It’s appropriate to call out the people department when they’ve failed to act, or they’ve done something wrong. But why doesn’t HR get appreciation when they do something wonderful?
It was welcome news to many that Walmart – the same organisation whose attitude towards its employees has seen it labeled “the worst company in America” – made the decision to pay its staff more. The company’s HR team was instrumental in making it happen.
It’s a big move because the US government is famously reluctant to raise its minimum wage. While different states have different standards, at the federal level the US only requires companies pay employees $7.25 an hour (compared to more than $18 in Australia).
But because Walmart is so large (being the world’s largest company by revenue, and employing one in ten of all private employees in the US) raising its wages forces the US retail sector specifically, but also all industries who employ low-skill workers, to raise theirs too.
And they’re not just raising wages, Walmart is also taking another look at how they handle sick leave, annual leave and promotions – all things under the purview of their HR team.
Given the enormity of the decision, it might strike you as strange that the team managing it at Walmart is not receiving any credit. In fact, HR hasn’t been mentioned at all. For instance, in this over 4,000 word article on the subject – that delves into how retention is linked with employee and customer satisfaction, and also talks about a huge new Walmart training program – the profession isn’t referred to even once.
The source of strategy
It’s not just the one article, if you read the New York Times piece from late last year you’d also be forgiven for thinking it was senior management who actually drove this strategy, as only the COO gets interviewed (again, HR doesn’t get a single mention).
But this HRD Connect interview from early last year with Saba Beyene, Walmart’s global people analytics senior director, seems like proof that it’s the HR team at the company who drove the new strategy.
In it Beyene reveals linking turnover with bottom-line costs was “one of the most important projects for the team” and that through great HR analytical work they were able to prove “when you lose an associate within 90 days or less they did not get their money back from hiring that associate”.
And then comes this kicker about the team’s project, “the results of this came as a complete surprise to the senior management”.
Left out to dry
In many ways it’s been a controversial year for the people department. HRM has covered several front page stories where the HR team from troubled companies has come under fire. They were specifically named and shamed in the Weinstein, Fox News, Uber, and Channel 7 scandals either for doing nothing or for doing something wrong.
When Walmart’s relationship with it’s employees was at it’s worse, during the rise of the OUR Walmart union when employee complaints were egregious, it was HR that was front and centre as the culprit “always watching” their attempts to organise. In this Bloomberg article, the human resources department is named but the rest of Walmart’s leadership is referred to simply as “executives”.
It’s right to call on any profession or organisation when its failures result in upsetting outcomes. HR is no different. But when the only thing you hear or read about HR is negative, it contributes to a larger culture where the profession is unfairly maligned as both ineffectual as an employee advocate, and irrelevant as a business partner.
It’s disconcerting because it’s simply not true. Sometimes the work of an HR team doesn’t just improve the prospects of a company and the lives of its workers, sometimes their efforts effectively raise the minimum wage of a whole country.