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Rallying the Troops

In the face of hard times and occasional criticism directed toward the HR function, CHROs strive to keep morale high among their staff.

Monday, June 9, 2014
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Few organizations escaped the nation's most recent recession unscathed, but as the U.S. government's biggest contractor (as ranked by CNBC), Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. found itself stung, not just by the struggling economy, but also by the 2013 government sequestration and President Obama's plan to cut defense spending.

According to the company's 2013 annual report, 82 percent of Lockheed Martin's $45.4 billion in net sales were from the U.S. government, either as a prime contractor or a subcontractor. Reductions in defense spending have led the aerospace and defense giant to slash 30,000 jobs and shut down 1.5 million square feet of facility space since 2008. This past November, it announced plans to cut another 4,000 employees and close plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Arizona by mid-2015.

Faced with the task of telling thousands of employees they'd have to look for new jobs, Lockheed Martin's human resource function took on a heightened role, but certainly not an easy one.

"In times of change and uncertainty, our role becomes increasingly important," says John Lucas, the company's senior vice president of human resources and communications. "It's difficult to tell somebody that we're closing down an operation or that they're losing their job, but we know how to do it and we do it well."

It would be easy to assume that delivering bad news day after day would result in a blow to the morale of Lockheed's HR staff. However, nothing could be further from the truth, says Lucas, who describes HR morale as "solid and improving."

Angelisse Hutchinson, manager of corporate talent management, concurs. "We've faced our fair share of challenges over the last few years and the political and economic landscape has certainly impacted morale," she says. "Fortunately, I feel we've turned the corner in recent months and we've really pulled together as a team."

What can chief HR officers do to keep morale high, rally their troops and prepare them to help take HR to the next level? According to some of the function's most admired leaders, the secret lies in setting a positive tone, encouraging HR staffers to share their ideas, and ensuring they are given the skills and knowledge necessary to perform their jobs with confidence.

When "bigger business challenges" require HR to be the bearer of bad news, Lucas says, he keeps morale high by increasing his frequency of communications, via webcasts, face-to-face meetings and HR Link, an e-newsletter distributed twice-monthly to all HR employees, to help HR staff recognize they are making "critical contributions" to the business. One key component of that message involves the sharing of feedback from employees and leaders, who, Lucas says, have consistently praised the function for handling the layoffs "with dignity and respect for the individual." Lucas also shares news of accomplishments, such as Lockheed's placing 22nd on Fortune magazine and The Hay Group's list of "Most Admired for HR" companies and its receipt of the 2014 Catalyst Award for initiatives that expand opportunities for women in business.

"External recognition goes a long way in validating the quality of work that we do and keeping [spirits] high," says Lucas.

 Inferiority Complex

While Lockheed Martin's HR function has managed to stay engaged and positive, even when dealing with widespread layoffs, that hasn't been the case at other organizations. A number of recent surveys have revealed HR professionals are feeling largely passionless and unsatisfied.

According to a survey of 3,000 U.S.-based employees, including HR professionals, by Deloitte's Center for the Edge, a San Jose, Calif.-based think tank focused on innovation, just 7 percent of respondents who work in HR possess what Deloitte calls "the passion of the explorer," defined as those who view challenges as opportunities to learn new skills and rapidly improve performance.

The morale of HR staffers is undoubtedly impacted by a perceived lack of respect from C-suite members, who consistently question HR's ability to deliver when it truly matters. According to London-based PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd.'s 17th Annual (2014) Global CEO Survey, which represents the views of more than 1,300 chief executives from 68 countries, nearly two-thirds of CEOs believe the HR function isn't well-prepared for the changes needed to respond to transformative trends.

Among the workforce, there's a widely held belief that HR is the "compliance police" or a shill for upper management, there to control employees rather than help them, says John Hagel, co-chairman of Center for the Edge. That can lead to low morale in HR professionals who find themselves the target of suspicion or outright hatred from the workforce.

"There's a significant morale issue in HR organizations," says Hagel. "There's a pervasive sense that they are less respected and the work they do is not valued and they are viewed with suspicion."

