• Andy Lewis

Covid-19: The end of HR as we know it! (and what needs to change....)


Back in 1996, when I finally escaped secondary school at the age of 16, I can remember starting to look for work, any work. I had around 9 months or so to fill before my start date with the RAF which was just after my 17th Birthday. I can remember applications going in to training organisations, shops, even my local football club and all going to the same place for all of these businesses, the "PERSONNEL" department.

Back in the day, as I am sure a number of you will remember, the Personnel department was the one stop shop for recruitment, interviews, contracts, payslips and leaving a business. I can't really comment before 1996, as this is when I entered the workforce, however through speaking to parents and individuals who are a little older then me, Personnel had a very specific job: Attract talent, interview them, get them a contract, get them working and where necessary or relevant exiting them out of an organisation. Nothing more, nothing less, they knew what the business needed them to do and they did it. So when did all this change?

Well, to the best of my knowledge (and after a conversation with my better half) we seem to think that it was around 2002/03 when the "Personnel" department started to get a little more power hungry and there was a little American influence which started making the transition towards "Human Resources".

2002/03 - HR Around 2002, something happened (I am still not sure what), however the "Personnel" departments started making a play for "training" no doubt their intentions where to try and create some form consistency around who gets what and when, however this used to be an Operational and Business Unit function to manage (and manage it successfully they did!) so why change it? It seemed that over night budgets got blown out of the water, training fell by the wayside and the bloodcurdling and panicked screams could be heard from many a newly titled HR workers "Ahhhhhh, we can't do this.......we need a better system!"

Now, I know, the systems that they adopted was working perfectly before they made a play for it, but apparently not! Budgeting and scheduling training was something far more complex than HR had anticipated, and like the Roman empire swallowing up Europe, HR started to take on more and more and more, delivering less and less and plunging businesses into a state of confusion, with more layers than a piece of Belgium Chocolate, organisations had enabled failure, but businesses had bought into the spin and confusion (spun by HR departments) so much, that there was no going back. It was like being in a holding pattern in a spaceship, on the edge of a black hole, knowing that you had no power to pull away and the easiest thing was to be absorbed by something that you either new very little about or appeared to destroy everything that it came in contact with.

Now I understand that some of you maybe sightly offended/upset with what I have to say about every businesses most expensive paper shuffling department and for that I offer no apology what so ever. However, think of this as a little fun (you could always log a complaint through your HR Help desk or portal and someone will get back to you in 6 to 12 months), don't take it too personally. I'm sure that one day your department will go back to doing what they were good at, but until then enjoy the ride.

Then by late 2008 early 2009, we were getting emails! Email after email after email form HR and they were not emails with information, they were emails inviting us to meetings arranged by HR people about things like "Friday Drinks" and "Casual Fridays" and so on. Words like "Culture" started to get thrown around by HR Managers who needed to try and showcase their contribution to the business, from a business unit that had in all fairness delivered very little and before we knew it early in 2011 HR had transitioned to the "People and Culture Team"!

2010/11 - People & Culture That's right, around 2011, someone realised that HR had become know as Human Remains (due to their lack of action, inability to control budgets and having a massive head count that done the same thing). It was decided that the perfect way of addressing the unwanted nickname and the operational shortfalls was to re-brand into something that could not be the butt of organisational jokes. Instead of addressing the issues at hand, HR (and Businesses) decided to go through a massive re-branding exercise that achieved nothing.

As the world pushed into the last decade, so did The People and Culture Team. They made a wider play to grapple control from people who knew what they were doing within a business and positioned themselves as even more important as ever.

For those who know and get the cultural reference to Cat from Red Dwarf, I am sure you will find this highly amusing and somewhat accurate. Cat who was know to walk around JMC Red Dwarf and Star Bug declaring "This is mine, this is mine and this is mine" in a similar fashion to A People and Culture team "Training, this is mine, Safety, This is mine, Health and Wellbeing, This is mine!" (and so on). For those of you who have never been exposed to the groundbreaking ideas that Red Dwarf touched on, please just go watch, learn and enjoy.

