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Can we retrieve the H in HR?

The year 2021 started as a roller coaster and the pandemic is still not over having affected everyone in one way on the other. With lives and livelihoods affected, dreams and aspirations are on hold for most of us. Businesses too are also slowly edging towards rebuilding themselves after enormously disruptive months.

While businesses are resetting priorities and struggling to adapt the organisation norms to the ‘new normal’, it is necessary for them to also evolve more towards a people-first mindset. Business leaders need to evaluate skills needed to move from fight to flight mode to recovery changing the role of every department including HR in the foreseeable future.

This means that the HR Department has to rework its purpose. Along with the role of HR, the skillsets of HR professionals need to change. Though previous tactics and strategies continue to be a part of the HR professional’s tool kit it is time they enrich their repertoire by practicing empathy, active listening, and rebuilding the HR image.

Practice empathy

At a time when the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has thrown our world into uncharted territory, when people have lost their dear ones, and when medical bills have added to the stress of being laid off or the burden of a salary cut, the HR department must demonstrate empathy while they speak with the employees. Many are shattered, some slipping into depression, and others still struggling to get things together and move on in life.

This is also the time for organisations – including the HR team – to think about employee wellbeing more often because it has a direct impact on their work and ultimately the company’s bottom line. It is critical to be compassionate and connect with others and demonstrate empathy to build and maintain relationships.

A lesson we should learn from the study below:

A study by the University of Chicago neuroscientists demonstrated deep evolutionary roots of empathy-driven behaviour in rats. The experiment was to find out whether a rat would release another rat from a cage without a reward. Surprisingly, the rats quickly opened the cage and released the other caged rats, and also repeated the behaviour even when they were denied the reward of reunion. The rats displayed great empathy. Being empathetic is a sign of strength, confidence, and vulnerability. So, when rats can do it why not humans?

When HR team shows empathy, they are basically demonstrating a deep sense of respect for co-workers, in contrast, to exclusively following rules and guidelines. Let’s not forget HR is still about people and people do matter.

Active listening

This is one skill that all of us need to acquire and practice whenever we are speaking with others. It is surprising how we make an extra effort to teach our kids to talk and not do anything to teach our kids to listen. Even in schools, reading is considered the primary medium by which we learn, we are taught to read aloud so that we learn to speak with clarity but can we remember any lessons on listening? Thus, from our formative years, we have been conditioned to just talk and therefore we lack the skill of active listening. It is time we acquire this important skill, more so for professions that require people skills.

Unfortunately, the skill of active listening that enables a person to concentrate and understand not just the words being said but also the emotion behind them remains a challenge to many with the employee-employer relationship going virtual since the pandemic. However, when employees have gone through both physical and emotional turmoil the least that the organisation can do is to listen with empathy. When employees feel that they can speak with HR, without fear and hesitation, it automatically builds trust. Listening not only helps in building trust and respect but also conditions us to become more compassionate, patient,and more humane.

Human Resource Management (HRM) is more of people management in which communication is the key. However, communication doesn’t solely rely on talking but also listening.

Repositioning of the HR department

As organisations are reworking on strategies and rethinking their business plans, they will also have to rebuild the image of their HR department. The mere mention of HR or a call from HR makes employees anxious about what they are going to hear from them. This is because the employees perceive HR as a mere hiring and firing departmentthat is involved more in policing.

HR needs to rethink what they are doing. Apart from hiring, performance appraisal and training HR has a bigger role in nurturing, developing, andhelping employees gain a vision of growth and success. To reinvent itself the HR team has to stop relying on the old map to find new routes.

The pandemic has left organisations with no choice but to operate departments with fewer people and limited resources. The HR department is no exception. But before redefining the HR systems, strategies, and roles it is important to empower this department ensuring parity of authority and responsibility to the HR team.

Empowering the team to meet the needs of the employees while protecting the organisational values and goals would gradually change the image of the department. The change should be aimed at bringing out the human part of human resources.

And at a time when everyone is slowly recovering from the pandemic, the silver living would be to have a better, safer, meaningful, and more humane workplace.

Aleena Udas Sharma The author, a freelancer, based in New Delhi, is Program Director EMERGE Nepal

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