5 top HR skills every manager needs in a downturn

HR skills have always been important for business managers, but during a downturn, they are more important than ever. Many organizations are facing the prospect of reduction in workforce, short-term working and a renewed focus on performance management. As a result all managers need to hone their HR management skills.

As managers in particular are being pushed to operate in a lean way, it can be tempting to ignore good people management practice. Unsurprisingly, many managers get so caught up in day-to-day operational activity that they forget about good HR practices, leading to a range of future problems. 

Spot the difference
In order to make the best of your management skills, it’s important to differentiate between people management, which everyone should practice, and HR skills, where managers will always need guidance from the HR professionals. Good people management leads to better employee engagement, improved motivation, higher productivity and better retention rates. It’s tempting to say that those things are common sense, but they are easily forgotten, especially when times are tough and the pressure is on.

Conversely, good HR skills ensure staff is treated fairly and consistently across the organization, while remaining compliant with the law and business policy. HR skills ensure that inadvertent actions or decisions taken in the heat of the moment don’t expose managers and the organization to problems in the future.

For example, many adverse employment actions cause risks because managers neglect to follow HR processes. It’s not necessarily that the decisions are wrong, but that best practices, such as regular communication with the employee, documentation of performance talks and good records of agreed actions, are not in place.  If people management is about doing the right things, then HR management is about doing things right so that company risks are minimized.

One HR skill that managers need is the ability to sense the mood of the workforce and know whether people are supportive and committed. During difficult times like reduction in workforce, emotions will be high and dealing with rumors appropriately, knowing when to tackle people or let issues go can make a big difference to how people feel. The way individuals are treated shapes the mood of the whole business and good managers intuitively take in information about their environment and will understand the impact their actions will have.

Top five HR skills every manager should know

1. Work with the HR team whenever possible, tap into their expertise and know when to use them. A good HR professional will help you reflect on people issues and provide a different perspective.

2. Get it in writing –
follow up any difficult conversations with an email or formal letter so there’s a clear audit trail, don’t just assume.

3. Switch on your people management radar and tune in to what people are saying, listen to their views and act appropriately

4. Know your limits – don’t try to be an HR person, and always ask for help if you feel out of your depth. If you haven’t got an HR team to turn to, find a source you can rely on.

5. Be prepared –
snap decisions made under pressure are often the worst decisions. Take advice in advance and be ready to deal with a worst case scenario.

Walking on eggshells

Often, the test in employment law is whether a management action is ‘reasonable’ – the question asked is ‘what would a reasonable employer do in this situation?’ Unfortunately, good HR skills can’t be found on the page of a policy manual – management judgments should come from a good sense of fairness and consistency that fits with the way the business works.

There’s a temptation in some organizations to create failsafe policies, or build ‘expert systems’ that answer every question and try to cater for every possibility. This can have the effect of cluttering managers with so many rules that they are afraid to take any action at all, so nothing happens. The reality is that managers need some freedom to act, supported by clear guidelines that link with the culture of the business. Managers also need an opportunity to reflect on their approach to people management – for example, they often struggle to hold difficult conversations with their teams, leaving issues to fester. 

Taking responsibility
One of the main reasons why HR issues can escalate into bigger problems is that accountabilities are unclear – everybody thinks someone else is taking care of the problem! For managers, it’s easy to duck management accountabilities and assume the HR department will fix their people problems, while HR functions argue that managers are weak when they fail to deal with people issues directly. One major source of organizational conflict is when line managers hand over people problems to the HR team when things go wrong, rather than deal with problems quickly themselves.

That said, some tasks will always be best left to the experts in the HR team – the law is very complex in some areas and constantly evolving. If your internal HR function doesn’t have the skills, consider outsourcing to an organization that has those skills or as a minimum checking with external experts. 

One thing that can really help managers is a good HR toolkit; to help managers work their way through complex administrative processes and policies. If the process is clear and everyone understands their role, it’s less likely that problems will arise. Good process design, linked to good technology, can make a manager’s job easier, together with good training and preparation for the role. 

Power to the people?
In summary, remember that your HR department is not just there for difficult people issues. HR is not an emergency plumber, there when things go wrong. It’s important to differentiate between HR skills that require legal understanding, and basic people management, where all managers need to step up to the mark.

Managers needs to take responsibility for managing morale on the team and dealing with people problems as they arise. However, they should also remember that the HR department has detailed knowledge that can complement their people management skills, help the team to run as efficiently and effectively, while minimizing any legal risks to the company.

Niela Hill serves as director of human resources for NorthgateArinso in North America. She has over 10 years experience in HR with a heavy background in employment law, immigration, benefits, employee relations, and risk management. Niela has a degree in Political Science / International Affairs from Spelman College and an MHRM from the Keller Graduate School of Management. She is also a certified Senior Professional in HR and has a keen interest in government policy and its effect on businesses and HR practices.