During this time (especially in Australia) we noticed a number of things, training had become more disorganised (on the back of the power grab in the noughties) and The People and Culture departments attempted to get involved with things like Health and Safety, Corporate Social Responsibility and ISO Certification. This started to cause more issues than enough and ultimately lead to a nation becoming disinterested and lax when it came to compliance.

Now, I have to say, that I believe this (The People and Culture Team's power grab for Health and Safety, Wellbeing,


Training, ISO Certification, CSR and so on) has to be up there with stupid ideas such as:

1. Putting "Agile" in front or behind of everything and believing it was an actual thing; 2. Hot-desking; and 3. Swimming in a crocodile infested lagoon somewhere in the Northern Territories or Far North Queensland and blaming the individual who put the "Danger Crocodiles" sign up when you get bitten taking a swim!

These three examples could be seen as being linked and in all fairness could be contenders for a "Darwin Award", however with the impartiality of a leaflet distribution organisation/business bleating on about recycling I will touch on the Safety issue.

An organisations culture is lead by the CEO, it is not hashed together by a few fresh faced People & Culture grads who still believe that their University textbooks are gospel and still things like "SWOT Analysis" and "Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs" have a place in modern society.

Again, a grab at a word to make someone feel more important, has left businesses staring into an Organisational Abyss, leaving People & Culture teams free to throw money away at programs such as A2E (Ability to Execute) by McKinsey and leaving the rest of a business playing "Buzzword Bingo" and having to walk past posters with even more ridiculous motivational phrases like "Be Ninja" every time a so called leader stands up to speak turns an organisation into an accurate interpretation of Ricky Gervais in The Office ........and so we address Safety. Health and Safety sitting in/under HR (or whatever they call themselves nowadays):

Whilst I appreciate that most businesses in Australia (and New Zealand) in all fairness do not think about a Safety department as either a priority or a necessity, it is and has been a reactive thing that is an after thought, normally, after an incident or the legal team getting a letter from a solicitor about impending litigation. Someone thought that shoehorning a risk management or legal function into the fluffy cloud was (and still is) an amazing idea!


Safety is a Risk Management function. If it is not sat under its own stream, there can only be one of three places that it can report into, they are: Operations, Legal or Risk! Ask any HR person about organisational Safety and they tend to come back with the same rubbish and opinion "We have a fantastic culture and safety is a priority" or "The one thing that keeps me up at night is our peoples safety" loosely translated "Oh S*IT, don't ask me, we have some risk assessments". HR people do not have the skills or knowledge to get involved with this type (Safety) of work, it would be like asking an Accountant to competently conduct quadruple bypass heart surgery or an Arborist to pilot and successfully land the Space Shuttle without any training (Granted there will be some who, with the training, education, mentoring and practice that would ultimately be able to switch vocations, these are metaphoric examples).

This has been evident with reactive nature of the "Work From Home" fiasco that Australia has faced and the lack of planning and Risk Assessments that were previously conducted.

Lets look at the facts: As of 4 June 2020, 78 Australian workers have been killed at work. In 2019, 178 were fatally injured whilst working compared with 144 workers in 2018. This means that since 1 January 2018 we have lost 400 individuals because of their work. That's not including unreported fatalities or work related suicides that have gone unreported or undocumented. 400! and we have 6 months of the year left to run.

Yes I agree that as a Nation, we have significant distance to travel when it comes to workplace safety and that it is not just HR's fault that these workers have died. Throw into the mix, inconsistent legislation throughout Australia, having multiple regulators setting their own direction with no truly harmonised approach to safety, not prosecuting CEO's and executives of ASX listed businesses when there is a fatality etc. and the fact that it still seems socially acceptable here in Australia that workers die!

