When the best HR disrupts its own traditions

Tanya Samuels, vice president of “people,” the human resource division of financial-management conglomerate DMS Organization, addresses, among other things, questions under the broad rubric of “disruption,” a sort of buzzword in the field, referring to how managers can shake up, revitalize and reinvent HR departments, energizing, even “disrupting” traditional functions of recruitment and personnel management.  

That discussion comes in the context of Cayman’s “Nothing is Taboo” human resources conference on May 1, the 12th annual forum sponsored by the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resource Professionals. 

Samuels will address the daylong gathering at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. 

She describes one of her chief roles at DMS as ensuring the organization complies with all local recruitment and hiring laws, placing qualified Caymanians as often as possible in the most appropriate slots.  

It’s something she gives a lot of thought to, and the question, she says, is intimately tied to corporate ethics. Executives have an obligation to pursue not only what is legally correct, but, more generally, what is broadly, socially right. 

“As HR professionals we are guided by: 1) [the] laws of the jurisdiction (2) corporate policy and (3) cultural/social responsibilities,” she says. 

“A challenge sometimes arises, however, when the influence of corporate practice interferes with our understanding of what is ‘right’. This clash … can take shape in many ways – in some organizations it may mean that HR professionals are pressured into supporting the hiring of expatriates rather than qualified Caymanians.” 

The key word is “professionals,” and HR departments too frequently face a range of ethical challenges. 

“It may manifest in some businesses in a way that places HR professionals at the front line of basic-performance conversations rather than having managers take responsibility for the development of their employees. Or some corporations may support the placement and promotion of underqualified individuals based on friendships,” Samuels says. 


The conference  

For the third year, the gathering is organized by Chris Bailey, vice president of financial services and legal recruitment firm CML – and the incoming president of CISHRP. He will appear throughout the day’s events. 

At least eight speakers will address the crowd from Cayman, the U.S. and the U.K., and will include authors, motivational speakers and even a nutrition consultant to professional rugby players. The headings are broad, and Bailey promises that, as befits the conference title, nothing is taboo, no subject is off limits. 

Some creative examples: What happens if your CEO drops dead one afternoon? What are views on gender equality? Wage equality? Mental health? What does a company do if – as happened recently – all its data on employee wages is publicly released? 

“You have to hit it head-on,” Bailey says. “You can’t do nothing; an inability to respond is not the answer.” 

Proper HR is so much more, he says, than placing classified ads, recruiting from the responses, managing Immigration Department rules, distributing paychecks and granting holidays. 

Succession planning, for example, is among the issues a good HR executive will address – and that, ideally, means close involvement in developing corporate strategies, in policymaking, in studying broad economic data, tracking expansions and contractions. 

“Succession planning means different things to different people,” Bailey says with the caveat, however, that “a lot succession planning is reactive rather than proactive. 

“I mean, very few companies plan to lose people, but everybody tracks turnover rates – and absolutely you can predict firings. If you have the right development procedures, then you’ll know if someone is right for a job.” 

Also “absolutely,” Bailey says, can you predict economic expansions and contractions. 

“In Bermuda, for example, there’s been a lot of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity recently,” he says, speaking to the idea of tracking not just local, but regional and even international economic data. 

“The 16 reinsurance companies there are now down to eight, and that means between 300 jobs and 500 jobs are being lost. 

“Now, if I have plans to grow, I like that there are plenty of people available for jobs. Of course, if I’m one of those companies that are shrinking, then there isn’t much need.” 

Local economic indicators – a burgeoning property market, private investments in infrastructure, “cranes on the skyline,” Bailey says – indicate “Cayman is open for business.” 

More difficult to predict, however, and complicating efforts at succession planning, is employees quitting. Turnover rates can help, and if they are low, then, he said, “you’re probably doing the right things,” and, as Samuels suggests, the right managers are in place, and are not pushing their responsibilities off to the HR department. 

A crucial element in recruiting and retaining people, says Bailey, is a company’s “brand,” which is to say its reputation in the employment market.  

