· 2 min read · Features

This recession could be the making of HR


We asked: do you think things will get worse for HR in 2009 before they get better?78% said yes22% said no

We all know that 2009 will be a difficult year for the UK and the global economy. Once you lose business, banking and consumer confidence it takes some time to return. The problem is the more we reinforce the ‘doom and gloom' scenario, the longer the recovery will be. 

This ‘glass half empty' mentality continues to be reinforced in the media, where bad news stories are the flavour of every broadcast. We have a new Economic Forum at the heart of government, comprised of business people, politicians and the ubiquitous economists. We now know what happens when economists are given free rein to determine monetary policy, with their ‘too little and too late' cuts in interest rates, as they failed to understand the prevailing ‘psychology' of the consumer, workers and businesses in the run-up to the recession.

So where were the psychologists and HR professionals then and now-nowhere to be seen. Yes, the US banks and investment houses and regulatory agencies failed to understand the impact of their financial products, securitised mortgages and the like, and the rest of the world followed blithely along without their controls in place as well. But we can't blame it all on the US.

So, here we are, in a recession that is likely to be costly in business and human terms, and to be longer lasting than many of us have seen in decades. The question is: ‘Will it get worse for HR?' and the answer is: ‘Not worse, but different'.

In fact, in many ways this recession could be the making of HR. During this period HR will be challenged like never before, and it has an opportunity to demonstrate how it can contribute to assessing and managing the talent it has, to provide leadership in creating organisational cultures that motivate employees at a time when they are feeling insecure and buffeted by events that they perceive beyond their control and in a world where constant growth will not be the short-term business scenario. The last two decades have been about the acquisition of material goods, about excess, about a ‘me-oriented' as opposed to a ‘we-oriented' society.
In the book, Working, Joseph Heller highlighted this at the beginning of this era and suggested that "work should be about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying".

The challenge for HR is potentially more meaningful, to ensure that we create the right organisational climates where people can flourish, where we retain and truly develop our human talent, where we humanely deal with people when the times get tough, that we don't avoid confronting senior management when we need to, on the important ‘people issues ‘of the time, rather meekly accepting top management diktat that we know to be wrong. HR should be at the forefront of our recovery, not just a compliant functional support system.  It is now time to put into practice action the often-heard HR rhetoric: ‘The most valuable resource is our human resource'.

Cary  Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and Chair of The Sunningdale Institute in the National School of Government