Whilst family's are impacted, it doesn't make headline news. And why is this? Because we haven't locked up a CEO, a COO or a CPO for a workplace fatality, that and Safety people are not driving the safety bus, HR are driving it and in the majority of cases the Safety Professional is pushing the Bus (in many cases with thousands of individuals on it) up hill, either by themselves or with an under resourced team with limited champions at at HR level. HR's response is normally one of wrapping people up in cotton wool, in the fear to not offend or upset anyone, they wave the EAP flag every time "it" hits the fan, as if this alone is going to fix or solve the problem, but they never get to the true cause, by enabling poor leadership, by getting involved in areas that are not their expertise are limited, they are compounding the issue.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg! The safety issue is just the tip of the Iceberg, HR are often the centre of discussion when it comes to Gender Diversity, Pay Equality, Social Responsibility and Representation.

Don't go on about your ISO 14001 certification and how the business has reduced its carbon footprint if you are not using 100% recycled paper or utilising Solar power.

HR/People & Culture is the department that has a significant opportunity and ability to actually do something about Gender Diversity, Pay Equality, Social Responsibility and Representation, yet they fail time and time again! It has been more prevalent through out the last decade, there has been much talk about this and every business now has some form of policy around equal opportunities etc. but really there has been little movement.

On the subject of pay equality, we have all seen the clause written into contracts stating employees should not discuss salary or bonus with their peer groups etc. yet when HR publish job adds, very rarely can you find a salary bracket or banding. Ask yourself why this is? Is it because they want to get the best person for as cheap as possible? Is it because their bonus is dependant on cost savings? Is it that they do not want current employees knowing what someone in the department may be banded salary wise and the pay equality issues rears its head? Or, is it all three? Yet HR have a unique opportunity to break the pay equality taboo, just by making public salary brackets and paying roles equally, yet they fail time and time again.

HR are supposed be be able to seek out and attract talent, yet when you look at the majority of HR departments here in Australia they look exactly the same, predominantly white female (probably a 65/35 split between females and males) between the ages of 25 and 55 and normally a female CPO/ Director of P&C/Head of HR who is 45 + and white. However, when it comes to attracting diversity across the board level, representation is exactly the same. There majority of Executives that I have seen are white middle aged men and women, the M/F representation is always around 80/20 and, in my almost 10 years in Australia, I have only seen one BAME ELT member in all of the businesses that I have worked with on the Executive Leadership Team, there have been a few Senior Managers, but not what I would say either proportional to the workforce or by anyway balanced.

When we start to look at the issues of Corporate Social Responsibility, Diversity and Pay Equality, HR do not live and breath the "cool aid" they spout. This would be the single department that could have a significant impact in these areas, so why does business look the same? The HR sphere of influence needs to start at their front door, they should not be worried about areas that they either do not fully understand. If they struggle to implement the change across their back garden, what change do they have when it comes to Safety, Injury Management, ISO Certification and so on? ZERO! When its evident the department that talks about breaking unconscious bias, has a deeper rooted issue we have limited chance of moving forward.


2019/20 - The People Team In 2019, we started to see the word "Culture" being dropped from the department. The next great HR re-brand had commenced, again at great expense and for what purpose , we are yet to find out.

For me, a Culture is set by the CEO, if they have strong values and lead with honesty and integrity, an organisation will naturally have some form of positive culture. However, just because you have an EAP or you write it down enough, doesn't mean that you and your business has a culture. This is why it has started to be dropped, workers are now more than ever questioning the Concept of Culture and can see that HR in many cases cause the toxic culture that runs through businesses or business units, especially when we come back to pay and diversity. So whats next for HR post Covid-19 and how can Businesses make a positive change?

The whole Covid-19 situation has shone a light on all that is broken with HR, from not fully understand the Health and Safety implications of a Pandemic, to being completely ill prepared around working from home and beyond. Here are four ideas on what needs to happen to mitigate the next pandemic (and progress HR) by the time it arrives and how businesses and organisations can get it done before 2030.

Get rid of the Stand alone HR Department and move it under Risk, Legal or Operations. Simply put, HR exist to stop a business getting sued by workers. This is a Risk Management tool, like Health and Safety. Remove the CPO and have the most senior HR Person report into the Chief Risk Officer or the Company Secretary or the COO. There is no need to have HR at an executive level.

