One Size Does Not Fit All

There was a time when HR’s main role was policy formulation and implementation. This would have music to the ears of Max Weber since HR was bureaucratic to the core. I recall when I joined Siemens in 1980, the Personnel Handbook, which consolidated all rules, policies, and procedures that were people-facing, was a thick tome running into 300-plus pages. I always wondered whether there was any employee, or a personnel officer for that matter, who had actually read all the rules and regulations elaborated in the supra thick handbook. I often fantasized the personnel officer being gheraoed and harassed by the employees, and him using this thick, hardbound Handbook to hit back and injure them. Such a dream would have greatly pleased Freud since symbolically, these were the very things done by the Personnel Officers – using policies and procedures to batter and hammer the employees into submission, compliance, and beyond.

 

Fortunately, times have changed significantly. While historically HR had largely focused on standardization and "one-size-fits-all", we must be thankful to the IT and software industry for bringing about a shift in an approach where individual needs, wishes, and capabilities of candidates and employees became the starting point. However, this was difficult for the hidebound, traditional personnel officers who had converted “this is not as per policy” into fine art. These were the original “Dr. No”, since all their lives they went about saying that what the employee was requesting for simply could not be done. “Leave it with me” or “I will look into it” became the code names of the HR folks in several industries. The glib promise, “I will get back to you” was used as a means to end conversations, while the employee kept waiting for an answer until he breached the point of frustration. The “rational-legal” approach, with the attendant regulations and chains of command, the specialization and division of labor executed through rigid hierarchies, was progressively being resented for the speed of decision‑making, thus making it literally like an “iron hanger” due to its’ rigid approach.

 

With liberalization and greater social freedom, all this was bound to change! With more vocal and smarter employees arriving on the scene, employees could no longer be taken for granted. Talent attraction and wooing was the name of the game. And, organizations had to vie with one another to be present on Day Zero or the first day of the placement season on the campuses of prestigious management schools as also the engineering schools. Talent was king, and all had to put their best foot forward. Naturally, the talent of the 90s was far more demanding, and totally at variance with the outlook of the candidates of the 70s and 80s, who reflected a docile nature. The market dynamics had totally changed. Jobs were easier to get and the experience was valued. Compensation & Benefits became a specialty in itself and a very important specialization in the HR domain. The race was to attract the best talent and create differentiation in the HR service delivery to ensure talent retention, as organizations were waking up to the costs of employee disengagement and wrong hires. At the same time, the opportunity costs of vacant, open positions, with the added costs of rehiring, meant that organizations had to work doubly hard to ensure that employees in the company were retained and engaged. De jure, of necessity, HR had to change.

 

Smarter and more vocal employees also meant that they would not wait until the HR designed to reach out, and bow down to them as a deity. Now the equation was reversing, and it was HR’s turn to kowtow to them. Issues which earlier would be scoffed at and ridiculed, suddenly became critical to solve, as the high potential and high performing employee was too important to lose. Personalization thus became the key. No longer were policies and procedures sacrosanct. One had to look at every issue and every individual differently, and try to see how the particular issue that the employee is facing could be resolved. HR policies and procedures thus had to be made flexible and permeable, and efforts made to resolve the issue in the best interests of the employee while keeping the overall policy structure of the organization intact. The one size fits all approach of HR had to hitherto give way to customized solutions and personalization of policy implementation. Exceptions thus became the new rule!

 

The paternalism that characterized HR departments in the past is now dying a slow death. HR used to be very paternalistic and normative in its’ approach. But now, employees are more decisive and demanding. They clearly know what they want, and what they need. Bureaucracy is a no-no. Speed is of the essence. Choices are firm and clear. And loyalty to a company is a matter of the past. The employee is loyal only to himself, and if at all, to his profession. Changing a job in 2-3 years’ time frame is no longer seen as a black spot on a CV. And, at the drop of a hat, or a hint of complacency, the employee is ready to vote with his feet, and walk across to the next bidder. In such a scenario, personalization is here to stay. In fact, while taking stock of the latest trends in the industry, we will see that in 2019, personalization will receive greater attention, and the employees, as well as the organizations, stand to benefit from this. HR professionals will need to be prepared for this change, and even be prepared to lead from the front. This is a wild beast which has been unleashed, and unless one learns to control and ride over the beast, it will swamp and destroy his/her very existence as the traditionalist HR Department.

 

“Paternalism that characterized HR departments in the past is now dying a slow death. HR used to be very paternalistic and normative in its’ approach. But now, employees are more decisive and demanding.”

 

Therefore, HR professionals would be best advised to not see the trend of personalization as a breakdown of their traditional approaches of looking at people issues from a stark and monochrome lens.  As a modern-day HR, we need to accept that there are multiple shades of grey in between, and people cannot be treated in the same manner, since every individual has his or her own needs and aspirations. Diversity looms as the over-arching theme, and the earlier this is understood by us and our responses customized, the better we will be at solving issues confronting our constituents, viz. managers and employees. Greater the number of solutions created for the clientele, better will be our acceptance and pre-eminence. These are exciting times, and Change is the name of the game. The better we play this game, beginning from ourselves and our service delivery models, the better will we survive the combined onslaught of outsourcing and self-service approaches.

 

“These are exciting times, and Change is the name of the game. The better we play this game, beginning from ourselves and our service delivery models, the better will we survive the combined onslaught of outsourcing and self-service approaches.”

 

David Weinberger has said, “Personalisation is the automatic tailoring of sites and messages to the individuals viewing them so that we can feel that somewhere there’s a piece of software that loves us for who we are.” Applying this to HR, and tailoring the policies and procedures to every interest group and every employee is the only way forward. If HR managers can convert their HR function into one that loves people for who they are, they will, in turn, become the HR that the employees and managers love, for who they are. In essence, personalization is the future.

Vikas Shirodkar is Director, Basil HR Advisory Services and Professor Emeritus & Dean, MET Institute of Management. He comes with a robust experience of 34 years in the industry and has worked in organisations such as HCL, Siemens, Atul Products, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors. He is the author of the book "Foundational Skills for Budding Professionals". Vikas holds an M.A. in Organisation & Industrial Psychology and a Fellowship in PM & IR from IIM, Kolkata.

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