HR Leadership Column

A Call to Action

Too many individuals in the HR profession want the opportunity to offer strategic input to their organizations but resist taking the necessary steps to ground their vision in the financial realities -- mostly because they can't understand the macro- or micro-economic situation.

Monday, April 16, 2012
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From time to time, early-career HR professionals ask me how to better prepare for success as HR executives. Last month, after speaking to an audience of HR professionals, two young attendees left me frustrated with their limited vision.

Both had sought me out to ask my opinion about their individual situations.

The first had worked in the private sector when he first graduated from college, and then took an HR job with the state a few years ago. He had lately realized the public sector might not be the best fit for him, and was thinking about trying to move back into the private sector.

An opportunity in the private sector, he thought, would offer more career potential -- and he was curious about whether I agreed with him.

During the conversation, I told him that, if he wanted that type of position, he should seriously consider investing in his own professional development in the area of compensation and benefits-program design.

In the public sector, most compensation and benefit packages are designed by legislators or set by union contract, leaving HR professionals to simply administer the programs. Demonstrating knowledge and expertise on private-sector practices would address any concerns a private-sector employer might have regarding this gap in his experience.

His reaction: Disappointment. His comment: "Compensation involves math, and that's my least-favorite part of HR."

The second young professional followed me out as I was running to catch my flight. She was concerned about the way she was perceived by her peers; she wanted to be viewed as a more valued part of management.

She was working on a master's in HR degree, but was frustrated because "I'm perceived as too much of an advocate for employees."

I told her that part of her job was to be an advocate for employees -- and not to ignore that responsibility -- but she also needed to gain a deep knowledge and understanding about the business.

Advocating for employees is not just to make them happy campers, it's to create an engaged workforce. That makes the business better and more successful, which, in turn, creates greater engagement.

I told her she needed to be very comfortable with the financials of the business, and if she didn't remember learning about such subjects in college (at which point she nodded) she needed to sign up for refresher courses.

She also should start asking her CFO questions about the business' finances so she could better understand how and where the company made money and/or incurred losses. I told her that her colleagues needed to know she understood she was part of a team trying to run a successful business.

Her reaction: Disappointment. Her comment: "I hate finance and accounting. That's why my undergraduate degree was in English."

I share these two stories so you'll understand why I'm about to embark upon a short rant.

For as long as some HR professionals have beat the drum about seeking recognition for their strategic contributions, it still catches me by surprise when I encounter those in the profession who resist involvement with -- or knowledge of -- critical aspects of the business they want to guide.

I realize there are a lot of people in the HR profession who aren't comfortable with numbers. Finance, accounting or numbers-crunching isn't everyone's strength or their favorite thing to do.

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Too bad. Numbers matter, and HR professionals who don't make an effort to understand them -- from financial statements, budgets and cash flow to statistical calculations that provide analytic insight -- are implicitly deciding to take a back seat in running the business.

And business needs HR in the front seat.

These math-phobic HR professionals are likely to miss even greater opportunities in the future to add value to their organizations, as HR management-information systems now provide more data to the profession than ever before -- and it's really only the beginning.

Mining this wealth of data enables strategic HR leaders to gain insights to help drive more science-based, (not hunch-based) decision-making. This leads to better outcomes for the business -- but not if HR professionals avoid numbers-crunching.

So this rant is a call to action.

HR leaders who are comfortable with numbers should be helping their colleagues understand the importance of this competency and gain the same comfort level.

If you're responsible for recruiting for your HR team, consider focusing on whether candidates have any knowledge, experience or aptitude for finance and accounting. And if you're responsible for developing your HR team, you should include basic finance, accounting, and statistics training in their professional development.

And for those of you who are uncomfortable with numbers? My message is simple: Get over it.

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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