In a time where costs are going to be cut by a business, why do you need additional executives and expenses? The CEO needs to set the culture and it is down to his direct reports to share this, instill and drive this, not a HR department who are accountable for very little yet want to know everything in order to position themselves as a "Service Provider" or "Facilitator" than actually doing the jobs they are engaged to do.

You wouldn't expect a HR department to get involved with the procurement of Laptops just because the workforce use them? No, as that would be stupid! However day in day out Australian businesses enable this line of thinking, by not having HR positioned under the correct stream.

Focus on the right areas If you want to make changes, start working on the areas that you can actually influence. It is easy to make someone redundant in Australia, in fact it will become easier for an organisation to move staff in and out of the business after Covid-19 I believe.

Businesses will move back towards a contract model, I believe that you will see more fixed term contract or consulting roles than FTE opportunities here in Australia. This in itself make HR's role of keeping talent significantly more important that ever. Stop sending out meeting invites for time wasting events and let us get on with our jobs, by the same token, take the lead in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, Disputes and actual HR stuff, stop pushing it on to managers that you have not trained.

A sale manager in an organisation I worked with last year opened a weekly sales meeting she was running with the following statement "Remember, we are hear to sell! If you want to go and work somewhere you can tread water, achieve little and your career will die you have two options, HR or Government!" Whilst this may initially feel or seem unfair and unjust, their rational was explained to me as follows "Government change on a whim, snap elections, leadership disputes and leadership challenges and so on, what was originally outlined and sold to the public is rarely delivered by any political party and they always blame the party that is leaving, the same they said about a HR department, by meddling in things they have little knowledge about or the ability to fully understand, the issues such as recruitment, diversity and pay equality never get addressed let alone fixed!"

Move back to what was working in the Mid 90's There is nothing wrong with owning what you are good at, by moving HR back to the pillars that worked well in the 80's and 90's (under the principals of a Personnel department) has no shame. As I heard recently on OHS webinar from a HR professional who was invited to speak around what help they needed in returning to work "HR are fantastic at getting contracts and sorting out your payslips, but rubbish at understand OHS Risks, its not what we do". Business needs HR departments to focus on their areas of expertise's and don't get caught up with things that you don't understand.

Make a Change for Good Don't pedal the CSR rubbish, especially if your Executive Leadership Team is all white and predominantly male, if you only have a hand full of senior leaders who come from a minority background. Do not go on about Gender Diversity unless your department is 50/50 and you Pay everyone the same banding at all levels. Businesses need HR to start living their values not pushing some outdated textbook rubbish that was taught 20 years ago. Start thinking about what positive changes can be made in your field, focus on the key areas such as on-boarding and exiting, this is where the department will have a significant impact and it will be reflected further down the line. The New Structure

This new structure would see HR (in what ever name it chooses) report directly to Legal, Operations or Risk. It would mean that this structure would bring about the end of the Chief People Officer. HR are a Risk Mitigation tool in itself, they are there to stop a business getting sued by workers against the Fair Work Act (here in Australia), let's not get caught up in the "Fluffy" rubbish they want you to believe, and yes, by the same token a HSEQ Team have been set up in Australia to ensure that the business is not exposed to adverse legal action brought on by an injured worker, it would be and should be inconceivable to have HSEQ report into someone in HR, yet, this happens all the time and it is evident by the fatality rates Australia see's every year.

Absolutely there is a place and a need for for HR/The People Team/The Personnel Department/People and Culture departments or teams in every business, (however there are a number of outsourced HR services in Australia that offer a subscription based model to reduce the significant cost) but it needs to be relevant, strategically placed and be exposed to the same financial and operational requirements as every other arm or department of an organisation. After all, it should be (and could be) argued that in the event of redundancy or restructure "the HR" department should be the first to feel the "Sword of Damocles" as they were in the prime position to mitigate the inevitable anyway.


As we get into the new working week, here is my latest article which calls out the massive shift we need and why HR needs to go back to the 90's to enable business.


#HR #CS #socialresponsibility #payequity #diversityandinclusion #humanresources #training #OHS #WHS #safety #riskmanagement

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