Role of HR in today’s business kaleidoscope

Meera Murthy is an astute HR Professional who has demonstrated competence in formulating, implementing and managing HR strategies across various companies. Meera possesses an exemplary organizational and leadership skills with a proven track record in linking business strategy to HR strategy for driving business results and has a strong generalist experience encompassing the critical elements of the HR value chain, talent acquisition, talent management and talent development. Meera has worked with global teams, multiple business units and has localized best practices to align with the domestic needs. With a multi-domain exposure, Meera is attuned to adapt specific industry sensibilities from an HR perspective.

Meera is an HR Consultant, a Personal Branding and Soft skills Coach. Embarking her professional HR stint with MobiApps, Bangalore in 2001 as Manager & Sr. Manager, Human Resources, Meera moved to Technicolor in 2008 as GM – Human Resources from where she took up the role as Head of People Function at Amagi Media Labs in 2011.

Meera holds a bachelor’s degree in Science from Bangalore University and a Professional PG Certification in HR Management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. Meera is a certified Image Consultant, A transformational coach and a Nirvana Fitness Coach and Ambassador. Among many other pedantries, her credentials include Diploma (Kleines Deutsches Sprachdiplom), German language from Goethe Institute, Munich; Business English Certification from Cambridge Syndicate, U.K; “Train the Trainer” Certification from Oscar Murphy International.

Thank you, Meera, for giving your valuable time to this interview. Your kindness is much appreciated. We look forward to your candid response.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations from your first job and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

The first job always holds a special place for most of us as it is the steppingstone that paves way for the rest of our corporate journey.  As a starry-eyed youngster, I was excited to embark on my professional journey. I was a little nervous too as I was unsure of what to expect, as Academics do not equip you for corporate or professional life - at least it was not the case 15-16 years ago.  I was expecting serious, grim-faced seniors who would be tough taskmasters and an environment that was disciplinary. I believed all seniors should be addressed as Sir!

To my pleasant surprise, I was delighted to encounter a friendly environment and people. Most of the seniors wanted to be addressed by their First name! I was like, wow, this place is great! I was happy to be in a place where achieving our deliverables was more important than clocking in a set number of hours. I had assumed that I would be put on a long orientation program and would hit the floor much later. However, I was mildly shocked to discover that I was on the job after our induction programs and I was expected to learn on the job. In hindsight, I think it turned out to be great because the practical experience is the most effective way to learn.  I was, however, quick to grasp the ways of the corporate world. If one wants to grow in an organization, he/she must be pro-active, ready to put in extra hours and open to learning. I was ready to do that and did not hesitate to approach seniors in my function and other functions to seek their insights. Fortunately, all my senior colleagues were helpful and today, I strongly believe that if you seek knowledge, there are people willing to share it without hesitation.

So, my first job was a great learning experience for me that enabled me to carve out a fulfilling career path for myself.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? 

I think organizations should make conscious efforts to offer mentorship or coaching opportunities to not only entry-level talent but across the levels to enhance the productivity and efficiency of people. Having a mentor or a coach can make a significant difference in the way we learn, work and contribute to our roles. A great mentor/coaching ecosystem infuses job satisfaction and happiness quotient in organizations as employees start enjoying their jobs.

Although I did not have a mentor per se, my Manager contributed a lot in my growth as he was always ready to teach and guide me, whenever I needed.

You are an HR Practitioner for so many years. Could you please tell us why did you choose this profession? If not in HR, what other profession you would have chosen?

Empathy is one of my core beliefs. I have always believed in judging a situation and people by putting myself in others’ shoes. I am also a good listener.  I guess these two characteristics are very important when someone is required to work with and around people. I have strongly believed that HR can have a positive impact and make a difference in employees’ lives.  HR practice is all about dealing with people and I always felt HR had a certain aura about it J Hence I chose this profession.

If not HR, I would probably have chosen professional counselling as a career!

Having worked in a leadership role, what do you think are the expectations of a CEO or the Management Team from its HR Function in general and HR Head in particular?

The expectations of a CEO or the Management from its HR function are multi-faceted.  The HR function is akin to a customer support function, where customer (read employee) is considered the King. The primary objective of the HR function is to cater to the needs of its internal stakeholders, employees and strive to achieve customer or employee delight!

HR Head is expected to define HR strategy that can be linked to the Business strategy of the organization to drive business results. HR Head should have strong business acumen and an innate understanding of the organization’s business. HR Head should be forward-thinking and be a constant innovator to align HR strategy to the ever-changing company and business dynamics. HR leaders are expected to create and nurture a thriving organizational culture to attract the best talent, retain & develop talent, and drive business growth.

As an HR practitioner, you might have taken several job interviews. Please share with us a few incidents when you felt that the candidate was most deserving yet couldn’t be offered a job.

Candidates are expected to have the right attitude – a candidate with the best fit from a technical or functional standpoint may not be hired if he/she cannot be a good cultural fit. Such hires could end up as disasters as there is a strong mismatch in the expectations at both ends.

