As a human resources leader with many years of experience in the field across a broad range of industries and the past six years in the senior living and care sector, I believe the HR profession would benefit from introspection and debate about its role in the future. I hope we don’t try to continue on as we are. As the great American philosopher and baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Let’s be honest. They hate us.

Even without using Google, I can think of iconic leaders from different professions, such as architecture, sales, medicine, finance and many others, who are innovators who represent their professions and have gained renown. So, in the field of HR, who are the notable, iconic figures? I can name two. One is Catbert, the evil HR director in the Dilbert comic strip, and the other is Toby, the hapless HR manager in the massively successful TV show The Office.

It doesn’t build confidence that Catbert and Toby are the icons of HR to which most everyone in the United States workforce can relate. Catbert despises people and derives his only joy from making peoples’ lives miserable. Toby is the guy hated by both management and employees because he’s ineffective at getting things done and is a colossal buzzkill who generally is opposed to anything fun or outside the rules.

The HR profession is one focused on maximizing the potential of the workforce, so why does this same workforce, and its leaders, show us so little love? Part of the difficulty is our work is somewhat difficult to describe. When my kids were young, I told them I was a farmer, because for the life of me I couldn’t explain what I do in 500 words or less.

How did the HR profession become so disliked? Perhaps a look at the history could yield some insight.

Some historical introspection

From someone who has lived a great deal of this history, the evolution of HR in general follows the same trends within the senior services sector as it does outside our industry.

The field of HR started as employers’ response to the success of unions in meeting the needs of their members. Organizations wanted to stay free of unions to avoid the work rule aspects of being unionized and also, in some cases, to try to save costs. Employers created internal organizations to represent employee interests to management and to oversee employer-sponsored benefit plans. The typical name for those organizations from the 1940s to the 1970s was industrial relations, or IR.

Employees typically liked and valued IR organizations, because their role was to help with pay and benefits and resolve disputes with management. Managers, on the other hand, mostly hated IR departments. They were seen as organizations that got in the way of managers doing what was necessary, such as reducing headcount or unilaterally deciding the rules for how employees should be treated.

IR departments were not seen as bastions of innovation or superior skills. IR was a necessary evil that had to be tolerated, and in some cases, feared, because of its potential to affect reputations and careers. Things were about to change.

In the 1970s, US corporations began to face intense cost pressure from foreign competitors. This brought the beginning of significant downsizing of staff, and leaders such as “Neutron” Jack Welch became legends for aggressive cost-cutting. It was in style to courageously fire people.

If you were working in IR in a corporation at this time, you could begin to see the writing on the wall. The business needed to cut jobs and the people in charge hated you; you could see how that wasn’t going to work out for you. So, the clever people in IR departments across the United States began to rebrand themselves, changing the departmental name to Human Resources and many job titles to business partner.

In the 1980s, as part of a self-preservation strategy, HR departments declared that there seemed to be some great misunderstanding regarding the perception of their former IR counterparts. The Human Resources department was, in fact, in place to help the business achieve success. With the great focus on business partnership, most HR organizations believed their sole mission was to be well-loved by managers — unfortunately, at times, at the expense of the employees.

So, because of history, here we are today — in a profession called HR and represented by Catbert and Toby. Some employees and managers like us, but most are, at best, suspicious of our value.

Of course, there is always the future. HR will always be a difficult role in any organization, but there is hope when we look forward and focus on how the HR function adds value.

Follow the science

A great way to increase value is to stop spending money and time on things that consume value. The senior living and care sector will continue to face significant cost challenges in the future, so delivering real value will be paramount.

We know from research that a few HR processes are wasting time. One of those processes is performance assessments. There is no evidence that managers can really effectively differentiate performance in any data-based or rational way. I counsel employees that the best way to change their performance is to get a new manager.

A new manager will see you as either better or worse than your previous manager did, if your work stays the same. We can measure group, department or full-business performance, and a manager probably can differentiate an employee who invents time travel from one who is stealing from the company, but for everyone else in the middle, they’re just guessing.

A subset of the performance assessment waste is gap analysis and development plans. It’s a great idea to work on personal improvement, but why focus on employees’ weaknesses? It’s more productive to develop people’s strengths. Look for areas where your people excel, develop those skills and move the individuals to roles in which they use those skills.

Another area of inefficiency is leadership training with a goal of large changes in behavior. Over the years, I’ve seen many lousy leaders go through leadership training, and the outcome from this investment has been trained lousy leaders. Leadership training is not going to fundamentally change anyone. You often have to simply make the tough call and change the players. Stop wasting resources to avoid making difficult decisions.

Learn how to manage remote workers

Many CEOs and big-city mayors are demanding a return to work in the office because they benefit from having all those downtown offices occupied. I believe that over the next decade, however, remote work will continue to thrive.

Many in the current workforce and those entering in the next decade will seek remote work options. Clever employers are going to use the ability to accommodate such requests as a competitive advantage to attract talent. As long as talent wars exist, remote work will thrive. In the senior services sector, some types of work cannot be performed remotely, but other types can, so organizations must get comfortable with managing the differences.

AI and HR’s future

The advent of artificial intelligence, or AI, will make several HR knowledge expert jobs redundant. You won’t need human workers to answer wage, hour, policy or benefit questions. AI technology will not only replace, but greatly improve, the quality of this kind of work.

HR jobs that involve writing documents such as policies, job descriptions or employee communications also will be greatly diminished by AI.

It’s not all gloom, however. I suspect that recruiting top talent still will involve a human element, as will dispute resolution, contract negations and strategy development. 

So what does the next decade look like for the HR profession?

High-level skills will be essential

The future of HR function will be a smaller organization, but the skill requirements likely will be more demanding. Technology competence will be critical as the work evolves. Technology will be required not only in AI, but also within applications such as data collection and analysis.

The battle for talent in the senior services sector likely will be ongoing, so HR people with skills in recruiting, selection and onboarding will be highly valued. The need will be for people in the talent business who can capitalize on market trends and use resources and technology effectively.

A subset of using technology and data is the ability to improve processes and create value through efficiencies. HR people who can use process improvement strategies and tools to find simple and lean ways to accomplish tasks will be highly sought after.

And as long as people are asked to work together, conflict management/resolution will be necessary. HR people who have invested in education and development of coaching and mediation skills will be of continuing importance to organizations.

Certainly, employee development will continue to be a need in the long-term care sector in the future. The challenge will be to invest in development that moves an organization forward. The future will belong to HR professionals who can solve the riddle of what types of employee training will drive business results.

The HR future isn’t for everyone

In the not-so-distant past, there were jobs in HR that almost anyone could do. In the coming years, this will not be the case. Careers in HR will require some skills that can be learned, such as data collection/analysis, process improvement, presentation effectiveness, change management, mediation, negotiation and coaching. Also required will be intangible skills that are inherent in individuals and cannot be learned easily, such as empathy, emotional maturity, creativity, the ability to influence others and, dare I say, a sense of humor.

The future may not be “what it used to be,” but it still could be bright for the right individuals. If you aren’t a good communicator and can’t influence people, then HR may not be the role for you. Here’s hoping the next generation of HR people has skillsets that allow them to advance the HR function in a better way. And, within the next decade, may we have some better icons than Catbert and Toby for the HR profession.

Dean Moore is vice president of work life at St. John’s, a full-service senior living and care provider with options that range from independent living to skilled nursing and hospice in Rochester, NY. He has been in the human resources industry for more than 30 years.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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