Human resources: 
An art and a science

The field is changing so fast, driven by professionally qualified people, that the days of sending the boss’s secretary to run the new human resources department – created because, well, doesn’t everybody have one – are gone. 

And the days of advertising for a dish washer with a college degree and five years’ experience should also be gone, although that aspect of the ”new” human resources is not as widespread as it might be. 

That kind of ad, says Walkers’s Inga Masjule, “usually comes from managers who are unfamiliar with the process. 

“Recruiting is not an HR process, it is a business process. Bringing talent into a business is key” and getting it right, she says, “could make a difference between the success or failure of the whole organisation .” 

Before a company writes a recruitment ad, the hiring manager should speak with the human resources people should speak with managers and, depending on the field, develop a list of competencies and skills needed to do the job. 

“Creating an effective job ad is not easy,” says Masjule, Global Executive HR Director for Walkers and a current director of the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resource Professionals (CISHRP). “It’s not just a listing of required technical qualifications.  

When hiring support staff, you need to focus on the right competencies for the role for example communication skills, learning ability, numerical aptitude, critical evaluation, ability to work well with others etc. By just focusing on technical qualifications you can miss excellent candidates who don’t have the qualifications, but who can succeed in the role with further training and development. 

“We prepare ads, we assess skills, we conduct behavioral interviews. Interviewing techniques are very important. Recruitment is a balance of art and science,” she says. 

Art and science may define the entire evolution of the field, says Phil Jackson, now head of HR at Caribbean Utilities Company, formerly at Ernst and Young and UBS Fund Services, and past president of CISHRP. 

“It’s art because no two individuals are alike in their motivation and your approach has to be different,” he says. 

“It’s science because there are still ‘best practices,’ motivational theories, and HR still needs to support the strategies that support the business.” 

Previously, development of people was rarely a part of an HR department’s agenda, but “never before were there MBAs from Harvard going into HR,” and now the field is “a bit more strategic and more about placing [people] into the future.” 

Training and development programs, expanding staff skills and knowledge, promoting from within, keeping people motivated and getting the best value for money from employees are all part of the job, he says – adding that salaries are not always a primary motivation, which might, for example, be achieved through health insurance or a focus on well being, respect and a sense of trust. 

Steve McIntosh, founder of recruitment agency CML and previously an accountant at KPMG, illustrates the point with a story of a former colleague who earned a substantial salary, but revealed his frustration in the exit interview the day he resigned. 

“He was great at what he did and was well compensated, but was frustrated. We were opening a new office and he wanted to be appointed to run it. He never said anything, though, and when he didn’t get the appointment, he quit.” 

He never mentioned money, but was bitter about the lack of recognition. 

“The more I thought about it,” McIntosh says, “the more I realized it was a missed chance for me and for the company. We had not given him the opportunity. It wasn’t about the money; he didn’t want money. He wanted advancement.” 

McIntosh is determined to challenge the staid – if outdated – image of HR, developing a series of one-day workshops for managers and employees titled –in the style of the hit TV show “Orange is the New Black” – “HR is the New IT.” 

“I really believe that,” he says, explaining that every manager and every business everywhere depends on IT, is conversant with IT and works to boost IT resources, but “we want to help them build great teams.” 

“The focus has been on technology for 20 years, and they’ll say that someone not conversant with technology is a reason not to hire them. But would they hire someone not conversant with HR?” 

An accountant, McIntosh demonstrates his point with numbers: “The value of technology to a business is about 10 percent maximum. Its people are about 90 percent. 

“Now, let’s say your organization’s value is 100, and you want to grow it to 110. An organization’s value is for every manager to maximize,” he says, pointing to that old accountant’s saw: “fiduciary responsibility.” 

Investment in technology costs millions – “and what small business can afford that?” To move IT from its 10 percent share of value to 110 is an increase of 100 percent. By contrast, to move HR from its 90 percent share of value to 110, is an increase of 11 percent. 

“You have, say, $500,000 to invest. Where is it best placed?” McIntosh asks, pointing out, as if to hammer home the point of a competitive edge, the life-cycle of any technology: As Microsoft and Apple develop new products, he says, that only means that “every company has access to the same technology at the same moment.” 

Adding value – to companies and their people – is what an HR department does, and Jackson says you can measure the balance of art and science. 

“You can measure ‘best practices,’” he says. “You can measure the time it takes to fill a position; how much it costs to replace someone or to train someone. It’s time and money. 

“You want to be efficient, and not all HR departments measure what they do.” One rough yardstick, while dependent on industry and location, he says, is one HR staff for every 100 staff in the company. 

An HR department also sets a company’s culture. 

“You do that by ‘walking the talk,’ by reviewing and developing policies,” he says. “If HR is toxic, for example, it spreads through the company like a disease. But if you are high-performing, open-door and efficient, that also spreads.” 

Equally, more than the larger company culture, a professionally run HR operation will set the microcosm of management culture: Gaining better performances from employees is the immediate question, of course, but it needs a brave HR chief to challenge company executives. 

“You need to keep managers in check,” Jackson suggests. “You need to call them in and tell them ‘Hey, you made a mess, it was a mistake; I don’t agree with what you did.’ 

“There are not many HR managers on this island that have the courage to do that,” he says, reserving a silent smile when asked if he often challenges his CUC bosses. 

“There are ways to disagree and to do it respectfully and professionally,” he says. “The thing is, you cannot be a rubber stamp. You need to question to hold people accountable, to set the tone for ethics, integrity and respect in the workplace.” 

Having worked in HR in five countries on three continents, including such rough-and-tumble outposts as Russia and the Philippines, Masjule agrees with Jackson: “HR needs to have credibility. It should be able to form strategic relationships with managers and staff, and be respected in the organization. It needs to care about what is right and the opinions and points of views of others.” 

In a sense, HR walks a line between advocacy for the company and support for its employees: “It has come to be a lot more business focused,” Masjule says. “HR initiatives look at how to boost profitability and reduce costs, all the business issues, of course, but most businesses are about people in these economic times.” 

When times are lean, everyone is in for a rough ride: “It is about doing the right thing and being fair and open. Communication is important to morale,” she says. 

A good HR department will “fit the organization’s goals by energizing people, enabling it to succeed.” It will also be familiar with best practices and psychology, and will “be expert at handling challenges, being creative and being in tune with the workforce and its people.” 

McIntosh observes that “every employee has a value and a cost. If you want to improve the organization, you can either remove the guys at the bottom,” he says, citing the Goldman-Sachs practice of firing 10 percent of its employees every year just to keep the organization fresh and on-the-move, “or you can take the low guys and move them up – and there are a lot of ways to do that, through training and development. And it’s all adding value through HR.”  

Steve-McIntosh

Steve McIntosh

Inga-Masjule

Inga Masjule

Phil-Jackson

Phil Jackson

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