What HR may be doing ‘all backwards’ when it comes to transformation

As partner/principal in EY’s People Advisory Services Practice, Shari Yocum works with clients across industries, and around the globe, on transformation, change management and M&A projects. Years ago, it used to be the case that organizations would undertake one major transformation initiative at a time—now, she’s seeing clients tackling two, three and even more projects at one time.

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Digital advancements, pandemic-driven shifts, economic trends—all are playing a role, she says.

“The speed at which transformation is happening today … it’s something we’ve never seen before,” says Yocum, who will deliver a keynote address at the upcoming HR Technology Virtual Conference, Feb. 28-March 2. “And HR plays a massive, pivotal role in all of this.”

Unfortunately, while the demand for people-focused transformation has never been greater, business leaders’ aptitude for setting the wheels in motion isn’t as strong; Yocum says many are approaching HR transformation “all backwards.” What are they doing wrong?

Yocum says she’s seeing some take a narrow, and siloed, view of transformation.

“To make true transformation happen for HR, to really change, it’s better to look at aligning the project to the business—understanding what the whole impact is, not funneling things up in a silo,” she says.

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For instance, one of the most common transformation initiatives Yocum encounters involves employers that want to create a more digital HR function. Too often, that means those leading the project delegate certain “digital” tasks to talent acquisition, total rewards, etc. Instead, the work needs to start by looking at how HR digitization will touch employees, managers, leaders—and how it ties to the overarching business strategy. From there, you can figure out what that means for each segment of the function.

“You should go overall strategy down, instead of function up,” she says.

And don’t lose sight of the impact of any major change project on company culture. Yocum again points to the digitization of HR: Such a shift may mean leaders need a more hands-on, less high-touch approach, or that employees need to adjust to searching out benefits or payroll information on their own digitally, as opposed to picking up the phone and calling HR.

Shari Yocum, EY
Shari Yocum, EY

“That’s a huge cultural change for employees, so leaders need to get out there and help make those changes,” she says.

This is particularly relevant in the current environment, in which many organizations, particularly in the tech industry, are looking to layoffs to weather economic uncertainty.

Yocum says the cultural impact can be softened if employers take a three-pronged approach: Make cuts fast, provide a good rationale for them and don’t stop caring for your employees, even as they exit the company.

“If leaders can be very clear, and articulate why they need to do this, employees will understand it,” she says. “People want to know the why so they can make sure it feels fair. Openness changes the way people accept change.”

So does how the employer treats employees it’s laying off; for instance, offering departing employees help with finding new jobs or giving them time to look before they’re off the payroll can reinforce to employees being retained that the headcount reduction was an unfortunate byproduct of a changing business strategy.

“All it takes is for an organization to treat people well when they’re leaving for other employees to say, ‘I feel good about this organization; they do care,’ ” Yocum says. “It hits that psychological safety element—and it helps take care of your culture.”

Learn more about this topic during Yocum’s keynote, “Mastering the Employee Experience During Corporate Changes,” on March 1 at HR Tech Virtual. Click here to register.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]