Article (July-2018)


Challenges & way forward in the role of unit HR-Head

Deepanjan Dey

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The role of a unit HR Head is absorbing, challenging and interesting. Generally his JD would read as a person responsible for industrial relations, human resource, administration & security of the establishment. In few cases this may also include CSR, safety and legal also. The unit HR Head is a conduit between the management and various stake holders of the unit which generally includes executives, all categories of workmen, contractors and sometimes nearby locality. Hence, people in the establishment look at him as their messiah to resolve their issues and meet expectations. It is the job of the unit HR Head to balance the expectation of the masses with that of the management plans and objectives. He needs to be the champion of the people before the management but at the same time before the masses he has to pursue the objectives of the management. In putting this delicate balance many HR Heads may have to deal with the following constraints and challenges :
1. Empowerment - A unit HR Head is entrusted with the responsibility to maintain harmonious industrial relations, manage expectation of the employees, drive HR interventions but the decision making powers are in general vested somewhere else in the corporate office far away from the establishment. The people having powers to decide may not be totally acquainted with ground reality and dynamics in the field and hence would not feel the heat which a unit HR Head has to endure. As a consequence, unit HR Heads are always vulnerable to losing trust of the people as at times, even after hard persuasion, the decision either appears not to be forthcoming or even if it comes, it creates more problem than resolving the issue at hand. Sometimes excessive interference of the corporate management may at times be also distressing as they are not attuned to ground reality. Though in most of the organization the buzz word remains to be employee empowerment but decentralization at times appears to be a distant dream or myth. Hence, at times from formation of a committee to matter pertaining to wage or bonus negotiation the unit HR Head has to live with the interference (at times at every step) from the corporate management who might not be exposed to the dynamics in the field. However, the quantum of interference depends upon the person holding the corporate office as each individual has his own leadership style. Nevertheless, even if the unit HR Head is fortunate to have functional boss who does not interfere in every aspect and allows considerable freedom to function but in the Indian context the unit HR Head has to endure the culture of approval which is often a long list of hierarchy and time consuming affair especially in case of big organizations or corporations. A structured DOA might to an extent may take out the pain to certain extent but in spite of such DOA he cannot abjure the culture of approval totally which is often very long.
2. Balancing two power centers - Unit HR Heads in general have dual reporting administratively to the unit head and functionally to business/corporate HR Heads. Hence, unit HR heads are often either identified close to the unit head or to the functional head. If such perception gain ground, it becomes difficult for unit HR head to function as his every action will be viewed with suspicion by either of the bosses and in turn their support will not be forthcoming. As the unit head and unit HR head are on the ground, their understanding of the ground level dynamics is more than of the functional boss. Hence, they may agree and collaborate on most of the issues. This collaboration may at times be perceived as closeness which may be detrimental to company's interest, HR independence and authority. On the other hand, on HR policies and issues, some domineering unit heads might want to have his say in the way he perceives and might be resisted by the unit HR heads. On such instance he might be perceived to be close to the functional boss and a deterrent for the unit head to function. Either way, ultimately in such situation the organization becomes the loser and therefore, the unit HR heads need to learn the tact of balancing both the power centres.
3. Bogging down with mundane jobs - The role and expectations of HR has gone a sea change over the years. HR is now perceived as a strategic business partner and no more it can remain content with doing the mundane jobs of pay roll, attendance, MIS, performance appraisal or just remain a custodian of discipline who manages day to day administrative activities of the establishment. This is where, the role of unit HR head becomes important whereby, he has to go out of his way to act as strategic partner of the unit. Hence, rather than collating datas and figures, it is more important for unit HR heads to collaborate with the business objectives in terms of productivity, costs, safety and quality. His major role is to motivate people and to be a change agent in his unit. He needs to be the champion of initiatives which increases the happiness and engagement quotient in the unit. If people are happy, the objectives of the unit will automatically fall in place. He should, therefore, appear more as a strategic partner rather than a decorated clerk who is more often bogged down with datas and administrative affairs of the unit. However, unfortunately the role of strategic partner gets surpassed due to various requirements or management pressure to deliver mundane jobs within a specified timeline. Sometimes a diktat will come from a corporate office or regional office to provide a data or job within a specified timeline. In this connection, it may be pertinent to mention that one of the term which has gained currency now a days in many organization is "EOD" (End of the Day). As a result of this EOD culture, unit HR heads are unable to free themselves from the mundane jobs and as consequence the role of the strategic partner gets obscured and hindered.