Juliet Du Feu, senior vice president of human resources at Dart Enterprises, is acutely aware of the Dart “brand” – having helped create it – and worked hard to maintain it. 

“Every day our HR team focuses on developing and participating in programs … that will help attract, retain and develop talents to address current and future needs,” she says, in a sort of grand swoop encompassing recruitment, training, succession planning, prediction and policymaking. 

That, says Bailey, is what makes it important for HR departments to have a seat in the boardroom: “We’re the fifth-largest financial center in the world, and are poised for even more growth, and that means more questions need to be asked. 

“A 10-year development plan will have to include an acquisition plan. Suppose the company decides we need 500 people in the next 10 years? That’s 50 people per year,” and each job demands a careful description, a careful set calculations regarding phasing and the length of time to gain, for example, a new accountant: the search process, the interview process, notice periods and a hand-over within the company. 

“You may need 12 weeks to 14 weeks just as a waiting period, then another month as a hand-over.” This kind of long-range planning is crucial “and it cannot be reactive.” 

Du Feu says Dart looks five years ahead: “At the executive level, we strategically determine three-year to five-year outlooks for the businesses; this allows the HR team to better plan for the human resources that will be needed to support the business.”  

For example, she says, Dart Realty recently released its 10-year development plan, setting goals for the longer term: “A big part of ensuring that this plan is successful involves tapping into and developing talent. 

“Our HR team at Dart takes a full day towards the end of each year to look at the year in review and take stock of where we are,” Du Feu says. “We consider what we have achieved that we set out, and what is still in progress; and the projects we know that are coming down the pipeline for the year ahead, and based on the above, we agree on priorities for the upcoming year.” 

A receptionist may take only one week to replace; a CEO may take one year, “but every job needs this” kind of planning, Bailey says, and that is why HR departments need to be included in policymaking. “They are not involved deeply enough,” he worries. 

“The fastest-growing boardroom seat is for HR,” he says – addressing in a single phrase any worries about the expense of creating a professional international-level HR department: “It will cost you more to get it wrong, than it will to get it right.” 

He describes three levels of human resource operations – global professional, senior professional and professional (and its European equivalent, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) – and indicates that while all are important, executives need to upgrade from the simple local level to international grade, where global decisions are made, directions offered and problems both anticipated and resolved. 

“One of the problems in Cayman is we don’t do global issues. We are very locally focused. Global problems are handled from London; local issues are done from Cayman, but if we have global companies here, well, we need to train HR staff locally to be HR managers, above and beyond just administrators.” 

As incoming president of CISHRP, Bailey hopes to raise qualification levels of its 200+ members, saying “at present, only about 30 percent of members hold professional designations.” 


International recruitment  

The question of international-grade HR departments spills over into international “best practices”, a subject Samuels says encompasses “anything from compensation to administrative processes,”  

Global recruitment at DMS, however, operates within a handful of parameters: “It requires that both the leadership and the HR team understand what is trying to be achieved: Explore all angles of a role in order to find the right person – conduct a full job brief with the hiring manager; build a pipeline of talent by staying attentive to the passive candidate pool; tap into employee and hiring manager networks; present open roles as career opportunities rather than just jobs — identify the value proposition for candidates; and candidate care – provide quick response times and communicate regularly.” 

The latest recruitment conundrum, Bailey says is “trawling for millennials,” the so-called “Generation Y,” 80 million people born between 1980 and 2000. 

“They are totally different in what they do and their attitudes,” Bailey says. “They multi-task like no one can, they seek instant gratification, they make decisions quickly and they get bored quickly.” 

He says they largely want to work “for a cause,” and even if the cause is as prosaic as making money “they want to do it faster and on a career path,” and so, he says, “they need to be engaged better.” 

Engagement of employees, devoting both personal and professional attention to development, is a critical concept, forming part of recruitment and retention. That concept circles back to the idea of a corporate “brand”, such as, locally, DMS, Dart and even international law firms such as Walkers, which boasts an internationally qualified HR department. 

“And those,” he says, finding his way back to one of his early points – and while reflecting specifically on Dart, he speaks for the others – “are not reactive and that is because people don’t quit.”