HR leaders are always looking to show how they help drive the business, and perhaps there’s no better way to do so than through driving the culture. SHRM has picked up on this, making “creating better workplaces” a focus of its ongoing annual conference and exposition going on this week in Las Vegas.
Culture is a big, broad word, and it can have many meanings. One meaning, which I saw repeatedly through sessions with HR leaders from Symantec and General Motors and a pioneering Walmart executive, is that culture is about what gets done, and what gets done is ultimately what defines a business’ success and failure.
Let’s put it another way: If your CEO or board doesn’t care about culture, HR is never going to be taken seriously as a part of the business. People will never be properly valued, even if people are all we have, as SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. discussed in his opening talk Monday.
SHRM is taking culture so seriously that it's launching a specific initiative with a dedicated website to emphasize culture-related conversations in the workplace at all levels, with pop-up events and a two-year research track among the supplemental efforts planned.
Who gets hired and who doesn't
There are other meanings to culture, especially if you take seriously Taylor’s charge that “social change starts in the workplace.”
One is equity in hiring. Right now in the US, there are more job openings than people looking. This is a problem, I guess, but it can also be an opportunity if employers are willing to expand their view of hireable talent. As Taylor said, this can be an opportunity if HR will “rethink our idea of ‘the wrong person.’”
This expanded view includes being active and deliberate about hiring people with disabilities or hiring people with criminal records. But it’s not just that: It’s about seeing how everyone can thrive, about valuing people as more than those labels. And, it’s about understanding that disabilities are not always visible -- Taylor noted mental health issues and chronic pain as two examples -- and that all of us bring challenges to work that might not be disabilities but still shape and inform who we are.
The stories that inform who we are -- that could be applied to two other groups Taylor noted: veterans and “the overqualified.”
Veterans have strong skill sets, even if figuring out how wartime activity converts to civilian work isn’t always easy. Many programs exist to help veterans transition to the civilian workforce, but obviously there’s more work to be done. As Taylor reminded attendees, HR can hire veterans for their teams, too.
Taylor also exhorted attendees not to forget “the overqualified,” who often are older workers suffering from ageism. Discriminating against people because of their age “is illegal, morally wrong, and damages our culture,” Taylor said. And it’s not just compliance. Hiring people over 50 is an opportunity to gain experience, passion and productivity that any organization can benefit from.
Finally, there was one last group that has emerged as a focus of SHRM’s efforts on culture and “creating better workplaces”: people with criminal records.
Over half a million people are released from incarcertaion each year, but as Taylor says, many are in essence “resentenced to joblessness.” An astounding 75% of people released from jail or prison are unemployed a year later.
To that end, SHRM has advocated for “second chance” programs that encourage fairer hiring practices and a focus on “talent and people” rather than criminal records. I’ll be writing more about an emotional and poignant session on this topic that occurred Monday.
But for now, suffice to say that hiring people with criminal backgrounds is not new -- manufacturers have discovered this pipeline as they search for talent and skills -- and the struggles these people face to rebuild their lives can be daunting. Employers can be a huge help even as they are not the only solution.
Hiring people with disabilities, or criminal records, or people who are older and might need retraining might be difficult. But not hiring them is probably not an option in this economy if you want to fill positions and want your organization to succeed. And, if companies don’t want to put in full and honest effort to find talent wherever it is and in whatever form, then what they're really saying is they aren't committed to excellence.
Perhaps HR’s greatest opportunity, then, is to show those holdouts how the right culture -- from hiring through retirement -- is how businesses will win.