Redesigning HR from within

Originally published as a case study “The Gimmicks Of People Management” in Human Capital Online, December 2013 with Prof. P. Vijayakumar

Shekhar had recently joined as the HR head of the global operations business of Supreme Bank in Mumbai. The bank had over 10,000 people in its India operations alone, across different cities and several thousand more across other low-cost, high value destinations globally. Joining as the HR head for this office in Mumbai felt like a cross between being a senior leader and being nobody. Every location had an HR head and all of them reported to another regional HR head who reported to the global HR head of Operations who then reported to the HR head for the Bank globally. It was a classic case of a hierarchical organization, despite being a multinational company that one would expect to be in tune with the more modern management philosophies like flatter organization structures.

Shekhar found his team to be extremely tenured within the system. They had all spent anywhere between 8 to 14 years with Supreme in largely operations roles and eventually moved to HR.

Word on the floor was that people applied for HR internal job postings when they needed a break from the hectic life in operations, because life in HR was like a holiday with fixed times to come in and sign out for the day and not much to do while one was in office.

This was the situation in all cities, the team said. Even the senior HR leadership was over 20 years in the system and they hadn’t changed anything or questioned it so far.

The reputation that HR had in the organization concerned Shekhar but somehow what surprised him was that it didn’t concern any of his team members. They just shrugged it off saying, “We are after all not occupied, what else will employees think”? This shocked Shekhar and he decided that before meeting with any of the stakeholders, he would spend his first two weeks understanding what it is that his team was doing on a day-to-day basis exactly. “How can any HR team not be fully occupied”?, he wondered.

His first meeting with his team confirmed his worst fears. They were largely involved in non-value adding admin activity like updating MI and organizing hiring and then some new hire orientation.

The high attrition of over 26%, far greater than industry benchmark, ensured that they had hiring activity and new hire orientations to do throughout the year. Moreover, his team that came from prior experience in hard operations continued to work with a process mindset. They “logged-in” at fixed times and “logged-out” at fixed times no matter what. Leaving early meant booking a half-day leave and staying back meant recording over-time. As a result, he noticed that most employees in the 24/7 process never saw the face of an HR person because they would have all logged out after their general shift. Apparently, the move to the general shift was the USP of applying for an HR job posting. No more graveyard shifts. They also had a mandatory tool that captured productivity by making everyone account for their 9-hours in 30 minute slots everyday.

He was also surprised that his team of 11 people had 10 women. On discussing further with his team, they shared with him about a round of downsizing that had taken place about seven years ago. Fearing the worst, most male employees had put out their CVs and shifted jobs while most female members decided it was the best time to take a long break for maternity. Once they had taken a break most suitable for them, they came back while the male employees who had found other jobs obviously did not return. In the process of these conversations, he also unearthed a gender-inclusion concern. His lone male team member came up to him and said, “I am extremely demotivated. I have no one to communicate with. All the other team members are always talking about their children, their mothers-in-law, and the food they have cooked that day. I always get left out of conversations. I feel very alone and I think I will quit soon. I am already looking out.”

The more he heard about the team’s state, the more Shekhar starting doubting his career decision. Was this the right place to be? Would this place help him build his subject matter expertise? Was the leadership bothered about HR at all? He decided to explore this angle in his stakeholder meetings the following week.

Meeting With The Business

One of his first meetings was with the business head for the Mumbai office.

Roy: So how have your first few weeks been?

Shekhar: It has been interesting. I have been having several conversations with my team and understanding what they have been involved with. The work seems largely recruitment and post-recruitment related. I am wondering if that is also the management’s expectation from them.

Roy: I am glad you ask that question. We really want HR to be doing a lot more than what it is doing right now. A lot of things like training, performance management and mobility are being managed by the business itself and it is a huge pressure on their time. We need HR to step in and take over.

Shekhar: Really? I was not sure the business wanted HR involved. I have not seen the team involved in any client relationship work with business heads.

Roy: Of course business wants them involved. I have been chatting with a few of them and they all agree. I spoke with Sangeetha who heads Reconciliations earlier this week in my catch up with her and one of her key concerns is HR. We spent most of our time discussing our coping strategies in the absence of HR involvement.

Shekhar: That’s good and not good to hear at the same time. I am sure we can work towards greater HR involvement. But I am curious to understand. How is it that HR has not been involved in this so far?

Roy: Well, it has somehow just not happened. It has always been an expectation but somewhere between the local office here and the head office and global office, by the time there is an agreement on how things should progress, they get forgotten or de-prioritized. With you coming on board, I am very confident that we will see the change we need. That you will make the change happen.

Shekhar (after considering the last statement for a few seconds): So how would you recommend we proceed from here?

Roy: You are the expert, Shekhar. I really don’t think I need to tell you how to proceed. I am expecting you to take charge and lead. However, I can tell you this. As a business, we are moving into new products for erstwhile untouched markets – both groups of people and geographies. This means not only being able to ramp up efficiency on existing products and services, but also being able to ideate and innovate new products. That is the business need of the hour. And I will expect HR to support that growth strategy in every way it can.

As Shekhar left the meeting with Roy, his antennae were up. The problem was within HR itself? How is it that HR couldn’t agree on what its roles should be? Was this territoriality playing out? How should he deal with this new twist?

This is not going to be easy, he thought to himself. Even if I work through HR’s internal issues, how is something like this to be successfully implemented and ingrained in the organizational culture? The business has not been used to a proactive HR team, how will they really deal with that? The team has not been fully occupied, forget being involved in more non-admin roles. Will they have the capabilities needed to execute on the new expectations from them?

Back at his desk, Shekhar drafted a detailed document asking questions about HR’s role at Supreme. The list included questions such as:

  • What should HR’s value proposition be?
  • How should it be delivered?
  • What should be the various verticals HR must have?
  • How should teams be aligned and managed?
  • What should each level – local, head and global – do?

While he had his answers to these questions, he did not want to write them down so it did not come across as imposing when shared with someone else. He wanted it to be discussion points.

Unfortunately for him, his boss’ enthusiasm was not reflected in the larger group. The other HR heads did not even respond to an all-HR head email by the regional head of HR on this topic. When invited on calls to discuss, they were largely quiet and unfriendly. In a few one-on-one discussions with some of his HR head peers, Shekhar saw stiff resistance to the idea and a reaction that was very personal. People felt as if asking those questions was a personal attack on their capability and that Shekhar, who was new to the system, was questioning their contributions and role of the last several years, which he had no place to do. One of his peers spent seven straight hours on a phone call explaining to Shekhar what the history and context of the organization was and how he should know these things before asking questions.

Shekhar felt taken aback. These are supposed to be senior leaders, he said to himself. How can they react personally? Aren’t they supposed to be able to look at things objectively and this about the HR function first? Even the regional HR head’s support wasn’t doing anything to reduce their resistance. It felt like a losing battle. But Shekhar also knew this was an important battle to fight – HR would become redundant if it did not deliver to business requirements and establish itself as critical to the growth strategy of Supreme.

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