In some instances, we cannot hire candidates if they are way above the compensation range for a specific role. While certain adjustments by way of joining performance bonuses are made, sustaining and justifying the discrepancy in the compensation, the structure could prove to be extremely difficult, in the long run.

What is your take on having filters, such as, % scored in Graduation or Post Graduation OR the brand name of college and institute, for shortlisting profiles?  

Some sort of filtering is required to shortlist, especially, when there is a huge volume of profiles to choose from. However, such filters should not be the sole criterion to shortlist a candidate. I believe % scored or the brand of college does not always determine the competence of a candidate. Other evaluation filters such as aptitude, attitude, reasoning skills, passion, and learnability are more appropriate in determining why a candidate should be hired. We have always evaluated the cultural fit and the learnability factors in addition to the functional skills while deciding to hire a candidate.

I have hired a lot of students from 2-tier and 3 tier educational institutions who have turned out to be excellent contributors to the organization’s success. While students from top tier institutions score big in confidence and communication, the students from other educational institutions are ambitious, driven, and hard-working. The onus is on the educational entities as well as organizations to jointly create a framework that can create corporate ready talent.

“When there is a lack of clarity in information, rumours start flying around and employees get insecure”

Have you been part of Employment Termination Process [Lay-Off’s, Firing, etc]? How did you prepare yourself for it?  

Yes. I have handled lay-offs and terminations in my career. It never is a pleasant experience to let an employee go, but undoubtedly one must handle it sensitively and sensibly. Such meetings cannot be a spur of the moment occasions. Appropriate communication must be carefully designed. If the termination is owing to performance, HR must develop a well-meaning and practical performance management process. The performance improvement program must be genuine and evaluation metrics must be achievable. The employee must believe that the improvement program is genuinely designed to help the employee improve on the areas of concerns and he or she has been extended with all the requisite support during the program.

I worked with the respective Managers to define the development areas, timeline and ensured that it was communicated in person to the employee. I regularly followed up with both the employee and the Manager separately to understand the status and address any specific concern areas.

Lay-offs must be planned – but the key to an effective lay-off process is transparency in communication with the affected employees. When there is a lack of clarity in information, rumours start flying around and employees get insecure. An environment of mistrust is created when there is a lack of clear communication. It is imperative to keep the concerned employees updated on the proceedings and the business circumstances. HR should ensure that the organization is extending all possible support in terms of severance pay, bonus, and outplacement to the employees being let off. HR must be prepared with all this information at the time of the meeting.

Also, HR Head or a senior HR representative and the concerned Manager will have to be physically present during such meetings. It is highly irresponsible to allow incompetent, insensitive or clueless junior officials to handle such matters.

I followed the above process and I have had employees accepting the circumstances graciously and appreciate the gesture of support from the organization wholeheartedly.

The most important aspect in such processes and meetings is being genuinely EMPATHETIC. When you show genuine concern and empathy, employees accept the situation without getting overly upset or difficult.

In a nutshell, be prepared with all the hard facts pertaining to the decision, be transparent in your communication, extend wholehearted support to the concerned people (in case of performance or business-related terminations) and last but not the least, be empathetic, genuine and sensitive.

What are your thoughts about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEOs and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

The success or failure of an organization is defined by having the right talent or lack of it. Lack of right skills or expertise can severely hamper the productivity, profits and eventually growth of an organization. Talent shortage, however, is a global truth that organizations have had to deal with today.  However, we can adapt a few simple strategies to overcome this issue.

  1. Stop looking for the Perfect Candidate - Oftentimes, critical positions lie vacant because hiring managers are fixated on getting a perfect candidate. As mentioned earlier, hire candidates with the right aptitude and attitude to learning. It is a good strategy to expand the talent pool at the entry-level by working with educational institutions to develop the right skills and competencies. By offering internships, training programs, mentoring mechanism, we can develop a strong pool of talent that is aligned with organizational needs.
  2. The CEO and the Management should ensure there is a well-defined short term and long-term business road map to enable recruiting the right skills relevant to the organization. When the business objectives are dynamic and keep changing, it becomes extremely difficult to hire the right skills and competencies.
  3. Hiring Managers/Functional managers to have to spend quality time with their teams to nurture and develop the talent. When there are a well-working guide and mentorship ecosystem within, it is easier to find talent in-house. Hiring managers should be on the look-out for employees with potential and promise. Identifying and developing in-house potential can solve the talent shortage problem to a large extent and will also work as a wonderful retention strategy.
  4. Be open to hire people from within the organization by enabling transfers of deserving employees from different parts, within and internationally. Transfers provide excellent opportunities for employees to enhance their skills and exposure to grow. This works as a great retention tool to retain talent within the organization.
  5. As a collective effort of the Management, Hiring Managers, and HR, an organization should create a congenial work environment for employees to learn, grow and flourish within. An inclusive culture that provides work-life balance through the flexible working system, opportunities to learn and grow, employee welfare initiatives that address the important needs like self and family healthcare, is critical to address the talent shortage issue.

