The competing responsibilities HR has to the company and its workers has been brought into sharp relief by the recent Fairfax strikes.
The Fairfax Media journalists who voted for strike action last week, after the announcement of around 125 editorial job losses, had reached the end of their tether. Word has it that employees chose to take unprotected strike action for a week, rather than the single day advocated by their union. It’s an indication of how much pain is being felt by a workforce that has seen around 2500 jobs cut since 2007.
At times like these, a dichotomy at the heart of HR is exposed. What is its role and where does its loyalty lie? HR may have spent their career as an effective employee advocate, involved in health and wellbeing policies etc. Suddenly, in a dispute situation, HR could find itself taking the side of the employer who, after all, pays their salaries. HR may have responsibility to ensure that their company continues to operate under extraordinary, and sometimes volatile, circumstances. A strike may pose challenges in managing contingent workers; setting up communication between management and all employees; maintaining customer service; establishing interim policies regarding benefits, overtime, vacations and sick leave; and bolstering non-striking employees’ morale.
Perhaps a different way of looking at the role of HR in an industrial dispute is to ask if it could have played a part in avoiding the dispute in the first place.
Maree Slater has had decades of experience in HR and working with unions, including as head of HR at Channel 9 and at Ausgrid, the government state-owned corporation. She now runs her own consultancy and mentoring business Productivity Through Leadership.
“Some of the Fairfax journalists have talked about being part of a family. But corporates are not families. I find with HR we often go through the motions of engagement surveys and training programs, but when it comes down to it, when the rubber hits the road, when you have to show courage, what then, where are we?”
A primary role for HR, believes Slater, has to be as employee advocate.
“As soon as HR forgets that responsibility, and management doesn’t do its job, you will have unions crawling all over you.”
Slater acknowledges that there will be lots of people in HR who disagree with her when she says that the tide has swung too much towards HR being strategic at the expense of its core role.
“In HR’s quest to be [more] ‘strategic’, or ‘commercial’, and having a seat at the table, I suspect the whole area of employee advocacy has been ignored or forgotten.”
“HR’s role is dealing with resources that are human. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues want to be seen to be part of management; but then who is looking after these real resources?”
The case of the media
With the loss of traditional advertising and the rise of digital technology, the newspaper industry has been facing disruption for a decade or more. Knowing that change was looming, the question becomes, what was the company doing and how was it seeking to innovate and adapt?
“It’s easy to cut heads, it’s quick. But it’s also terribly painful and disruptive as well as damaging to trust and loyalty,” says Slater. Staff end up waiting for the next guillotine or spend their time looking for another job.
Faced with disruption at Ausgrid, Slater says management were required to be very strategic and open about the options open to them, seeking ideas and options from employees for the different scenarios the company might face in five years’ time – and then planning the workforce around two or three scenarios “to avoid death by a thousand cuts”.
“There’s a definite role for HR here to be pushing that long-term planning to avoid the kind of scenario we are now seeing at Fairfax,” says Slater.
“In a lot of IR agreements there are words such as ‘consultation’. Most people in management hate that word, they just want to go out and get stuff done without delay. But wouldn’t it be great to have genuine consultation before the lion is at the door? To innovate by saying: ‘I really want to hear what you think.’ Continuous innovation happens when a lot of people contribute and you end up with something unique.
“Employees are our greatest asset. You hear that spoken, and read that in annual reports all the time. But it’s empty rhetoric, when push comes to shove and you have to go and kill them.”
Photo: The Canberra bureau –
@PoliticsFairfax – outside Parliament House 05/05/2017. Supplied by James Massola (@jamesmassola) Chief Political Correspondent, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age & Canberra Times.