribute. A Short History of Staffing Since we started with history in the beginning of this piece, let’s go back and look at the history of human resources/staffing and its relationship to the other elements of business. Back in the days of “personnel,” short-sleeve white shirts with loose ties and unbuttoned collars were the uniform of the day. Throw in a cigar or cigarette and the picture is complete. With a workforce that still believed in 20-year commitment and technology that remained stable for decades at a time (in the 1950s, the biggest technological upgrade was “electric” typewriters), recruiting was not a major component or critical need. Employees had few issues with their employers, and few of the existing rules and regulations that govern the lives of modern day human resources/staffing professionals yet existed. Personnel, as the guardians of employee records and other “hush hush” pieces of information, tended to have a “cave mentality.” They located themselves in a far-off corner of the office and came out only at night to retreat, unobserved, to the parking lot, in the fervent hope that nobody would actually stop them and ask a question. But the fortress mentality worked both ways. Nobody actually wanted to see them either. Going in to see personnel was a lot like visiting a dentist. You only did it when the pain of not going was worse than the pain of going. Personnel spoke a strange language and actually seemed to make an effort to keep it that way. The only thing more mundane than the appearance of the work they did was how mundane it actually was. Few guidance counselors at leading universities recommended a career in personnel for the class valedictorian. As a matter of fact, personnel was often the place you hired people into who did not seem to have “important skills” or real “growth potential.” In an age where the glass ceiling was only a few feet above the floor, personnel management was one of the few management positions the good old (white) boys held open to female employees who had achieved the height of clerical, administrative, or secretarial positions available. But there was always a management slot in personnel to be promoted into (and forgotten) that did not threaten the power structure. If your department is perceived as a dumping ground, it’s difficult to get respect or to speak out. Then came the next step in the evolution of our profession: the much acclaimed “vendor/client” concept. As the American workplace changed, the challenge arose for personnel to adapt to meet it. New industries and companies began to capitalize on the rise of technology and automation, and new careers emerged with greater and more difficult skills to locate. Recruiting began to take on a more urgent tempo. Union and 20-year employees were replaced with individuals who were not afraid to risk being called “ungrateful” because of their desire to move to greener pastures. Company benefits made personnel more involved in their employees’ lives, and the rising cost of non-compliance gave a call for better educated and more responsive personnel professionals. That is right; the word “professional” was finally attached to the personnel skill profile. Change is inevitable, as is the outcome of failing to change (after all, the last step in evolution is oblivion). We were given a new name ó human resources (or staffing) ó and the unwanted employee ceased to be the candidate of choice for our profession. Then again, Harvard still did not list human resources/staffing as its #1 career choice for the truly “best and brightest.” We still had a long way to go. That is when somebody thought up “vendor/client relationships” ó for its time not a terribly bad idea, but not necessarily a great one either. The idea had a simple goal: to transform the “personnel cave dwellers” into more responsive and successful supporters of the business plan. They were expected to operate with the knowledge that they did not exist for themselves, but rather to support their clients. In the vendor/client relationship, distant personnel managers were made aware that they were there to serve, not merely process. They were cautioned that the “client” had choices if their services failed. After all, isn’t the threat of competition the cornerstone of a free economy? But does it build a team, a partnership? The concept had some positive impact. Then again, even the Yugo has some fine qualities ó but I never bought one of them either. The Problem With the “Vendor/Client Relationship” So what is so bad about being a vendor to your business-partner client?
- Clients know that vendors are selling to them for their own benefit. Nothing wrong with that; vendors have bills to pay as well. But it is understood that the vendor has a mission that may not always reflect the client’s.
- Vendors are not always the “experts” in their field. When I bought my second motorcycle, I had been riding for six years. The vendor had three months on the job. Who really understood motorcycles? (That’s when I bought the KZ 1000 ó real sweet.)
- Vendors tend to sell what is already “on the shelf” rather than what is truly needed. (“Round peg in a square hole? No problem!”)
