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HR Leadership Column

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid ...

With the vote on healthcare reform roiling beneath the surface, Congress and the White House have many other issues to consider before the elections in November. Since many of the potential bills and regulations relate to the workplace, HR will be challenged to not only stay on top of those issues but stay focused on strategic HR leadership.

Monday, April 19, 2010
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It's spring in Washington -- the time of year when the cherry blossoms bloom and tourist buses flood the town. You can't go a block without running into a group of middle-schoolers on a class trip to the nation's capital.

You also can't go a block without running into groups of people with name badges on, here to lobby their members of Congress on every special interest imaginable.

Many were here to lobby on healthcare. That raucous and partisan debate on the issue completely absorbed the town and the nation, and has taken the full time and attention of the White House and Congressional leaders.

Now that Congress has voted, members will start positioning themselves for the elections this fall -- and each member will make the case that his or her vote was cast on behalf of constituents and for the good of the country -- regardless of which way they voted.

And HR executives should be afraid ... be very afraid.

Not because of what Congress did or didn't do with healthcare, although the passage of the reform bill has major implications for the profession. No, HR executives should be afraid of what else Congress and the White House may try to accomplish before the end of the year.

In November, all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election. This means we're entering the silly season -- a frantic pre-election scramble by members of Congress who want to be re-elected.

If money is the mother's milk of politics, delivering benefits to your constituents is the meat and potatoes. And, my friends, we're entering meat-and-potato season. Members of Congress need to be able to point to votes they've cast that will benefit their constituents.

The White House faces its own challenge. Faced with the possibility of significant changes in the new Congress next January, the administration only has months to finalize new regulations because finalized regulations are more difficult for a new Congress to block or overturn.

Just a few of the issues on the public policy agenda include the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Employee Free Choice Act, the Healthy Families Act and regulations to implement last year's ADA Amendments Act as well as possible regulatory changes affecting federal contractors.

These are just some of the highlights -- there are many more.

And whether you agree with them or not, these new legislative and regulatory requirements may mean new compliance obligations for HR executives and their organizations. After all, elections have consequences. But, while HR executives should be afraid of what these policy initiatives might mean to their businesses, I think they should also be afraid of what they mean for their profession.

Here's the risk I see: As HR professionals grapple with understanding new requirements and preparing their organization for compliance -- as they must -- there is a great chance that HR will become viewed as the "compliance cop" of the organization.

Time that HR would prefer to spend on leadership development, strategic talent sourcing, or coaching and counseling managers will, by necessity, be spent protecting the company from potential liability.

In doing so, HR risks being viewed as being responsible for making managers' lives miserable by limiting management flexibility, imposing new recordkeeping requirements and instituting new training requirements.

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HR leaders risk becoming viewed as an impediment to profitability. How can HR mitigate that risk?

First and foremost, HR executives should pay attention to the public-policy debates and be mindful of the new requirements that may come as a result. Ideally, become involved in the debate as it begins. Don't be the HR executive who insists that he or she be considered a professional, but who won't voice a professional opinion on pending public-policy initiatives.

Second, get ready. Begin to educate other leaders on what new substantive requirements might mean to the organization. How could the new obligations impact operations? The bottom line? Could it impact the ability of the organization to enter new markets or make acquisitions? Is there any potential impact on shareholder value? Is there a change in corporate strategy that might mitigate risks created by new legislation or regulations?

Third, be thoughtful about how and what you communicate to your executive colleagues. Is it a new requirement that's simply an operational issue for HR? If so, do you really need to even bother your colleagues? Or is it, for example, something that will make it much easier to become unionized, necessitating that all managers be fully briefed on the implications of the change?

When new legislation is enacted or new regulations issued, HR leaders need to help executives manage the new risk. By treating new requirements as something to be managed -- and not enforced -- HR also makes it clear that the responsibility is a shared responsibility. It's not something that HR came up with just to make management miserable.

So, don't be afraid. Be prepared.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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