4. Quality Team - No matter how smart, talented, driven, or passionate a unit HR head may be, his success will depend upon the team he leads. It may be appropriate to recall one famous quote by Helen Keller "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much". A quality team can do wonders and it is the team which actually wins. However, there will be few deadwoods or cookie - cutter members in every team and the leader has to live with it. If the deadwoods or the cookie - cutters are more, the performance of the team is surely going to get impaired. Inexperience of the team is not a hindrance if the team members have a fire in their belly to excel, learn and desist from politicking. The problem lies when the team members are content with what he or she does and the fire in the belly is lacking. Motivating and getting performance from a team which lacks fire in the belly is a challenge, a unit HR head might have to confront. There can be another kind of problem if the team comprises with some experienced persons. These experienced persons are in general obstinate in their thoughts and views, sometimes engage themselves into politicking. Their egos need to be managed as they may feel they can do no wrong. The best team is a team which comprises mostly of youngsters with fire in their belly along with few experienced persons. However, nobody can get a team of his choice and a leader has to live up with the team he gets. As the saying goes you cannot choose your parents and boss. In reverse also in most cases you cannot choose your team also. However, the issue of team is not HR specific and can be also true for other functions as well.
Way Forward : The question that arises what is the way forward. There cannot be a straight jacket formula as each organization has its own culture, size and modus operandi. However, still a common approach can be worked out to find solutions to the aforesaid issues. As regard to empowerment to certain extent, it is also up to the unit HR head as up to what extent he feels empowered to take a decision. It helps if the organization has a clear cut DOA (delegation of authority). Even with or without DOA, the unit HR head should learn to take bonafide decision. He has a choice either to act or make his office a post office whereby he refers all matters to his bosses for a decision. This may be convenient to many as the accountability factor will be missing. A unit HR head who makes his office a post office will surely lose the respect of the employees and the peers as well. Hence, best thing is to act and take a decision within the framework of the policy or DOA. Even in case of any policy deviation if the matter turns out to be urgent in extreme necessity, a unit HR head should not dither to take a decision if it does not mar the interest of the organization and something which is related to welfare of the employee. In day to day functioning there will be colleagues who will suggest that an action may be adversely viewed by audit, hence, the decision should wait till the necessary approval is obtained. A spirited nit HR head will keep advising these colleagues not to worry for audit till the actions are bonafide and are in the interest of the company.
In case of balancing the two power centers a unit HR head needs to develop a tact whereby both power centers will be content as if their objectives are being carried out. However, there is no guarantee that this tact will always work. In such cases where the occasion so arises, two things should be kept in mind; (I) Keeping organization before anything and (ii) need to be fearless while taking a position which the unit HR head perceives to be correct irrespective of the perception, one may develop as a consequence of taking a position. At the end day we are all working for the organization and as a conscience keeper and custodian of the unit, the unit HR head is required to act only in the interest of the organization.
A unit HR head cannot escape from the transactional jobs and it will keep coming to him. It is here, where empowering the team is important so as keep free time to strategise and think. Empowerment is double edged and it holds true for the team also. It would not be an understatement that there are leaders in all organizations who are afraid to empower his or her subordinates on pretext of losing his or her importance. People, who have learnt to empower team members, can breathe easy and devote time to constructive things. This also ensures better team spirit and ultimately a better performance from the team. As a leader, a unit HR head needs to stand with the member of the team even if he does wrong but has acted in a bonafide manner. This will instill confidence in the team and the team will be ready to break many benchmarks. Even in case of deadwoods or member of the team, who does not have a fire in the belly, persuasion and patience may turn them around. Impatience, bullying and abrasiveness will not work and will rather create fear and fissure in the team. Sometimes ignoring small indigent demeanors of a team member and focusing on the right objectives will build relationship with the team. However, this does not mean that the unit HR head should not act against the errant member of his team. The leadership style of unit HR head to a great extent will also determine how his team will respond to a situation. A team might be lacking motivation or may be inexperienced but the onus lies on the unit HR head to motivate his team.
Unit HR head should strive to earn the respect and trust of the management, team, peers, colleagues and all stakeholders of the unit. After all he is one of the most important interfaces of the unit after the unit head. If he can gain trust and respect, his job becomes easy as people in management and stake holders will be willing to listen to him without any reservations. The kind of trust and respect, he will earn, will depend upon how he carries himself amongst the stake holders. One of most important aspect to earn trust and respect is transparency and truthfulness while dealing with people and stakeholders. In addition, the unit HR head will be respected for his knowledge, wisdom and the kind of value, he adds to the unit and his team. He, therefore, needs to devote some time in reading and acquiring knowledge to keep abreast with recent developments in his area of work, be it compliance, HR, labour Laws and the business aspect of his industry, which he represents. The knowledge, he acquires, will help him to add value to the organization and his team and his stature and respect will go up amongst his peers, colleagues, management and other stake holders.