While there's no shortage of criticism from employees and leadership, much of the hatred of HR actually comes from within, as the function questions its own worth and its ability to deliver on expectations, according to Elissa Tucker, human capital management research program manager for the American Productivity & Quality Center, a Houston-based nonprofit focused on business benchmarking, best practices and knowledge-management research.

Earlier this year, APQC sought to answer the question, "Is HR feeling inferior?" by asking 101 HR managers/directors, with an average 18 years of experience, about the function's performance in 2013, and its priorities and preparation for 2014. The HR Priorities, Performance and Trends survey found the majority of respondents felt HR had performed only moderately well on such key priorities as workforce productivity, employee engagement and training in 2013. Looking forward, less than 50 percent feel the HR function is ready to deliver on top CEO priorities such as strategic workforce advising, leadership development, workforce analytics, workforce planning and integrated talent management in 2014.

Such findings seem to correlate, albeit loosely, with harsher criticism -- some might say venom -- that's been directed toward HR, starting with Fast Company's provocative cover story, "Why We Hate HR" in August 2005. Numerous other magazines, newspapers and bloggers have joined in the chorus, publishing pieces with such inflammatory titles as "Why Everyone Hates HR" (LinkedIn, January 2014), "It's Time for Companies to Fire Their Human Resource Departments" (Forbes, April 2013) and "HR -- A Necessary Evil or a Business-Savvy Requirement?" (Business Matters, June 2013).

Even the late Steve Jobs chimed in, when a comment he supposedly made to a candidate for vice president of HR made the rounds in 2006: "I've never met one of you who didn't suck. I've never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality."

That negative view of HR has spilled over into popular culture, where the Dilbert comic strip, TV shows such as The Office and films such as Up in the Air consistently portray HR in a less-than-positive light, according to Harry Osle, global HR transformation and advisory practice leader for The Hackett Group, based in Miami. With so much well-reported vitriol swirling about the function, it's no wonder many HR professionals are finding it hard to feel proud of the work they do.

The Power of Positivity

The responsibility for cultivating high morale in the HR function lies solely with the CHRO, according to Osle. Those HR leaders who have been able to successfully cut through the criticism and help their staff remain charged up in the face of downsizings and budget cuts generally tend to be "charismatic," he says, adding that such a trait is simply part of the "DNA make-up" of an effective HR executive.

At Lincoln Financial Group in Radnor, Pa., Lisa Bettinger-Buckingham accepts morale-building as part of her job as executive vice president and chief human resource officer. She describes it as an ongoing process that can be aided along the way by simply projecting a positive attitude.

"I call myself the chief optimism officer," says Bettinger-Buckingham. "If people don't see me smiling in the hall, they'll ask me what's wrong."

That same attitude carries through at Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp., where Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer Rich Floersch stresses the importance of adopting a "half-full" approach to interacting with those working in the HR function. Positive energy is "contagious," says Floersch, and helps create a can-do buzz throughout the function.

"There's a lot more you can get out of a group of people when you are positive around what can occur," says Floersch. "When you exhibit positive energy and positive body language, that helps people feel like they are working in something they can believe in and can succeed in."

Yet building and maintaining high morale requires far more than a sunny outlook. For HR professionals to feel motivated and engaged in their work, the CHRO needs to present himself or herself as approachable and demonstrate to staffers that their input is being taken seriously. For new members of McDonald's HR team in the Chicago area, that means a one-on-one lunch with Floersch as soon as possible after they are hired. That equates to approximately four or five lunches per month, during which Floersch "keeps it light," talking about his background and personal life as he strives to present himself as someone HR staffers can come to with suggestions or criticism.

"That shows them I'm accessible and helps them make a connection so they then feel more comfortable approaching me with ideas or feedback they might otherwise assume I wouldn't want to hear," says Floersch. "If you are not approachable and viewed as somebody who is open to new ideas, you are going to stifle an important component of what makes a company a great place to work."

