What Customers Want From HR
The views of line managers, senior managers and employees on HR services and the HR function
Hirsh W, Carter A, Gifford J, Strebler M, Baldwin S
Report 453, Institute for Employment Studies, September 2008
a study supported by the IES HR Network
This IES study found that the customers of HR – line managers, senior managers and employees – want a function that is responsive, proactive and professional. It needs to be independent-minded, in close touch with the workforce and able to challenge managers when necessary. Although frameworks of HR policies and processes are necessary, real strategic value comes from spotting issues ahead of time and helping managers address them. Managers and employees want support from HR people with real professional expertise: ‘people partners’ who can help them address their people issues in the business context.
1. HR should engage more seriously with finding out what its customers need and their experiences of current HR services
HR functions should obtain much more thorough feedback from their internal customers – line managers, senior managers and employees. This should cover both what they need from HR, and their user experience of current services. Such feedback, as this study illustrates, can generate a clear overview – or ‘footprint’ – of the HR function in a particular organisation. It can provide fresh insights and help the HR function to focus its efforts in areas that add value to the business.
Among the survey sample in this study, only about one-third of managers and a quarter of non-managers were satisfied with HR services. Although one-third of managers felt HR was improving, a similar proportion felt it had got worse over the last couple of years. Non-managers were also about as likely to think that HR had got better as that it had got worse, although more of them – about half – could see no change in the quality of HR services.
Customers said that they valued an HR function that was fair, knowledgeable, did not hinder their work and protected employee interests. The factors in HR services that turned out to correlate most strongly with respondents’ ratings of their satisfaction with HR were: being well-supported in times of change; HR giving good advice to employees; being well-supported in dealing with difficult people or situations, and HR getting the basics right. Satisfaction with HR also went hand in hand with seeing HR as a real strategic partner and as making an important business contribution.
2. HR needs to be responsive – clear about what it is there for and what services it offers; easy to contact; and able to respond quickly, efficiently and effectively
HR operates across a wide range of subject areas (recruitment, performance, reward, development and so on) and has been changing in the way it works, and often restructuring its administrative and advisory services. It is easy for managers and employees to get confused by the shifting structures of HR and its strange terminology. Managers and employees need a clear understanding of what HR thinks it is there to do, what services it is offering, and how to access these.
‘The large majority of staff does not know what HR does, and HR does not make a conscious effort to tell them.’ (Senior Manager)
It is critical to its customers that the HR function ‘gets the basics right’ and is ‘responsive’. Responsiveness is about genuine customer focus in speed and accuracy, and also making advice and action relevant to the business and workforce context.
Most of the negative comments in this study were about pretty basic problems in accessing HR support. People issues are often urgent and stressful for managers and employees. If they cannot speak to the right person in HR, or if their query is left hanging for a few days, they rapidly lose confidence in the function.
3. Managers want an independent-minded HR function, which understands the workforce and can help management balance employee and business needs
All the participants in this study saw the HR function as being there to support the business through supporting all three of the customer groups we were investigating. Senior managers were strongly of the view that HR is there to support employees as well as managers: ‘HR is there to support the line and employees in order to support the business’. Both managers and employees appreciate the skilled help HR often gives in resolving serious disagreements or performance problems at individual level.
Effective HR services for employees are seen as supporting, not diluting, the responsibility of the line for people management. The ability of HR to coach line managers, especially around managing performance, is highly valued. All customer groups emphasised the importance of thorough training for new managers.
In a much broader sense, managers want an HR function with its finger on the pulse of what employees are feeling and how well they are working. Senior managers particularly look to the HR function to have an independent, and challenging, view of how to balance the interests of employees with the needs of the business. They recognise in themselves the temptation to put short-term management priorities ahead of sustaining positive relationships with the workforce. They need HR to help them strike the right balance. So an HR function that is seen as remote from the workforce loses much of its unique value to business leaders.
‘As managers we get caught up in what we are trying to do in the business. HR helps us remember we are dealing with people.’ (Manager)
‘HR needs to be like the Jester to the King. It has to tell him what everyone knows but no-one else dares to tell him
you have to be very smart to do that.’ (Employee)
4. Customers do want an HR function with strategic business impact, but this is about solving problems that are strategically important for the business, not about separate HR strategies
The HR community sees itself as on a journey to becoming more ‘strategic’ in its influence on the business. The customers of HR want this too, but their vision of strategic HR is an essentially practical one. Being strategic from a management perspective is about working with the line – at all levels – on people issues or problems that have a strategic impact on the business.
