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How to maximize the power of excellent HR service quality

Marcus Buckingham
Marcus Buckingham (@mwbuckingham) is a New York Times bestselling author, a global researcher and head of ADP Research Institute—People + Performance.

Adam needed to update his benefits to include his new partner. He emailed his designated HR contact, who directed him to a call center that would take care of it. Two hours later, he is still on hold.

Sandra needed to understand how long her maternity leave would be and what percentage of her pay she would be making during it. She found a number on her organization’s self-service portal, but the person she called didn’t know the laws for her specific state. She left the call feeling more confused than when she started.

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Joseph noticed his co-worker blatantly abusing their industry’s anti-bribery laws. He goes online to file a complaint but is worried he’s done it incorrectly.

It’s Meredith’s first day and her computer won’t start. She doesn’t even know who her HR contact is. In the immortal words of the Ghostbusters theme song, “Who you gonna call?”

No, you are not in a nightmare and no, you are not about to realize that you came to class naked and unprepared for the pop quiz. These are just a few of the emotionally fraught situations for which employees seek out human resources–for guidance, reassurance and knowledge. None of those experiences went well for any of the people involved. None left the employees feeling seen, heard and understood. But what could those experiences be like if they went well? How long would Adam stay at his company, knowing he and his family had reliable healthcare? Would Sandra look for a new job during her maternity leave? Without fear of retaliation, does Joseph’s complaint affect his performance? And what will Meredith tell her friends and family about her new company … assuming she ever gets her computer to start?

Right now, there are 10 million job openings and 8 million people who are unemployed. However you cut that data, it’s clear that we are in a very tight talent market–and it’s going to stay that way for a long time. Which means that the question on every single CEO’s mind is, “How do we establish, maintain and build our company’s talent brand? How can we get the best applicants–and keep them?” And for those of us in HR, the question is, “How can we help solve for that within the HR function? Can HR even help at all?”

The most recent research from myself and the ADP Research Institute (ADPRI) answers that very question in ways that quantify the power of the HR function for the first time and reveal the counter-intuitive mechanisms that the HR function can use to amplify its power and drive the talent brand. From this research, we were able to create a metric that measures the psychological experiences shaped by excellent HR service quality and data that uncovers exactly what leads to these positive experiences. Those in the HR function have immense power–and responsibility–to deliver genuine value in the heart and mind of the employee.

Related: HR has a new metric for measuring employee satisfaction

The model

Through a series of four studies that involved more than 32,000 participants, we were able to create the HRXPS (HR XPerience Score). We started with over 60 questions and eventually identified the 15 items that reliably measure HR service quality, seen through the lens of the employee experience. These are the five experiences we’ve found that comprise employees’ perceptions of HR, and the three items that measure each experience. The HRXPS metric provides a way to measure the effectiveness of HR service quality and pinpoint what actions can be taken to increase that effectiveness:

What outcomes does the HRXPS relate to?

Organizations have always had ways to measure their employees’ experiences at work–from lost workdays to compensation to turnover, and in recent years, even engagement–but until now, we haven’t had a reliable way to measure how HR is contributing to their experience at work. From the HRXPS metric, we were able to determine if an employee thinks HR adds value to their experience (called Value-Promoting), if HR is performing its responsibilities effectively (Performing) or if employees view the HR function as detracting from the value of their employee experience (Value-Detracting).

See also: Why employee experience needs a ‘human’ approach reset

Once we established those categories, we were able to see what high HRXPS could influence–and the results are threefold: talent brand, intent to leave and actual voluntary turnover. The data show that the experience of HR is incredibly important in terms of driving these three vital outcomes and that this differs from an employee’s engagement level.

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By the way, because ADPRI has developed and deployed a reliable measure of engagement, with over 1.1 million completions worldwide, we are able to answer the question of whether what we’re measuring with HRXPS is independent of engagement. We found that 51% of the variance in engagement can be explained by HRXPS, meaning 49% of your HR XPerience Score is not affected by your team, your team leader and the work that you’re doing each day (all of which are important, but different from what we’re measuring with HRXPS). All that to say, your experience with the HR function is independent of engagement and vital in determining the following three outcomes:

  1. Talent brand: When we examined the relationship between HRXPS and how likely you are to promote your company’s talent brand, we found a strong correlation between the two: If you believe HR to be Value-Promoting, you are eight times more likely to be a Talent Brand Promoter for your company.
  2. Intent to leave and active job search: The data show that there is a strong relationship between high HRXPS and lower intent to leave and lower active job search.
  3. Actual voluntary terminations: As part of our research, we had data not only on employees’ response to the HRXPS metric but also to their employment status three months post-metric. We found that those employees who were still active were much less likely to see HR as Value-Detracting than those who had voluntarily terminated.

What can HR professionals do to increase HRXPS at their organizations?

You’ve seen the impact that the HR function can have on the organization–between promoting the talent brand, lower intent to leave and lower turnover, I hope you’re thoroughly convinced of the power that the HR function yields. But what exactly should you do with that power to increase the service quality of your department, and thus those many other positive outcomes?

Single point of contact

First, ensure that all employees have a single point of contact dedicated to their needs. In the complicated and emotionally fraught situations that HR is often responding to, employees always want to have someone as their guide. Someone who knows them, all of them–who may have to hand them off to a center of excellence for their specific need, but someone who knows their name and situation will be hugely comforting. The megatrends within HR are leading us farther and farther away from this model, with more parallel vertical centers of excellence for each specific need–but the data here could not be more clear: Employees need someone who knows them and sees them as whole human beings.

Frequency of interactions

Contrary to popular belief, the more HR services an employee uses and the more frequently the employee calls on the HR function to help with a work-related issue, the higher their HRXPS is going to be. Initially, we were looking to see whether a specific HR interaction would drive higher HRXPS: Does reaching out to solve a conflict matter more than, say, requesting information about health or other benefits? However, the most compelling finding was that when it comes to these tasks and services, more is better.

Related: How COVID made the future of work today

Each interaction with HR contains an opportunity to positively impact the employee–even though the broad trends in HR are currently to remove or reduce as many interactions as possible. As the banking industry found, technology that does repetitive tasks defined simply by their accuracy (like ATMs) is important, but people will still need to seek out a banker for assistance when they need human understanding.  When you remove the humans from the human resources department and replace them with self-service technology, you may well be reducing the value of the HR function–and thereby weakening your company’s talent brand.

Onboarding and performance management

The two services with the strongest relationship to high HRXPS are Formal Onboarding and Frequent Performance Attention. In this tight talent market, being incredibly attentive to the onboarding process is a significant opportunity to positively affect your talent brand. And once you’ve got this incredible talent working for you, you must ensure that they are having frequent conversations and getting the performance attention that they crave. Even if HR is not delivering those conversations directly, if an employee is having weekly or quarterly conversations with someone, they will think much more positively of their HR service quality.

Alright, you’ve made it this far. Here are the six implications for organizations as a result of this study:

  1. The HR function can contribute significantly to the organization’s overall talent brand.
  2. The role of technology should not be to replace HR but instead to enable HR to create emotionally attentive and genuine experiences for employees.
  3. Encourage frequent HR interactions and design each HR interaction around fostering one or more of the five experiences.
  4. As far as possible, give each employee a named individual who can help them navigate their HR world.
  5. Ensure that your outsourced HR functions are being delivered to intentionally create one or more of the five experiences. Hold your vendor accountable.
  6. Pay the closest attention to your onboarding and performance management programs.

The HR function can have a powerfully important effect on the employee’s experience at work, and now we know exactly where to start focusing our efforts.