Last Word

Rick Bell

A LOT CAN CHANGE IN A DECADE —
OR SEVEN

A LOT CAN CHANGE IN A DECADE —
OR SEVEN

T

he Society for Human Resource Management’s annual soiree is headed back to Chicago in June. SHRM last visited the Windy City five years ago, just a couple of months after Human Capital Media had acquired this publication from our previous ownership, Crain Communications.

SHRM also brought 14,000 or so of its closest friends to Chicago in 2008 when Workforce was based in Irvine, California, and published two magazines a month. Workforce has since relocated to Chicago and now publishes six print issues annually.

VYING FOR TOP TALENT IS AS OLD AS WEARING RACCOON SKIN COATS AND SHOUTING ‘BOOLA BOOLA’ AT THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON GAME AGAINST HARVARD.

I was at both conferences and will make it a Windy City trifecta when SHRM kicks off at McCormick Place on Father’s Day afternoon, which also is a long-winded way to say that a lot changes in 10 years.

A decade ago HR’s leading association also was undergoing big changes of its own as SHRM entered its 60th year. Highly respected CEO Sue Meisinger was relinquishing her leadership after six years. Unfortunately even with five months’ notice, Meisinger’s successor had not been named by the time she gave her farewell speech that Sunday afternoon.

Through China Gorman’s interim management to Lon O’Neill’s short-lived time at the top, it wasn’t until the 2011 SHRM conference in Las Vegas that there appeared to be a permanent leadership solution when Hank Jackson was named CEO.

Fast-forward to 2018 and succession planning is no longer an issue for SHRM. Johnny C. Taylor will address his inaugural conference as the organization’s seventh CEO prior to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s opening keynote on Sunday — a full year after he was named as Jackson’s successor.

As SHRM enters its seventh decade with steady leadership and a growing membership of 285,000 HR practitioners, I have come to realize that the challenges faced by today’s people managers are strikingly similar to the ones faced by SHRM’s handful of founders — likely a collection of ubiquitous personnel men of the 1940s and ’50s.

We’ve recently spent time poring over old issues of Workforce, and its predecessors. It’s apparent that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Think for a moment about your biggest people management challenges. Attracting and retaining the best and the brightest? Maybe that clichéd phrase is relatively new but vying for top talent, whether wading through social media profiles or enticing future grads on college campuses, is as old as wearing raccoon skin coats and shouting “boola boola” at the Saturday afternoon game against Harvard.

Generational issues did not start when the first millennial set foot in the workplace. Wizened old vets versus the cocky hot shots and wise guys (today we’d call them rock stars) is an age-old issue. And today’s laser-sharp focus on gender, racial and pay equity in the workplace finally intensifies issues that have existed for decades.

Revisiting the lifetime employment pact so prevalent in the 1950s and ’60s could help narrow those divides. Indeed, the gig economy continues to grow but the wisdom in caring for employees to bring out their best has proven to be beneficial to business results as well as workers.

It could also help ease the swelling around HR’s black eye for failing to protect women in #MeToo situations. A return to that people-first loyalty perspective of the mid-20th century isn’t a cure-all but is a smart place to start.

Workforce and SHRM were founded at a time when human resources was known as personnel. Our initial titles reflected that era, too. Workforce was originally called the Journal of Personnel Research and shortened to Personnel Journal several years later. SHRM was known as the American Society for Personnel Administration. Our names changed (ASPE became SHRM in the early ’70s, while Personnel Journal was renamed Workforce in the early ’90s) because of the shifting role of people management.

And, to be perfectly honest, SHRM and Workforce are working well past retirement age. SHRM celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, while Workforce, first published in 1922, turned a spry 96 this year. Today we embrace artificial intelligence but also must be wary of its threats. The big tech challenge in the Roaring ’20s? Teaching employees to drive a vehicle.

As the rubber hits the road on the way to SHRM this year, remember that there are valuable lessons for all HR leaders embedded in past SHRM conferences and the back issues of Workforce. In order to steer through your future challenges, it’s helpful to look in the rearview to see how you addressed them in the past.


Rick Bell is Workforce‘s editorial director. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.