“The language of communication from HR sets the tone in determining the company’s outlook towards its employees and prospective employees”

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

Organizational culture defines the personality of an organization that is unique to that organization. Organizational culture is seen and experienced through its values, beliefs, behaviours, traditions, internal and external interactions. The major factors that determine the organizational culture are the core values and beliefs of its founders, the policy framework, salary, and benefits, attitude towards its employees and external stakeholders, the leadership style, the industry the company belongs to, technology and the products/services it offers.  

HR can play a vital role in creating and nurturing a positive organizational culture. Being the face of the organization, HR is the first experience of the organization for a prospective employee.  HR should ensure to recruit the right candidates who seamlessly integrate with the culture of the organization.

By designing inclusive, progressive, and growth-aligned policy framework, HR can help create a positive workplace culture that will attract the right talent, drive employee engagement, enhance performance, and the happiness quotient within the company.

The style of engagement of HR with its employees determines the work culture. If HR is open, accessible, approachable and positively engage with its employees, the workplace culture will reflect this positively.

The language of communication from HR sets the tone in determining the company’s outlook towards its employees and prospective employees. When the communication style is friendly, cheerful, and genuine, be it in company policies or the job descriptions or induction programs or company brief, the workplace culture is perceived positively.

As per your experience, what are the key hurdles on the way of making a succession plan successful?  

An effective succession plan is imperative to the continued success and growth of an organization. However, very few organizations can boast of having great succession plans. The critical challenges companies face in this regard:

  1. Retention of key talent - In today’s competitive scenario where the best of companies are competing for talent, it is a challenge to retain the best performers who could be our future leaders. At times, those who have assumed higher roles as part of succession planning may also quit leaving a wide lacuna within the leadership team.
  2. Confusing performance with potential - Oftentimes, we promote employees for their performance in their current roles. It is extremely significant to identify people with potential or the ability to handle the more complex role and increased responsibilities.
  3. Lack of mentorship or coaching - As managers are burdened with the workload and running against tight deliverable deadlines, they are reluctant or unable to find time to mentor or coach their team members who have the potential to become future leaders.  Work pressure also inhibits managers to accommodate their team members to attend training programs to further hone their skills.
  4. Focus on Succession Planning only at the top - It is often wrongly assumed that the succession plan is relevant only at the management level. For the success of an organization, it is necessary to look for potential and leaders at every level within the organization.
  5. Lack of patience - Oftentimes, a newly promoted leader is considered a failure if he/she is unable to deliver in the initial days in the new role. The respective managers and the management need to exercise patience as it takes time for the person to fully comprehend the nuances of the new role and deliver as per expectations. Often, organizations fail to cater to the training and developmental needs of such new leaders.

“The data points can be effectively used to analyse and manage the productivity and performance within the organization by making it more customized and employee centric”

HR is at the crossroads, yet again. According to you, what will be the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robots, etc. on the future of HR Function? Please also highlight how social media has changed the world of HR practitioners? 

I disagree that HR is at the crossroads! Whenever a new technology is born, a similar debate rages and panic sets in.  This phenomenon is known as negativity bias. When computers were first introduced for business, it was assumed that a lot of people will lose jobs.  When the internet took the world by storm, it was supposed to lead to huge job losses. We, as leaders, must realize that Technology can be leveraged to provide better experiences to users and customers.

Similarly, AI and Robots can be leveraged to provide a better HR experience to employees and candidates. HR can effectively use AI technology to enhance employee personal experience and in the field of recruitment to better the assessment & selection process. AI will enable HR to gather critical data points to be used in various HR interventions. The data points can be effectively used to analyse and manage the productivity and performance within the organization by making it more customized and employee centric. The resultant output data can again be used to design a more personalized learning & development framework.

I look at the advent of AI and other related tools as a great opportunity for HR to upgrade their skills and position themselves as strategic partners. HR should proactively welcome and adapt these new tools to help achieve enhanced employee experience and drive a more engaged, productive and happy workforce.

“Growth opportunities will be there for those who understand today’s industry trends, adapt to the latest technology and business dynamics”

Last question, what is your message for young and aspiring HR practitioners? What kind of growth opportunities should they look forward to? And, what are the key competencies one must possess to be successful in this profession?     

Choose this profession only because you feel passionate about it, not for any other reason. Be curious. Be inquisitive and never stop learning. Be forward-looking - always understand the big picture, how HR can fit in to contribute better.  If HR needs a seat in the Board Room, understand the business and align HR objectives with that of the business objectives.

These are exciting times for HR. Growth opportunities will be there for those who understand today’s industry trends, adapt to the latest technology and business dynamics. Those who think out of the box and innovate will grow as innovation is the key in today’s world.

As mentioned above, in addition to the HR concepts, one should be inquisitive, have a strong business sense, technically adept and people oriented.

Thank you very much, Meera, for sharing wonderful insight. We appreciate it.

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