‘Overall, HR’s game could be raised – it needs to be more ambitious for the business and offer a vision of how the business could be.’ (Senior Manager)
Managers recognise the need for frameworks of HR policies and processes, but think HR makes these more complex than necessary and changes them far too often. For example, they do not see yet another revision of the performance review forms as improving performance. They are looking to HR for really deep understanding of how to get the best out of people, and then practical support in achieving this.
Some of the areas that HR sees as having greater ‘strategic’ impact, such as change management, career and talent management, and learning and development, relate to the future health of the organisation. These are areas in which managers and employees do want more support from HR. However, they want this support to be tailored and offered at divisional or departmental team level. It is often not clear who in HR has the time and skills to offer such support at local level on an ongoing basis.
5. The customers of HR want a ‘proactive’ HR function, which spots issues ahead of time and works closely with managers to address them
The customers in this study used the word ‘strategic’ less than HR people do. They used the word ‘proactive’ to summarise what they wanted HR to be – neither too bogged down by inefficient administration nor too remote in an ivory tower of policy and strategy. Proactive HR would:
- enable managers and employees to do business better by being more closely involved with tackling people problems and issues
- help to ‘nip problems in the bud’ by spotting them early
- bring in good ideas from outside the business
- be more assertive if managers are flouting policies or codes of behaviour
- coach and train managers to manage and motivate their people better
- work ‘across the business’ to achieve more consistency of people management and to develop and deploy people better for the benefit of the whole organisation.
A proactive HR function should feel close to managers and reach out to them. As one senior manager put it: ‘They could just walk around more – there is no need to be embarrassed. I am quite a proactive customer and I do push a bit. But it takes two to tango.’
The diagram below shows three simplified scenarios that can be used to consider features of the past, present or future of the HR function in any given organisation.
Many organisations have been trying to get themselves out of ‘bogged-down’ HR and work towards ‘proactive’ HR over the past few years. However, this research shows that may have misunderstood what their customers see as the nature of a more strategic HR function. If they concern themselves only with HR strategy documents, process re-design and interactions with top management, they can drift away into ‘remote’ HR. Even though they may think they are having strategic impact at the top of the business, once out of touch with line managers and the workforce, those in a ‘remote’ HR function have little value to offer, especially to senior executives.
6. Customers want professional HR support from real ‘people partners’
To deliver responsive and proactive HR support, customers want HR people to be proper professionals in HR. This means having real ‘expertise’ based both on theory and evolving good practice, in order to give consistent, fair and reliable information and advice. HR people also need understanding of the business context and the workforce perspective, and to be confident and assertive enough to challenge managers where necessary.
HR professionalism in this sense includes all the junior HR staff who are often the telephone front line for enquiries. Many of these roles are no longer primarily ‘administrative’, and require increased HR knowledge, understanding and skills.
The survey in this study showed that a majority of managers and employees find HR staff approachable, trustworthy, professional and helpful. A minority think they are expert, reliable, innovative and easy to get hold of. Satisfaction with HR services is strongly related to the perceived quality of HR staff, especially whether they are expert, reliable, understand employee needs, well-informed and responsive.
Managers find the idea of an HR business partner a natural and attractive one. They do not want business generalists in these roles, but HR professionals who also understand the business – someone with real HR know-how as well as someone they can work with and who gets to know them and their staff. Some managers value their business partners highly but find them rather too thin on the ground.
Looking at what managers have said in this study, one wonders if the term ‘HR business partner’ is in itself a misnomer, born of HR’s habit of looking at itself from its own end of the relationship. Looked at from the managers’ end, what they want is not really a ‘business partner’ at all but a ‘people partner’: someone with real expertise who can help them address their people issues in the business context.
About the IES research
This study was supported by members of the IES HR Network. It was conducted in five organisations in retail, electronics, local government, health and the civil service. The study focused on three different groups of customers for HR services – line managers, senior managers and employees. Over a hundred customers of HR participated in face-to-face discussions and over 840 completed a survey questionnaire.
What Customers Want From HR: The views of line managers, senior managers and employees on HR services and the HR function, Hirsh W, Carter A, Gifford J, Strebler M, Baldwin S. Report 453, Institute for Employment Studies, 2008.
ISBN: 978-1-85184-396-1. Bound copy: £40.00. PDF Download: £10.00