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At Lincoln Financial, Bettinger-Buckingham goes out of her way to give HR staffers opportunities to share their thoughts. She regularly reaches out through skip-level meetings, lunches and random phone calls to do what she calls a "pulse check" -- that is, to ask how things are going. Such informal conversations often lead to tangible improvements. During one recent "random breakfast," for example, Bettinger-Buckingham learned that HRDirect, an HR-technology solution that creates role-based access to information and transactions for employees, managers, and HR professionals, was sending automated "thanks, but no thanks" emails to candidates who simply waited too long to click the next button. As a result, the glitch was fixed, possibly saving the organization from losing qualified candidates. Had Bettinger-Buckingham not presented herself as approachable, she may have never been made aware of the problem. 

"I don't think anyone had complained to our head of talent before that breakfast, so that information was a gift," she says. "Once we did a deep dive on process embedded in the system, it was automated and we fixed that immediately. Candidates now receive a call from a recruiter, whether or not they get an offer, followed by a letter."  

Tending to the "Cobbler's Kids"

For some HR professionals, the growing expectation that they will lead strategically and come to the CEO or C-suite with innovative ideas or feedback has become overwhelming because they feel they don't have the skills or knowledge necessary to be a forward-thinking member of the team. As demonstrated by APQC's HR Priorities, Performance and Trends survey, more than half of HR professionals feel woefully underprepared to deliver on the expectations of the business. That alone can be a powerful de-motivator.  

Oftentimes, says Lucas, those in the HR function are so busy ensuring the rest of the company's employees have been sufficiently trained, they neglect their own developmental needs.

"Sometimes, we can be the cobbler's kids," says Lucas. "We are looking at the functions around us, but we need to make sure we attend to our own growth and development."

In 2011, Lucas sought to remedy that problem by creating an HR Development Framework, outlining the competencies, personal attributes, key experiences and technical knowledge that would be required for HR professionals to advance in their careers at Lockheed Martin. He subsequently partnered with the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and its Center for Effective Organizations in Los Angeles to provide continuing training and developmental opportunities for Lockheed's HR staffers.

At Lincoln Financial, Bettinger-Buckingham recently hosted a two-day, high-energy, off-site summit for about 200 staffers from the company's human resource, corporate marketing, communications and corporate social responsibility functions. Built around the theme of "Cultivating Success," this year's summit was a mix of motivational speakers, panel discussions and training. Near the end of the summit, 30 hand-picked HR professionals participated in a "deep-dive" session on business acumen and financial management. They were then assigned action-learning projects, which Bettinger-Buckingham hopes will lead to real, tangible improvements in the company's HR strategies.

"They'll come back in September during our strategic-planning process and present their ideas of how we can continue to refresh our HR strategy and make us an even better destination employer," she says.

While the more meaty aspects of the summit certainly carry the most weight, Bettinger-Buckingham isn't about to discount the importance of the event's many fun activities when it comes to building morale and a sense of camaraderie.

While many of the discussions focused on serious topics such as financial and personal accountability, time management, leadership lessons and employee benefits, Bettinger-Buckingham says she strove to maintain an underlying spirit of fun at all times. Attendees were encouraged to take "selfies" and post them on Twitter with the hashtag #LFGSuccessSummit. At one point, two of the company's senior vice presidents entered the room, dancing to the popular Pharrell Williams song "Happy." The entire crowd leaped to their feet and joined in the merriment.

Much of the event was designed to encourage mingling and attendees were assigned seats to discourage what Bettinger-Buckingham calls "clumping." The summit's second day opened with a two-mile "fun run/walk" led by Jeff Glasbrenner, a Paralympian and motivational speaker. Following a dinner at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a group picture was taken. Copies of the photo were sent to all attendees for display in their offices or cubicles.

In the end, Bettinger-Buckingham says, she "wanted people to feel like rock stars."

Whether that goal was achieved is up for debate, but for all intents and purposes, the summit went a long way toward building morale among Lincoln Financial's HR, corporate-marketing, communications and corporate-social-responsibility teams. "When the time came to leave, everybody was hugging each other and feeling very motivated," says Bettinger-Buckingham. "It might sound hokey, but that stuff works."

See also:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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