· 2 min read · Features

During the recession, has HR provided the cure, the vaccination or yet another illness?


Do you remember the war for talent? Everyone fought to attract the few candidates around; criteria were relaxed and the emphasis switched from ‘selection’ to ‘attraction’. With the recession, things swung full circle and most of us have had to focus on cutting costs and headcount.

Energy spent on 'engaging the workforce' has been aimed at 'doing more with less'. However, despite the level of unemployment, the availability of top talent remained restricted and succession planning has remained necessary.

Before, we preached that: "Our staff are our most important asset" but, when the chips were down, it was shareholders and senior management who won, not the employees.

"It was my friends and colleagues who got laid off; I had my benefits and perks cut; I have to work harder and longer; so much for valuing staff!"

Management's proud claim to be 'lean and mean' may come back to haunt them - employees remember the 'mean'. With virtually every source confirming that, when the economy picks up (probably in the next year or two), more than 67% of white-collar staff will seek to change companies, we have a recipe for a perfect storm – we have managed to retain top talent but lost much of their loyalty.

So, will they continue to stay? We have a significant percentage of staff whose trust in our leadership we have lost. They, too, will seek to move and may succeed. We have succession plans based on top talent staying and good talent developing. But, those "ready in a year" successors typically have little time to engage in development, will remain as "ready in a year", and will then leave.

With lean organisations, there are fewer candidates to back-fill each position when an incumbent is promoted – so the plans may be illusory. Furthermore, most organisations have realised their 'annual increase' based compensation strategies are not sustainable. So, even 'buying' candidates is unlikely to be an effective tactic when things pick up.

We have to act decisively to:

• Maximise the quality of all hires. Every sub-standard recruit weakens the organisation, drags down other excellent talent, consumes on-boarding resources and either leaves (wasted money) or, worse still, stays. Having any non-expert handle such a critical process as recruitment is a false economy.

• Focus on on-boarding for all job-changers (not merely recruits); maximise the probability of success.

•Enhance the quality of performance management. We must focus on maximising individual and continuous discretionary performance and development - totally different to mere goal setting and appraisal.

• Develop sustainable compensation strategies. Pay should largely reflect the true value of roles, transient performance should not incur recurring pay and pay rates should be influenced more by the organisation itself and less by other organisations.

•Check that any so-called incentive schemes actually do incentivise and that they support company values and processes.

• Measure, not guess, both potential and performance and use both when determining who can fill critical positions or replace critical people.

• Ensure that we have coverage and back-fill for critical roles.

• Ensure that adequate effort is invested in pragmatic and effective development. When we have surplus resources, development is not a priority – right now it is.

• Identify those no longer suitable for the organisation and enable them to exit with dignity because, of that 67% referred to above who want to leave, a substantial proportion say that they cannot stand working for an organisation that (a) tolerates poor performance and expects top performers to take up the slack, and (b) allows poor performers to block roles that could be used as development roles for those with potential.

These are not choices. They will be distinguishing features of those organisations that survive the recovery. Will yours be one of them? Or, will you wait until things get better to discover that it is too late?

Clinton Wingrove is an EVP and principal consultant at Pilat HR Solutions