- “I don’t need you in my life today” is the answer a vendor can expect to hear from clients who do not perceive that what the vendor does is a true value-add to their mission ó and not merely a budget debit from another “pesky salesperson” trying to get fat on the client’s budget. Don’t you tend to walk away from overzealous sales clerks?
- Perception of a real choice can make a client assume that their belief in what they think they need is real and keep shopping until they find somebody willing to lie to them. Haven’t you on at least one occasion in your life ignored the advice of a good salesperson and shopped around for the wrong item? (Hey, I honestly believed the sound of an eight-track was far superior to cassettes.)
- All human beings have a natural distrust of anyone who sells to them. I should know, I have a 25-year career of chasing after people running away from me while clasping their wallets.
But most importantly:
- You are denied your rightful role as the subject-matter expert in your own field. The human resources/staffing “hobbyist” has the last word.
As a transition piece, the “Vendor-Client” concept had a place and purpose, I suppose. But somehow we forgot that “better than nothing” is not the best justification to maintain a business outlook. The current circumstances of human resources/staffing should indicate to all of us that “clients” had no problem losing their human resources/staffing “vendors” when times got tough. But we can hardly blame them; we settled for their standard and allowed others to set the value of our product independent of us. In the 1990s, especially, we consistently failed to meet our clients’ needs. We were so busy trying to remain their vendor that we gave them permission to tell us how to do our jobs, for fear they would find somebody else ó because the vendor/client relationship told them that was okay. Plus, we had not, in many instances, made it all the way out of “the cave.” In a vendor/client relationship, if the client is always right ó and you are not the client ó, then you must be the one who is always wrong. Staffing as Strategic Business Partner The goal we must seek, and all too often have failed to achieve, is that of “strategic business partner.” If branding is what sells today, then perhaps “strategic business partner” should be our brand. It carries the three key elements we appear to lack as vendors:
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- Strategic: Long-term, not merely a switch to be turned on and off based on the latest Dow Jones report.
- Business: That is what we are involved in. Not social science, not human research, not policy or procedure generation. We are in the business of business.
- Partner: A person with whom you have entered a joint venture, with each person brining essential skills to the table for a common goal from different perspectives.
I was involved in a “scale down” in the last recession, where every time a vice president of sales, marketing, development, production, quality assurance, operations, or facilities made a strong enough case to save one of their required cuts, they did so by recommending “one more cut” in the human resources/staffing group. They were sorry to see so many of us leave, because when we were all gone they knew they had to start losing “good people.” I decided that a career based on being a “poker chip” was not the road I wanted to follow. The idea of a strategic business partnership is not a new one, nor is it mine. And it is not that the idea has not received attention, or that policies and procedures are not in place. It is just that the deliverables fall far short of the promise. Because, as per usual, we install high-level plans forgetting a lower-level employee will execute them ó and they are the ones who usually are not getting the message. But to begin, ask yourself: Are you currently a strategic business partner?
- Are you expected at all staff meetings, even if there are no HR/staffing issues on the table?
- Are you included on the distribution of all team memos, even the ones that do not refer to staffing?
- Is your input sought on all issues facing the team?
- Is your input on HR/staffing issues considered the best advice, or just another option?
- Are you sought out to provide your talent in support of a team member who is in need of additional resources? Even when a resume is not involved?
If you consider the interaction and interplay in the modern business team environment today between marketing, sales, development, quality, operations, and finance, the lacking of the same sense of team in the HR/Staffing role becomes all too obvious. (“What are you doing here? We aren’t hiring anybody today. Is it time to plan the holiday party already?”) We have never come all the way out of the “personnel cage.” We may have moved our offices onto the floor, but all too often our minds have stayed locked in the closed world of human resources. We have failed to join the team, and not just in those ways it impacts HR/Staffing and our little slice of the world. Next week: how to become that strategic business partner. Have a great day recruiting.