White, who compared HR directors to the Luddites who unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the industrial revolution of the 19th century, said: “Organisations used to have a director of electricity. This role was removed when electricity became a natural part of businesses. The future of HR is short, because the role is short – not because we are no good. HR is only 106 years old; businesses coped before it, so how can we ensure we remain?
“The secret is not for HR departments to be liked – but to become irresistible. My department is one of the most hated in the council, by staff, but my desire to be irresistible to the business has overtaken my desire to be liked.
“There is no looking back – innovation is moving us on. HR directors cannot be a narrow specialised body and survival will be about a change in the whole philosophy. We will not become irresistible by dealing with staff absence and payroll. There is just no future for people with narrow technical abilities.”
White said his HR department has created a recruitment strategy to empower line managers in the council to recruit their own staff. “Automation never affects managers,” he said. “They can still do their jobs. But it affects HR. We won’t disappear, but we need to come up with new ideas to replace the resistible things [such as recruitment] when society moves on.”
Commenting on the public sector cuts, White admitted 2,500 employees at the council were in a state of vulnerability, meaning they were facing the possibility of redundancy.
“We have never had to make people redundant before,” he said. “But my policy to staff is that everything I hear from the board, they will know too. I created an HR hotline for staff to ask questions, and the number is easy for me to remember – it’s my direct line.”
Closing his session, White challenged delegates to ask themselves the question ‘if HR had never existed, would anyone have noticed?’
He adapted a quote of fictional character Nanny McPhee, making the point strikingly relevant to HR: “As far as HR and business is concerned – when you need me but don’t want me, I will stay, but when you want me but don’t need me, then I have to go.”