A top news headline this week that retail giant Walmart plans to cut hundreds of jobs before the end of January–many in HR–may well have human resources professionals thinking, “Well, ‘Happy New Year’ to you too.” The fact that the retail giant also just signed on with Workday, an HR automation system, also doesn’t bode well.
According to leading news sources, the reason for reducing HR personnel is the belief that HR work can be easily outsourced. “Many of the eliminations will affect Wal-Mart’s human resources department, a large team that some senior executives believe should be more efficient or whose duties could be handled by outside consultants,” according to Fortune, among others. While you are quelling your laughter at the idea of Suzy Consultant cluelessly trying to break up a fight between John and Larry over who stole whose ham sandwich while thinking “This is not what I went to Wharton for,” here’s some tips on how to make sure you don’t get Walmarted in your own HR career.
You know how valuable human resources is to an organization, of course. But let’s talk about how to translate that knowledge into a business case that will appeal to senior executives. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but it pays to be prepared.
Make their strategy your strategy. This is the winning formula for any business case. So what do we know about Walmart’s strategy? Why are they reducing HR headcount in the first place? From what company reps have said, the company is focused on creating happier customers, which they know is largely achieved by creating happier employees. In fact, happier employees is the throughput of Walmart’s latest strategic moves, most notably the well-documented minimum wage hike for employees. When Walmart announced its pay plan last February, Doug McMillon, the company’s CEO, said the purpose of the minimum wage hike was to boost worker morale and improve employee performance.
Could there be a more perfect HR segue? After all, what else boosts worker morale so that they can give their best performance? That’s right; human resources. While compensation is a fundamental part of employee engagement, it doesn’t stop there. Employees need to feel safe at work. They need to feel they are being treated fairly. They need to know there is a confidential place they can go to when they are having work conflicts or when they are not sure their manager is acting above-board. Is an employee going to feel comfortable going to a consultant–basically a complete stranger–with these types of sensitive matters? Surely, it would be better for morale for employees to go to a friendly face, the human resources professional they have gotten to know and trust over the years. It would be a shame for Walmart to spend all of this money to pay employees more, only to have them still unhappy due to unresolved work conflicts-the very kind human resources helps them solve.
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Do the consultant job. Why do companies bring in consultants? Often it’s because consultants are experts in cutting costs. So bring your own cost-cutting ideas to the table. Is there a technology that could save you tons of manual hours of work, thus allowing you to focus on more strategic areas? Propose it. Are all of your company branches on different benefits plans? Would you cut costs by going in on one tool, and scoring a bulk savings? Investigate it. Know a better coffee that’s cheaper and tasted better than the current company joe? Ask for pricing. As you can see, you don’t have to have an MBA to think of ingenious ways to cut costs. Once you start keeping your eyes open, you will become a natural cost-cutting machine. Here’s a free one from me to you: suggest to your marketing team that instead of investing in the latest Amazon Echo for swag at your next trade show, skip the tech-of-the-minute and just bring or grab chairs for people to sit on. Chairs are the cheapest thing you can offer a trade show attendee, and also the most desired and hard to come by. You’re welcome.
Remind your executives that consultants are ultra-expensive. Repeat, ultra-expensive. The goal of the Walmart job cuts is ultimately to boost profits. Remind your executives how incredibly expensive consultants can actually be. Assure them that you are ready to step up and help them get the most out of their already-invested costs (ie your salary) rather than having to add costs by bringing in outside resources.
Technology isn’t everything. Another significant piece of information about the Walmart story is that prior to purportedly cutting these human resources jobs, Walmart also heavily cut payroll and accounting jobs. The company said in September it would cut about 7,000 back-office jobs, mostly in accounting and invoicing positions at its U.S. stores. This all falls along the narrative that technology can just take care of everything, and that humans aren’t needed for jobs. But this is untrue, especially in human resources. It’s in the job’s very name, right? While there are certainly some manual human resources duties that could be automated by technology, at the end of the day, human resources is about people supporting people. Human resources is a friendly face to listen to employee problems, it’s a helpful voice going over those confusing (digital!) benefits documents and explaining them in a way that makes sense, it’s the person who takes a walk around the block with you when you’re steamed up after a frustrating meeting. There’s no app for that. Human resources professionals are a vital part of any office; they live and breathe the culture, and that embodiment has a critical ripple effect on the entire organization.
Learn what your HR executive values. The Walmart staff reduction will be overseen by new HR executive Jacqui Principe-Canney, who was hired from Accenture at the end of 2015. What do we know about Principe-Canney? A quick scan of her Linkedin profile shows she not only manages HR, but oversees Walmart’s Global Diversity Office. Knowing that diversity is important to Principe-Canney, how does that strengthen the HR business case? The answer is obvious: human resources plays a huge rule in ensuring diversity in hiring, promotions, and culture. Principe-Canney has also gone on the record as saying that Walmart’s strategy is to have the most engaged associates to serve Walmart’s customers. Knowing that Principe-Canney is passionate about employee engagement, one could easily make the case for how indelibly intertwined HR and employee engagement really are. Obviously you may not work for Principe-Canney directly, but you can do similar research about your own HR executive and their values, and find ways to tie to those in your own daily work.
Remind them that human resources is an around-the-clock profession. Let’s say your executives hire a costly consultant to come in once a week on Tuesdays from 1-3 p.m. Great. Are employees going to restrict their workplace conflicts to those hours? Is Lindsey from Engineering going to be considerate enough to only get counter-offers from rival tech companies during that time? Are all performance reviews and succession planning going to be squeezed into that tiny interval? No. Candidates don’t negotiate raises once a week. Employees don’t ask for raises once a week. Top performers don’t threaten to quit once a week. Life at work happens in real time, and there needs to be a real-time, forty-hour-a-week HR professional to deal with them as they arise. Left unaddressed, human resources issues will only fester and exacerbate; a real-time employee is present to nip them in the bud.
In summation, human resources professionals are the heartbeat of the organization; they are the friendly face, the keeper of employee safety (both emotional and physical), the embodiment of culture, and the solid rock on which a company stands. In volatile times, HR is the first person employees will turn to, and therefore the last that should be fired. Stand up not just for yourself, but for your employees and their right to have a resource like you in their company.